NAZARIYA: Ecosystems of River Conflict

A fairly familiar inter-state dispute in India is the conflict between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over water from the Cauvery River. This conflict, originating in disputes between the British colonial states of Mysore and Madras and spanning almost 100 years, continues to be negotiated and renegotiated in courts and public discourses. The dispute often spills into protests in both states and even into the cinema industry and cricket games. Other regions of Kerala and Puducherry are also affected by these negotiations. The conflict over the Cauvery River basin is just one among many disputes centered around water. The scale and causes of dispute are also varied and complex in different locations.

In this edition of Nazariya, we look at river disputes, to understand the unique nature of this environmental problem. What are the causes, in the ecological, administrative, and political spheres? How do state structures respond to these problems, especially in the case of conflicts at the federal level? In the same vein, we must also ask how local communities are affected.

In the article ‘Million Revolts’ in the Making, the authors point to the usage of water as a resource as one of the reasons for conflict. Water is a common resource that can be divided and shared, and at the same time, 1 unit of water used by one person is 1 unit of water denied to another. Therefore, questions of allocation are crucial to water disputes. They also draw attention to water management and planning in India, which has been, for many years, focused on large scale projects such as dam-building or initiatives such as inter-linking of rivers. This approach does not factor in problems of water scarcity and irregular rainfall and considers water as a “freely manipulable” resource, instead of a resource that is “embedded in an ecosystem”. Apart from water scarcity, the deterioration of the quality of water also causes conflict.

The Mahanadi water dispute, for instance, is a result of the combination of the construction of dams and barrages, and the dumping of industrial and urban waste. The river, flowing through Odisha and Chhattisgarh, provides water needed for agricultural and industrial purposes. However, both states have prioritized industries over the farmer population and have allowed the decay of the river basin by mining and urbanization. The pollution of the river also impacts the quality of drinking water, and the animal and plant life which are a part of this ecosystem. The fishing communities too suffer as a result of the pollution. At the centre of the conflict are the water reservoirs of the Hirakud Dam. Farmers have protested the unfair allocation of water, which favours thermal and aluminium industries. They built a Chasi Rekha (line/demarcator of farmers), below which industries would not be allowed to take water. The work of companies such as Hindalco and Vedanta had been put on hold due to these demonstrations. The dispute is not just limited to “agriculture vs industry”, but also expands to “public vs private”. The Chhattisgarh government had allowed the rivers of Sheonath and Mahanadi to be privatized by selling the rivers and the water supply to companies. The anti-people decisions of the state government also affect the form of the rivers and increase possibilities of floods and droughts in the region. While the two States, along with Madhya Pradesh, had come together to construct the Hirakud Dam, the conflict has turned into a fight between the States. Political parties in both States have worsened the divide and played up political gimmicks instead of responding to the ecological and public concerns. For instance, the Odisha’s government reacted to the construction of barrages by the Chhattisgarh government, by planning to do the same, constructing barrages on the downstream area of the Mahanadi River. Such responses are not only hypocritical, as Odisha would be doing the same illegal acts as Chhattisgarh, but also ineffective against the issues of allocation and pollution raised by those living in Odisha.

The Mahanadi dispute is a clear example of the various layers and scales that play into a conflict and a case in poor management of water resources. It also reveals to us the detriments of development-forward state initiatives and policies that fail to consider the local population’s needs.

A point of contention that arises in these disputes is river rights. No states have exclusive ownership rights to a river and there are also no hierarchies between the upper or lower riparian. There are only usage rights. Entry 17 in the State List of the Indian Constitution categorizes water as a state subject. The allocation of water has been left to the states since there are no river authorities with powers of management, only advisory boards. Entry 56 in the Union List, and Article 262 of the Constitution give powers of regulation and management to the Union, but they have not been used by the parliament. In the case of dispute, the Central government’s response has been to negotiate between the states. Negotiations involve actors from the state and central governments, water tribunals and the courts. The various parties add to the complexity and difficulty of negotiations. The Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956 includes the provisions for tribunals but these are not binding. “An unambiguous institutional mechanism for settling inter-state water disputes does not exist” 

One of the relatively successful tribunals was the tribunal dealing with the Krishna-Godavari dispute between the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha. The tribunal coupled with negotiations between the States reached a conclusion in 1979. With the issue being allocation of water from the rivers, the tribunal used the principle of equitable apportionment – “that every riparian state is entitled to a fair share of the waters of an interstate river” .

The Cauvery dispute, on the other hand, has not been resolved despite several tribunal verdicts. The 2018 court proceedings concerned with this dispute reworked the water sharing formula and included a distress-sharing formula as well which is supposed to ensure proportionate water sharing during times of decreased water flow. The problems with the Supreme Court decisions are institutional, in that, even with a Cauvery Management Board, the Karnataka government may not necessarily honour the distress-sharing formula. During years where the monsoon rains are not adequate, Karnataka uses the Cauvery water, preventing the water from reaching the agricultural regions of Tamil Nadu. Governments and political parties in both States naturally factor the river into their political agendas, the tensions in the region often causing the negotiations to end in a standstill.

The other issue in these disputes is time. The Union government, according to the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, only sets up a tribunal when negotiations fail. Tribunals too are long proceedings and there are delays in enforcement of the tribunal award. The multiple delays leave the river dispute festering for several years before it is addressed.

The people in the states involved in conflict have been severely impacted by water and river-related consequences. In the case of the Mahanadi River, the surrounding region has been affected by several floods, some of them caused by the release of water from the Hirakud Dam. The Odisha and Chhattisgarh governments do not have a flood coordination mechanism in place. The lack of cooperation between the states and the faulty construction of the dam has led to the displacement of many people from their homes. The flood water also submerges cultivable land. These disasters have socio-economic repercussions, which are intensified along lines of caste, class, and gender. In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Cauvery River dispute is related more closely to agricultural issues. Farmers in both states grow rain-intensive crops and in years where monsoon rains are not adequate for irrigation, they must deal with failed crops and many fall into debt. The states also take pride in their linguistic identities and the violence from the Cauvery dispute protests is felt by linguistic minorities.  

At the global level, there are trans-national rivers that require cooperation and management from two or more countries. Nationalism and the possible weaponization of water resources are some dimensions of these disputes. There are also numerous micro-level conflicts within villages and communities where there are fewer mechanisms for negotiation and resolution. Managing water at the local levels should then become a priority for the states.

The river disputes have shown how complex and layered they can be. The ecological challenges of floods, droughts, and climate change along with poor management of water resources must be dealt with sensitivity, particularly by prioritizing the public over private actors. The inter-state conflicts in India and the difficulties in resolving them point out the holes in current institutional mechanisms. These mechanisms have been unsuccessful, especially burdened by the delays in the processes of negotiations and tribunals. The disputes also reveal how identities and political parties dominate the public discourse.

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