Resolve water disputes politically

Srinivas Chokkakula | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on December 28, 2012

Mettur dam…the Inter-State Council should play a pro-active role in resolving disputes. — M. Karunakaran

Legal formulas are unlikely to work. Political institutions are a better bet.

The chronic Cauvery dispute refuses to subside. After intense activity in the form of political mediation and legal arbitration over the last couple of months, the Supreme Court finally ordered the Government of Karnataka to release 10,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu.

The release, which began on December 6, was stopped on December 10 by the Jagadish Shettar-led government in Karnataka, bowing to pressure from the opposition. Beleaguered already by B.S. Yeddyurappa’s rebellion, political imperatives are pushing the government against complying with the court’s directive. But non-compliance would mean contempt of court. Pressure from Tamil Nadu continues to mount, with the entire spectrum of political forces in the State reaching out to every possible avenue seeking redressal.

Revive Inter-state Council

This is the most recent example of growing politicisation of inter-State water disputes in India. But we refuse to accept this political character, and lament the failure of legal solutions to provide a ‘permanent’ resolution of disputes. We should rethink our options on engaging with inter-State disputes.

Politicisation of disputes is inevitable in a multiparty democracy with shared regional interests. The goal is to redeploy politics to impress on inter-State interdependencies for a stronger federation. This may be possible by reviving institutions such as the Inter-State Council, conceived as a space for deliberations over disputes between States.

More recent disputes of Mullaperiyar (between Kerala and Tamil Nadu) and Bhabli (between Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh) were similarly politicised. There is a growing preference for shifting the terrain from courtrooms to public platforms. In all these cases, political actors, including the parties in power, tried to gain mileage from the disputes by publicising their aggressive postures in the media. These political sparrings are not entirely empty of commitment or concern. But exercising political rights through rampant disregard of tribunal awards, contempt of court rulings and divisive public rhetoric can lead to serious consequences.

Beyond legal solutions

In response to this frequent recurrence of disputes, the tendency is to dig deeper into legal options such as token amendments to the Interstate Water Disputes Act and proposals for permanent tribunals. But the problem is not so much about whether we have the right kind of legislation or not. A far more fundamental issue is that of institutional and governance failure.

Tribunals do their job and give awards. The awards enjoy a status of the Supreme Court decree as per the Interstate River Boards Act, 1956.

Yet, there is an inexplicable inertia in taking it to the subsequent stages of implementation. At one level, this is perhaps explained by weak institutions; at another level, it is avoiding risk of escalation to a situation of civic unrest. So, we often resort to delaying tactics and interim arrangements. The Cauvery tribunal took 17 years to give its award and over the past five years, the award is yet to be notified. Coalitional politics and stronger States make it difficult to exercise punitive measures.

While we should continue refining the legal means, it is imperative to recognise the political nature of these disputes and search for solutions beyond legal options. But there exists a visceral reluctance on the part of bureaucrats and technocrats to engage with politics, avoiding it as ‘undesirable.’

Political approaches to water conflicts are not new. In the international water conflicts literature, the political nature of the problem is widely recognised. The Geosciences Department at the Oregon State University maintains perhaps the most comprehensive database of transboundary freshwater disputes since 1820. Publications analysing this data show that political relations is a crucial factor in both emergence and mitigation of water conflicts.


There are two ways of looking at politicisation of disputes. One, active politicisation implies vibrant and deepening democratic spaces. People across the spectrum are able to organise and participate in struggles for water. The Interstate River Disputes Act 1956 does not recognise non-State actors as a party to the dispute. So, political actors employ a variety of strategies for drawing attention to local implications of State-level resource allocations.

The other way of looking at this politicisation is that the disputes become avenues of vote bank politics. Polarised social spaces, electoral politics and malleable democratic spaces enable such politicisation for objectives beyond water allocations. In either case, the politics and discourses accentuate inter-State interdependencies.

Engaging with politicisation tendencies for better outcomes may be possible through the right kind of policy and institutional interventions. The policy responses require paradigm shift along the lines of UNESCO’s proposition: “Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential (PCCP).” Contestations over shared resources can be a source of cooperation, for they create opportunities for dialogue and deliberations. Conflicts can be prevented by creating political and institutional spaces that will dissipate negative discourses, facilitate deliberations, and enable negotiation and management.

Positive record

Most of us, frustrated with growing disputes, tend to ignore the positives in our own record of cooperation in sharing waters. There are more than 130 inter-State agreements of cooperation in place. A very recent example is the cooperation agreement between Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra signed on May 5, 2012, for implementing Pranahita-Chevella project.

This agreement, as usual, did not receive as much attention as conflicts do. Granted that many of these cooperation agreements are over small rivers and smaller projects; but they do hint at the potential for cooperation.

Interestingly, a feature that alludes to the political nature of cooperation as well is the political configurations in place. In the Pranahita-Chevella agreement, for example, the Congress-led governments in both Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra (and also at the Centre) might have created favourable conditions.

The Interstate Council offers tremendous potential as a means to pursue this shift in strategy for engaging with inter-State water disputes. The Council is a permanent constitutional body created for inter-State coordination, but greatly under-utilised. At the moment it has an ex-post approach of responding to requests from the Centre or State governments. But it can be reformulated to pursue a pro-active and an ex-ante mandate of fostering inter-State collaborations. The Council can regularly organise inter-State deliberations on potentially contentious issues over shared resources. It can provide a neutral space for exchanging information and facilitating negotiations among key political actors.

Future inter-State conflicts are not going to be restricted to water alone, but may extend to other shared resources as well. The dispute over who owns natural gas in the Krishna basin is a case in point. Thus, the Council can take the role of nurturing fraternal relations between States and strengthen federal integrity.

(The author is with Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and Doctoral Student at University of Washington, Seattle, US.)

Published on December 28, 2012
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