Root causes of the Cauvery crisis

Nilanjan Ghosh | Updated on March 09, 2018

Line of trouble Is better management the solution?   -  G GNANAVELMURUGAN

The institutions for sorting it out should not be States-oriented. And the shift from ragi to paddy has worsened matters

Yoginder K Alagh wrote an interesting article in the context of the Cauvery water conflict (September 12), favouring a decentralised approach towards resolution by vesting more powers lower down.

However, whether such a mechanism will help in arriving at a long-term solution for the Cauvery impasse is a moot point. This calls for a better understanding of the existing definition of property rights, which implies looking into the institutional issues in river disputes — and the crucial economic origin of the conflicts.

There are three extreme principles of water allocation based on divergent definitions of property rights: Harmon, History and Hobbes. As per the Harmon doctrine, the primary rights of water are bestowed on those who own land at the source of the water.

History confers primary rights to historical users of water irrespective of their geographical location. Hobbes identifies rights as the final result of awards obtained through negotiations.

Rights matter

When it comes to the Cauvery waters, the property rights definitions of upstream Karnataka and downstream Tamil Nadu (TN) are divergent. TN started developing its irrigation potential over the Cauvery delta very early, and took major initiatives during the early 19th Century.

As per the very important 1924 agreement between the princely state of Mysore (Karnataka) and Madras presidency (now Tamil Nadu) for the construction of the Krishnarajasagara dam, Mysore was supposed to regulate the discharge of the river through and from the KRS reservoir, strictly in accordance with the ‘Rules of Regulation’, annexed to the Agreement.

TN feels that given the long history of water use, farmers in Cauvery delta irrigating and producing paddy should not be denied water. Further, the State has always taken the stance that the basin area contribution to river flow should also be an important variable to be taken into consideration.

TN takes a legalistic stance based on the principle of prescriptive rights as given in the 1924 agreement, which translates to the principle of prior appropriation or the doctrine of history.

Karnataka has always maintained that its late irrigation development should not imply any reduction of its rights to make the fullest potential utilisation of the Cauvery waters for agricultural and other development.

This is based on the proposition that a downstream state cannot make a claim when there is scarcity of water and inadequacy in upstream areas. This implies that Karnataka has been exercising the Harmon doctrine for its property rights.

The problems arise from divergent definitions of property rights, due to the fact that water falls in the State list, subject to the provisions of 56 (i) of the Indian Constitution. Even the provisions of the Interstate Water Dispute (ISWD) Act of 1956 and its subsequent amendment in 2002 barely talk of setting up tribunals for adjudications and declaring awards. In view of global standards on water allocation, this is insufficient. One can perceive that Hobbesian modes of negotiations are failing. Besides, it has exposed the failings of favouring a States-led, ‘decentralised’ approach.

Moreover, the economics embedded in the conflict has been missed out in all discourses.

Ragi to paddy

The prime driver of the conflict is the Government’s inadvertent incentivisation for paddy cultivation, in order to satisfy its avowed purpose of “food security”. The Cauvery basin as a whole has witnessed a massive increase in agricultural area for paddy in the 1990s, as compared to the 1980s. This increase happened mostly in the Karnataka part of the basin (by almost 25 per cent), while the area in Tamil Nadu basin remained more or less the same.

Karnataka has been a late starter in irrigation development in the basin, and hence, with increased infrastructure development for water supply augmentation, it brought more land under agriculture.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, water availability has been a prime mover in terms of higher acreage of paddy, the most water consuming crop grown in the region. According to an estimate made in my paper in Water Policy, the increase is noted in the kharif paddy, particularly in the summer paddy of Karnataka.

Interestingly, the method for incentivisation of paddy production was the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime. The MSP of paddy increased at a much faster rate than that of ragi. It is well-known that MSPs for essential commodities create a reference for market prices. With relative market prices moving in favour of paddy, there has been a shift in acreage from ragi to paddy, thereby increasing total water consumption manifold, as crop-water requirement of paddy is almost 15-20 times of that of ragi. To make things worse for water, rice was being sold at a lower price than ragi thereby shifting consumption towards rice. This does not augur well for demand management of water.

Towards conciliation

The numbers ingrained in Cauvery Water Tribunal’s Final Award for allocation of water between the States of the basin are devoid of scientific understanding of flow regimes and natural requirements.

This simple-average-based allocation, or ‘arithmetic hydrology’, has been a proven disaster across the world. Rather, a two-pronged approach is called for. First, the perverse incentive structure through the MSP regime of paddy has to be reversed. A more innovative pricing approach with region-specific MSPs needs to be adopted.

The relative terms-of-trade need to move towards drier crops like ragi in regions like Cauvery basin, without resorting to ecologically and economically disastrous plans like interlinking of rivers. Second, from the institutional perspective, there is an utmost need for a strong river basin organisation (RBO) that can take a basin-level approach to water management ( Businessline, July 30).

The State-level driven decentralised structure for water management in the basin has failed. Further decentralisation may aggravate conflict. Therefore, while Yoginder Alagh talks of a decentralised mechanism to resolve disputes, a strong centralised authority seems like a better option.

The writer is s senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation Kolkata

Published on September 22, 2016

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