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The Hindu on : Politics muddies river water issues

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, October 03, 1999

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Politics muddies river water issues

Water has been an emotive issue whipped up by political parties to suit their interests. And decisions on river water disputes have often been taken to suit the politics of the time, writes GARGI PARSAI.

RAINS BROUGHT a reprieve to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners - the BJP at the Centre, the Janata Dal (United) in Karnataka and the DMK in Tamil Nadu - in this round of crisis over implementation of the interim award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

With Karnataka adopting a tough public posture that it would not make good the deficit in water supply before end of first week of October, in the face of Tamil Nadu's urgency for immediate water release to save standing crop, the situation appeared headed for a deeper crisis. What compounded the problem was that the Karnataka Chief Minister, Mr. J. H. Patel, reported sick and the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) meeting called by the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, as the Chairman of the Authority, had to be postponed.

The BJP-led Government had projected the formation of the CRA as a major achievement in its election manifesto and in the very first test of the Authority's efficacy, the arrangement - statutory though - appeared shaky. There was speculation whether the Centre would issue a directive to Karnataka to release water, as the then Prime Minister, Mr. P. V. Narasimha Rao, did in 1996 asking the State release 11 tmc ft of water to Tamil Nadu. But Mr. Rao failed to constitute a monitoring committee and a political-level Authority for implementation of the interim award, dealing as he was with a different set of persons - Mr. H. D. Deve Gowda and Ms. Jayalalitha, then Chief Ministers.

Water has traditionally been an emotive issue, whipped up time and again to an uncontrollable public frenzy to suit political parties of the day. Indeed, decisions in river water disputes have often been taken to suit the politics of the time. The Cauvery is not the only example. The sharing of Narmada waters among Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan could also be decided only by setting up a Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. Madhya Pradesh, which faces submergence disproportionate to the benefits it derives, was not happy with the tribunal award, but was made to fall in line by Indira Gandhi. However, within the State, politicians stalled the project, not for the sake of the displaced people but to make sure that the resources meant for water projects in their constituencies did not get diverted to proposed dams on the Narmada. A political Review Committee of the Narmada Control Authority is in place, but it has rarely met. Madhya Pradesh has time and again sought to restrict the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat to minimise displacement, but its pleas have gone unheeded with the present day political alignments - the BJP at the Centre, in Gujarat and in alliance with the Shiv- Sena in Maharashtra - working against the Congress(I). The State has now approached the Supreme Court for redress.

The proposed sharing of Ravi-Beas waters among Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan became sensational with the gunning down of two engineers at the site of construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal at the height of extremism in Punjab. Since then the issue has become sensitive.

With local interests taking precedence over national interests, the Centre has time and again had to intervene to resolve water disputes. However, the only one resolved through negotiations in recent times is the sharing of Yamuna waters during the Chief Ministership in Delhi of Mr. Madan Lal Khurana, who had an excellent relationship with Mr. Bhajan Lal in Haryana. Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh are the other basin States, but they having been ruled by the same party, there were no hiccups in reaching an accord.

There are three lines of thinking on resolving river water disputes. One, all rivers be declared national resources and a national authority, empowered with statutory powers for implementation, be formed. This is also the line taken by the World Bank as it is easy to extend loans to a single authority and deal with as few individuals as possible. The second proposal is that there should be localised development through watershed management so that rain water is harvested and ground water resources are replenished. The third is that a statutory authority be formed among the river basin States, with a non- basin State representative as the chair.

The Centre did try in vain, during the third National Water Resources Council meeting in New Delhi in 1996, to get the States to approve its guidelines for resolving inter-State disputes as part of the National Water Policy. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Orissa opposed the guidelines, saying each river basin had its own peculiarities. Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Punjab and Maharashtra wanted the existing inter- State accords to stay, without restrictions on overriding national interests. Again, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Haryana and Punjab disagreed that the claim of non-basin States for allocation should be made with the concurrence of co-basin States. Andhra Pradesh even questioned the proposal that the Central Water Commission be made a party to the process of allocation of water.

There is a provision in the Constitution that the regulation of inter-State rivers can rest with the Union Government in the public interest. However, with regional parties becoming part of national coalitions and regional interests taking precedence over national interests, it is unlikely that such a bill would be cleared by Parliament in the near future. Inter-State river water disputes will, therefore, continue to dominate the politics of our times.

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