“The scarcest resource is not oil, metals, clean air, capital, labor, or technology. It is our willingness to listen to each other and learn from each other and to seek the truth rather than seek to be right.”
— Donella Meadows
History is replete with examples of water sharing disputes in India, which underlines the fact that ours is not a land where collaboration and conflict resolution comes easily. We have a number of Donella Meadows in India who have time and again tried to reverse this reality. Inter-state water disputes is a recurring challenge of India’s resource geopolitics.
Types of conflicts:
In India, the tussle over river water conflicts have prominently taken two forms-
- Upstream- downstream: One can say that the ‘Harmon Doctrine’ can be blamed for adding fuel to the fire in this infamous debate. It states that-
“What falls on our roof, is ours to use without regard to any potential harm to downstream parties”. Thus, this doctrine supports the arbitrary use of river water by upstream areas, at the expense of the downstream areas. Fortunately however, India has discarded this principle to rather adopt ‘equitable appropriation’ to the satisfaction of both parties”
- Inter-basin water transfers: Every country including India has provisions of special rights for riparian states- meaning states having areas abutting to natural streams. Often, conflicts arise when inter-basin water transfers disturb those rights. Tensions may rise to the point of violence and passionate demonstrations.
Disputes that made history:
Among the river water disputes that made front- page headlines for a prolonged period, the following are the ones that have been embedded in public memory-
Punjab- Haryana (Sharing of Ravi- Beas water)
The issue has been raked up for the umpteenth time in the current election season. The conflict originated with the reorganization of Punjab in 1966. With the birth of Haryana, both the states claimed share of water from the Ravi- Beas rivers, although the latter is not a riparian state. A committee appointed by the central government ruled in favour of equitable distribution. However, the Punjab government wasn’t satisfied and decided to take the matter to the court. The series of litigations that ensued from both sides, compelled the centre to set up a tribunal for a permanent resolution.
In 1986, the tribunal so formed, ruled in Haryana’s favour- doubling the state’s share and halving that of Punjab. Punjab however, refused to yield. The state pulled out all the stops to prevent the building of Yamuna-Sutlej canal, through which water was to be shared. It also went so far as to terminate all water- sharing agreements with Haryana, without attempts at negotiations.
After years of the issue pending in the Supreme Court, the apex court ruled in Haryana’s favour in March 2016. However, the Punjab legislators, united in their staunch opposition to the construction of the canal, passed a resolution overturning the ruling.
Karnataka-Tamil Nadu (Cauvery Dispute)
This is a striking manifestation of the upstream-downstream conflict. The pre-independence era witnessed a mutual agreement of equitable water sharing of the Cauvery river, between the Mysore state and Madras Presidency. However, its lifespan ended in 1974, giving rise to a heated controversy. Karnataka is fortunate to be blessed with abundant rainfall while the same cannot be said of the downstream riparian state of Tamil Nadu.
For years, Karnataka’s developmental projects centered around the Cauvery river, such as building reservoirs, have irked the neighboring state. The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal ruled in Tamil Nadu’s favor, ordering the Karnataka government to release 205 thousand million cubic feet. However, the state refused to comply and the subsequent years witnessed much hullabaloo. Another judgment in 2007 increased Tamil Nadu’s entitled share, which in 2013, was consented to by the centre.
However, Karnataka has refused to put the matter to rest and the issue continues to mar inter-state relations.
Assam-Manipur-Bangladesh (Barak river dispute)
This is a conflict with an international dimension. The Barak River originates in Manipur and ends in Bangladesh, crossing through Assam. The discovery of oil reservoirs in Manipur near the source of the river ignited bickering between Manipur and Assam- the root concern being pollution. Further, the proposal to build the Tipaimukh Dam, flared up Manipur and the neighboring country of Bangladesh alike- owing to concerns of water rights, displacement, adverse environmental impacts, etc.
Delhi-Haryana tussle (Tug of war over Yamuna waters)
It seems, the nerve center of India’s political life, too has reasons to turn cranky every summer, because of, as it claims, its neighbor’s selfish attitude.
As per a 1996 directive of the Supreme Court, Haryana is supposed to ensure that the Wazirabad pond remains full- as it is a primary source of raw water for the treatment plants at Wazirabad and Chandrawal that meet the national capital’s water requirements. The Delhi government is of the opinion that Haryana has backtracked on the mutual agreement that was the basis for the financial assistance provided by New Delhi in the construction of the Munak Canal. This issue still awaits a final resolution.
Narmada water dispute (Gujarat, Maharashtra, MP):
“Dams are the temples of modern India.” These words of Nehru in the post-independence development era, led states to clamor for the untapped benefits of river waters. The clash of ambitious goals was manifested in the Narmada water dispute between Gujarat, Maharashtra and MP.
Maharashtra and MP lost no time in airing their concerns over the construction of numerous dams in Gujarat-the height of Sardar Sarovar dam was especially a contentious issue, as it threatened the success of projects in the neighbouring states. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (1969) managed to resolve the issue with a compromise formula.
However the matter was not put to rest as the social and environmental costs of the Sardar Sarovar Project elicited the renowned ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ which refused to let innocent people and nature emerge as the losers in this tussle.
The amicable solution:
All hopes however, aren’t lost and there is reason to believe that mustering the will to adopt a cooperative attitude can bear fruits. Experts are of the opinion that India must take a leaf out of the book of UNESCO’s ‘Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential (PCCP)’ programme- that prioritizes deliberations for peaceful, amicable solutions. The Interstate Council- a permanent constitutional body can play a vital role in this regard.