Cauvery River Dispute: The Need for Further Decentralization

In the English language, the word ‘rival’ is derived from the Latin word ‘rivalis’. ‘Rivalis’ means neighbors living on the opposite side of a water-body. No doubt this classical meaning is true, given the century-long skirmish present in the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the issue of water sharing of the River Cauvery, often called as the ‘Ganga of the South’. The River Cauvery has been a very contentious issue for the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for almost over a century now and has been rated as one of the worst-faring river disputes in the world. The entire conflict centered on the river is over the issue of apportionment and first emerged in 1892 at the behest of the British. In this article, we shall look at the Cauvery River Dispute and its effects on the communities directly dependent on the river-water.

River water is an important source for the people living in its proximity. It is almost recognized a basic human right for people living in the banks to use the river for their livelihood and survival. In India, the river-dispute solving mechanism has also been put into place. At the national level, we have the National Water Policy. However, water is essentially a state subject and the federalist mechanism of the nation reduces the command of the centre over rivers as they are apparently more appropriately subject to state jurisdiction. In India, there can be two types of river disputes- inter-state and intra-state. The latter directly falls within the concerns of the state and the former is supposed to be solved by the means of a tribunal as per the constitution of the country. The very nature of the federal structure demands such an arrangement.

Any river first belongs to the region that covers its basin. By this logic, it is the state that has control over the river-water– the centre essentially has little role to play. Further, when there is a conflict in the interests of the state, it is best when it is decentralized and solved by those directly affected by the conflict. However, the very same arguments can be used to criticize the way in which the Cauvery river issue is being handled by the state and the centre. The Inter-State Water Dispute Act was passed in 1956.

The River Cauvery has been historically shared between Madras and the Mysore Princely kingdom, largely by the peasant community of the two. The dispute began during the British India era when Madras opposed the idea of developing an irrigation project of Mysore. The judicial proceedings for the same were handled by London since 1892. The interests of the farmers, their needs and their water requirements were never taken into account and it became a political issue. In 1924, an agreement was signed between the three parties where both Madras and Mysore were allowed one dam each on the river and the duration of the treaty was 50 years. No dam was built however, no renewal or talk about the issue was also held in those 50 years, and the issue came up once again in 1974, this time in Independent India, with an extra regional zeal.

Today, the multiple orders of the Supreme Court, ultimatums to the state and the centre in solving the issue, to devise a workable scheme, all go in vain. The political factions relate the fulfillment of their demands from the issue with their political supremacy and the pride of their regional identity. Emotions and regional identities of the Tamilians and the Kannadigas has been blown out of proportion. Either the state machinery is lax about the issue or it is too regional-minded to ever find a solution. Both ways, it is the farmers and the other communities who are directly dependent on the river who are going to suffer. Water needs to be distributed or rather shared only to a point where the basic requirements of the stakeholders is met. The states, before even attempting to solve the issue, must extinguish their personal skirmishes with each other.

It looks like the state-level decentralization of solving the Cauvery dispute is not working. As we have seen, it is a huge farming community at the receiving end of the issue, and they have been given no say at all. The possibility of a hassle-free farming and subsidiary business is under threat due to this prolonged fight. It is their basic human right that is being ignored. Despite the multiple incidents of violent farmer-led protests as well as suicides, the political factions are not budging. The entire conflict between the two states starts to resolve at the point when the community that is directly dependent on the usage of the water constructs a possible framework for living their daily lives by weighing each other’s needs and wants and the capacity of the river.

One of the solutions for this will be further decentralization of the issue. An example such non-official initiative for solving the dispute was founded by the S Guhan in 1990 was the creation of the Cauvery Family. It was a conglomeration of a multitude of non-political actors representing various interests who engaged in constructive dialogue to face the issue jointly. The Farmers Distress Sharing Initiative was started in the year 2006. However; it was systematically suppressed due to lack of political interest. Both the initiatives were successful but short-lived.

What the policymakers and politicians fail to realize is that it is not important to devise a perfectly equitable strategy for the apportionment of the river water. What is important is that there be a scheme which is commonly agreed upon by both the sides so that the communities whose livelihoods are at stake can get clarity. The systematic limitations of a river’s capabilities and the politics of the riparian position of the state of the territory should not come in the way of the basic human right of the community who lives along the basin.

Picture Credits : indianexpress.com

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