Sunday 13 April 2008

Drawing lines in water


M Rajivlochan writes for Indian Express
People do not fight for zar, joru aur zameen (gold, women and land) anymore. Gold is stowed away safely in banks, contemporary women refuse to be treated as war trophies and purchase is the only way left for acquiring more land. Today it is jal, water, that agitates people, for as yet water does not have an agreed upon market value and so no one knows how much one is losing if someone else uses water or how much one is gaining by depriving others of water. In the event, there are strong pressures for grabbing all that is available.
The latest on this is the anger brewing in Karnataka over the Hogenakkal water supply scheme of the Tamil Nadu Government. The Hogenakkal reservoir falls on the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. On the Cauvery river, at an estimated cost of Rs 1,334 crore, with monetary assistance from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, the Hogenakkal scheme, it is hoped by its proponents, would supply 160 million litres a day to 40.4 lakh people in the dry districts of Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri. Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi laid the foundation stone for the project on February 26. On March 27, the Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution, urging the Centre to extend “full cooperation and help” in executing the project, citing an agreement of 1998 with Karnataka that allows Tamil Nadu to execute the Hogenakkal project. The Centre has wisely kept its silence.
With 1,869 billion cubic meters of surface water and replenishable ground water, India is reasonably rich in water resources. The only problem is that only 60 per cent of this water, that is, approximately 690 billion cubic meters of surface water and 432 billion cubic meters of ground water, can be put to beneficial use. But even this cannot be currently used because each state through which a river passes or which is included in its watershed demands a larger share of the water.
No chief minister dares allow another state the use of a larger portion of the water from a river. Perhaps the only time a chief minister was brave enough to allow another state to take away a major chunk of water was in November 1963 when Dwarika Prasad Mishra, then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, allowed Gujarat, led by chief minister Balwantrai Mehta, to take away a larger share of Narmada waters for constructing a dam that might have been the precursor of the present Sardar Sarovar project. The Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha rejected the generosity of the chief minister and began the long battle of denying Gujarat the use of Narmada waters.
Even the Constituent Assembly recognised that sharing of river waters was bound to be a touchy issue. K.T. Shah, a member of the Constituent Assembly, proposed that river waters be treated as a national resource and their controls be vested in a national authority rather than in the provinces from which the river flowed. The Constituent Assembly, however, preferred to leave the matter to the goodwill of the states and confined itself to empowering the Parliament to create the Inter-State Water Disputes Act and make water disputes non-justiciable should it so desire. As it turned out, water wars between states became quite commonplace even though it is only recently that they have involved the burning of property and killing of people. Many times, states did sign water sharing agreements.
Since Independence, over 125 inter-state agreements over water sharing have come into existence. These are usually those for which either some external force bullied the warring states into agreement or the projects were so small that there did not seem much point in fighting over the waters or where the economic benefits of sharing far outweighed the costs of being obdurate.
But when the cost-benefit results were ambiguous, political parties had little compunction in going beyond the law and using water as an excuse to whip up passions. The Punjab government sought to overturn earlier water sharing agreements with Haryana and Rajasthan through the Punjab Termination of Agreements Act of 2004 lest its opponents declare it to be against the people of Punjab. The legality of such a state law is still under consideration with the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile in Karnataka, the latest round of water wars with Tamil Nadu has already begun. On March 16, former Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa organised a stir at Hogenakkal against the project. On March 31 Kannada Chaluvali Vatal Paksha activists, led by its president and former MLA Vatal Nagaraj, staged a black flag demonstration in front of the Vidhana Soudha blaming the present government for inaction in the matter of protecting the interests of Karnataka. Political parties in Karnataka, especially the ones not in government, have already begun to use this opportunity to initiate street battles. That apparently is an effective way — or at least politicians out of power think so — of wooing the electorate for the assembly elections that are to be held in Karnataka in May this year. In the absence of a mechanism to rein in the short-sighted among politicians and sharing water fairly, one can only expect more such bitter fights.
M. Rajivlochan is author of ‘Farmers suicide: facts and possible policy interventions’

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