River basin governance: Learnings from Cauvery conflict

While the recent ruling of the Supreme court on the Cauvery conflict opens up new possibilities, a push for holistic and interdisciplinary river basin governance is required.
Cauvery river at Hogenakal, Karnataka. (Source: IWP Flickr Photos via Claire Arni and Oriole Henri)
Cauvery river at Hogenakal, Karnataka. (Source: IWP Flickr Photos via Claire Arni and Oriole Henri)

The river Cauvery—an inter-state river shared by the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as well as the Union Territory of Pondicherry—has often been in the news for the fight over its waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. What dominates the issue is the conflicting demands for irrigation from the plateau region of Karnataka and the delta region in Tamil Nadu.

How has the conflict fared so far? What have been the developments in the Cauvery conflict in the context of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) award in 2007 and the recent ruling on the Cauvery conflict delivered by the Supreme Court in 2018? Has a lasting and appropriate solution to the conflict been reached? What can be the learnings from this experience for similar cases in other river basins?

The book, Conflict over Cauvery Waters: Imperatives for Innovative Policy Options by Observer Research Foundation dwells on these concerns. The book traces the roots and the changing dimensions of the Cauvery conflict in the context of changing agricultural needs of the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and the increasing pressures exerted by urbanisation, changing rainfall patterns and the impact of climate-change-related factors on the water resources of the Cauvery. It analyses the significance of the recent ruling of the Supreme Court on the Cauvery water sharing delivered on February 16, 2018 in the context of the long standing dispute and the final award of CWDT in 2007.

Complexities of the Cauvery conflict

The authors argue that although the conflict superficially appears to be scarcity-based, the connected institutional issues, diverse perspectives on property rights, political drivers of the conflict and a lack of holistic perspective in water governance, render multiple layers to the conflict that need to be addressed while trying to understand it.

The conflict over Cauvery has been complicated due to the diverse perceptions of rights by the states over the river water. Karnataka has been arguing for its rights in terms of the Harmon doctrine that states that it has the right over the river water as it is located upstream while Tamil Nadu downstream defines its rights in terms of the doctrine of Historical Use of the river waters. Negotiations to find a resolution have failed so far.

The existing statutes of the Interstate Water Dispute (ISWD) Act as well as those existing in the Indian Constitution seem inadequate to resolve these two different stands. The states have moved to courts to voice their concerns since then till the Final Award of CWDT in 2007, and have continued to rely on the judicial process to redress grievances, rather than exploring the route of bilateral discussions and negotiations.

The CWDT award in 2007 has not helped to change the situation

The Final Award of the CWDT in 2007 set up under provisions of the Inter State Water Disputes Act, 1956, too has not helped to resolve the conflict. It has failed to address the ecosystem concerns based on scientific criteria that are important components of integrated river basin management.

This is because it follows a purely reductionist and arithmetic hydrological approach that focuses on measurement and quantification of water and finding supply side solutions. For example,  the Interim Order of water allocation passed by the CWDT in 1991 asked Karnataka to release 205 TMC of Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu. The amount was calculated by considering the mean flow of 10 years from 1980-81 onwards and by eliminating the outlier years regarding annual rainfall. Other important concerns regarding groundwater, ecosystem, rainfall variations from year-on-year, low rainfall years and the impacts of global warming and climate change were not been taken into consideration. This reductionist thinking led to the further aggravation of the disputes.

The Final Order in 2007 is not very different from the interim order in terms of water allocations and in its reductionist approach. It has failed to create any mechanism to encourage efficient use of water among farmers in the Cauvery delta who use large amounts of water from the river over long periods with low end-use efficiency. The most critical reason for this inefficient use of water has also to do with the negligible cost of water that the farmers in the basin have to pay. The CWDT thus missed the opportunity to provide a holistic and interdisciplinary solution to the Cauvery conflict.

The Supreme Court award provides opportunities for resolution

The February 2018 verdict of the Supreme Court of India on the issue of allocation of the waters of the river Cauvery, between the States of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in south India, does, however, open up possibilities for a sustainable resolution of the dispute through an integrated and holistic approach to river basin governance, argue the authors. The ruling is significant as it not only marks the end of an old inter-state water dispute that has been a striking example of hostile hydropolitics in India but also sends a signal to the agricultural economy to practice demand management of water for better and efficient use of water and crop-choice consistent with water availability.

Although the idea behind the ruling appears to be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul—reducing water for Tamil Nadu to provide Karnataka—it acknowledges the bigger global phenomenon of intersectoral water conflicts and the agriculture versus urban-industrial water demand. Although the ruling seems to favour allocation for urban-industrial supplies over water for irrigation, there is a push in favour of crops with lower water demand like Ragi as opposed to paddy.

The judgement is a move away from the existing view of water being a State subject thereby leading to divergent definitions of property rights. The Supreme Court states that the water of the Cauvery river is a “national asset and no single state could claim ownership over it”. The verdict can be said to be a benchmark ruling in Indian water governance as it moves away from age-old practices.

The authors argue that the judgment opens up possibilities of looking at river basin conflicts from a more comprehensive perspective. The Supreme Court acknowledges the criticality of River Basin Organisations (RBOs) as a crucial institution for integrated and participatory river basin governance and calls for the need to set up the Cauvery Management Board immediately.

Holistic and interdisciplinary river basin governance needed

On June 1, 2018, the Centre constituted the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA) in place of the Cauvery Management Board (CMB). However, the authors argue that by adhering to the CWT-recommended institutional structure and disciplinary competence of the Cauvery Water Management Authority, the Centre might miss the opportunity to propagate a more holistic and interdisciplinary paradigm of river basin governance.

Cauvery disputes show that one of the major reasons for conflicts is the failure of institutions where laws are inadequate to deal with situations arising out of a conflict over different perceptions of property rights. No standardised mechanism or principle for water allocation has emerged for the Cauvery basin so far.

Current global thinking recognises the integrated approach to river basin governance based on the understanding of the multidimensionality of water in terms of its social, political and ecological importance. The Tribunal, in contrast, has missed out on the critical ecosystem perspective of the basin and resorted to a reductionistic understanding of the hydrology of the basin.

The authors call for the need to exercise caution and a more detailed analysis while setting up of the CWMA and argue that it needs to have a multidisciplinary approach with the use of knowledge and expertise from various disciplines, include many more stakeholders at various levels including those from the ecosystems so as to follow a bottom-up approach.

While the Supreme Court order of 2018 opened up the opportunity for more holistic thinking on the Cauvery issue, it needs to be capable of delivering a lasting solution and set an example for other river basins to follow, states the book.

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