Let farmers of both states network for judicious management of water in the basin areas if netas of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu cannot arrive at an agreement on sharing water of the Cauvery whenever the monsoon plays truant, says Dr A Ravindra, Chairman, Centre for Sustainable Development, Bengaluru in an interview to B.R. Srikanth. The former chief secretary also raised questions on why the state government did not remind the Supreme Court that it should not hear a petition and issue directions on the quantum of water to be released, as the Inter-State Water Disputes Act (ISWD), 1956, bars all courts from adjudicating a dispute referred to a Tribunal.
“The jurisdiction of the court, including the Supreme Court, is barred once a Tribunal is set up (in this case the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal),” Dr Ravindra said. Dr Ravindra is the author of ‘A Bend in the Cauvery: An account of the Cauvery water dispute’.
The Cauvery water dispute is turning out to be less about water and farmers' interests and more about linguistic chauvinism, given the recent violence witnessed in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Your comments?
What we have seen in the last few days mirrors the role of extraneous forces, and not much about water per se. I agree that linguistic chauvinism has overtaken the real issue, which is availability of water. In 1991, when a similar situation existed (the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal directed Karnataka to release 205 TMC feet a year to Tamil Nadu through an interim order), the state legislature passed an legislation that the interim order will not be implemented, and that took a linguistic turn. So people who take to the streets do not know anything about the dispute nor does it benefit anyone. This is a bad trend, and governments must do everything possible to see that people who speak a different language do not fall victims to mob violence.
And every time the dispute resurfaces, fringe organizations which have little to do with farmers and their interests resort to violence and arson, but governments of both states seem to turn a blind eye to such organizations?
It is very unfortunate that fringe elements are taking over. There have been such episodes in the past. The governments must deal with these organisations with a heavy hand so that the situation does not go out of hand.
In the latest instance, do you think the state government should have either prepared itself for a distress situation or released water to Tamil Nadu in such a manner that chauvinistic elements did not get an opportunity to inflame passions?
Yes, I agree that the state government should have prepared itself to tackle the issue in the right manner. We knew since a month about the likely shortage of water, and given past incidents, the government should have taken steps on how minimum quantum could be released, and sent a proper communication to farmers and others. A good message to all sections would have helped. Second, when Tamil Nadu government approached the Supreme Court for release of water, the state government ought to have raised the question of jurisdiction of the court to hear the petition, and asked for setting up of a committee of experts to visit the reservoirs in the basin area and submit a report based on the ground situation. I know I am mentioning a controversial point because it is beyond the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court as a Tribunal has been set up under the Inter-state Water Disputes Act. The court can intervene only on legal or constitutional matters, but tell the petitioner to go to the Tribunal or Cauvery Monitoring Committee for release of water. The question arises as to why the Supreme Court heard the petition, and even gave directions for release of a certain quantum of water.
But what is so unique about this inter-state dispute that successive governments have failed to resolve it for more than 125 years?
Yes, it has been dragged since the 19th century, and will keep recurring whenever the monsoon fails, resulting in shortage of water in the reservoirs. So, how do you deal with the situation when there is no water? One method is a distress- sharing formula which should be agreed upon by all riparian states, and farmers need to understand the distress situation and make optimum use of water. In fact, some years ago, perhaps in 2003, an attempt was made in the form of the ‘Cauvery Family,’ to involve farmers of both states to share water during a distress year. Farmers on both sides grow sugarcane and paddy, and must realize the need to manage water or adopt water conservation techniques, and change the crop pattern. This could be one solution. Otherwise, the dispute will persist.
And the governments do not seem to be perturbed about losses to the economy every time a lockdown is resorted to as a mode of protest when the dispute recurs?
Yes. They are certainly sending out a wrong signal by allowing bandhs. The politicians of both states must realize that it is not just economic activity coming to a standstill or affecting the livelihood of daily wagers during bandh, but also that the respective government's revenue drops with a dip in business. It is rather unfortunate that leaders of these two states do not want to come together and decide on sharing water at times of distress. They must have the will to find a lasting solution. There were some efforts earlier but a negotiated settlement was not possible.
Perhaps, these states could have also pressurized the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal for the final ward rather than wait for 17 years for the final order?
Well, the functioning of the Tribunal was certainly not inspiring. The chairman (Justice Chittatosh Mookerjee) resigned, and there was no unanimity among the other members. So that's why it took so long to announce the final order. Now, even nine years after the order, the bodies suggested, including the Cauvery Management Board and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee , has not been constituted. I would say that all parties in this dispute have failed: the Union government, the state governments, the court and the Tribunal. The manner in which all of them approached the dispute shows lack of seriousness and also that they were waking up only when a crisis occurs. So, solutions must be found in calmer times, and not during a crisis. I think once the North-East monsoon sets in, the crisis will blow over. Then all parties concerned must take a stand that they will not allow such situation to recur so that suffering is minimized for people of both states. Unfortunately, after each crisis, leaders have relaxed rather than work on a plan to handle a distress situation, and avoid a water war. On one hand, we are trying to remove barriers through measures like GST, but on the other, we are creating artificial barriers through such water disputes.
Do you think technical experts can suggest a way out during distress situations and guide farmers on water conservation and management?
Technical opinions have been given on a number of occasions even on crop management, reduction fo the area under sugarcane and paddy, and water conservation. The real issue is how to manage water well. The first national water policy was formulated in 2002 but has remained a draft and even lacks an integrated water management programme. Experts have already warned that India will become a water deficit nation. So, these leaders must discuss the issue seriously and find ways of conserving water and methods to utilize water judiciously so that we do not face a water-deficit situation. With modern technology, it is possible to find solutions to this problem. I also think that people need to assert themselves through the social media and other avenues available and apply pressure on the government so that a sound water policy is evolved, and a water management board or other similar bodies are established.
Can the Prime Minister step in, just as Mrs Indira Gandhi did in 1972, when she chaired a meeting of Chief Ministers of four riparian states and constituted the Cauvery Fact Finding Committee?
Well, the Prime Minister and others could find it difficult to convene a meeting as the case is being heard by the Supreme Court now. When Mr Vajpayee was chairman of the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) in 2002, Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa said at one meeting that she does not agree with a solution walked out. The willingness to understand and find a solution should be exhibited by both sides. The most important steps now are establishment of the two entities (CMB and CWRC) along with best experts to suggest prudent water management in the basin region.
And how about the role of the 'Cauvery Family' to help find a long-term solution?
Yes, the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, took the initiative to invite farmers of both states and commenced. The fact that farmers of both states came together without prejudices was a significant development. The initiative, however, fizzled out after a couple of meetings. The mention of a family gives rise to the notion of working together rather than a quarrel at times of distress. The governments must encourage such initiatives as farmers, more than anybody, know the problems better. They could support exchange programmes and workshops on issues relating to agriculture, increase of crop yield, and reduction of salinity. Such initiatives should take off when the states are not bickering so that they will be able to suggest methods to be adopted during a crisis.