“Water is a fugitive resource that cannot be easily contained by political boundaries or property rights.” Water being such an inseparable part of human existence has led to international and intra-national conflicts over the years and has beleaguered the areas of Middle East, Eastern Europe and South East Asia. Individuals, societies and nations; in their bid to maximize profit out of this increasingly scarce resource have ran into conflicts over rivers that flow across boundaries. One such major source of conflict is the River Cauvery, a peninsular rain-fed river that largely flows through the States of Karnataka (formerly the Princely State of Mysore) and Tamil Nadu (formerly the Province of Madras) and discharges into the Bay of Bengal.

Some of the main causes of a river water dispute are contested property rights, changes in established rights or use patterns, the degree of asymmetry, and the scope for collective action. (Water and Identity: An Analysis of the Cauvery River Water Dispute, P.B. Anand, Bradford Centre for International Development) The interplay of power politics, upstream and downstream demographics, the seasonal nature of the river; in other words the dependency of the river on monsoon, the question of issue-linkage between regions pertaining to other transactions, et al. call for a more broadened approach to the issue of water allocation mechanism in areas that are fraught with river dispute. In any major river water dispute, the bone of contention is about rights over resources. In most cases, the riparian rights are customary rights based on prior use rather than statutory rights and these are based on agreements made several decades ago, for historical, social and political rather than economic reasons.  In the Cauvery dispute, this goes back to an agreement between the then states of Mysore and Madras in 1892. (Ibid.) But as the political situation and dynamics change, it becomes the need of the hour to change the approach towards dispute-settlement mechanism. In the light of the interim and the final award by the Inter-States Water Disputes Tribunal and the subsequent order of the Supreme Court, it can be argued that a more modern approach to basin water allocation rather than a mere set of guidelines to release a fixed amount of water from the upstream to the downstream. The solution should involve a thorough reading into the social, political, economical and historical dynamics of the competing parties.

In ‘Basin Water Allocation Planning: Principles, Procedures and Approaches for Basin Water Allocation Planning’, authors have put forth the ‘Ten golden rules of basin water allocation,’ which says, “The appropriate approach to basin allocation planning will be determined by the local context, history, natural conditions, economy and institutions: there is no single correct approach.” However, there are certain principles that need to be borne in mind to ensure more dynamic results:

  • In basins where water is becoming stressed, it is important to link allocation planning to broader social, environmental and economic development planning
  • Successful basin allocation processes depend on the existence of adequate institutional capacity
  • The degree of complexity in an allocation plan should reflect the complexity and challenges in the basin
  • Considerable care is required in defining the amount of water available for allocation
  • Environmental water needs provide a foundation on which basin allocation planning should be built
  • The water needs of certain priority purposes should be met before water is allocated among other users
  • In stressed basins, water efficiency assessments and objectives should be developed in or alongside the allocation plan
  • Allocation plans need to have a clear and equitable approach for addressing variability between years
  • Allocation plans need to incorporate flexibility in recognition of uncertainty over the medium to long term
  • A clear process is required for converting regional water shares into local and individual water entitlements, and for clearly defining annual allocations

The underlying principle that emphasizes the importance of equitable distribution wherein the changing trends, needs and priorities are appreciated and taken into consideration and rights and liabilities are determined on the basis of expediency deserves national attention in the wake of the Cauvery row. India will, in the long run, need to consider such an approach to dispute-settlement to put the internal tensions at rest.