Rivers mean trouble. This is to put in crudely simple terms, but there is no other way to summarize the persistent problems about water-sharing that have plagued riparian states through the years, particularly in the south of India. The tension between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the distribution of the waters of the Cauvery has a long history. Nothing has really worked, as has become clear by Ms J. Jayalalithaa’s walk-out from the meeting to resolve the most recent disagreement. There has merely been a multiplication of watchdog bodies. Apart from the Cauvery River Authority, there is a tribunal and a monitoring committee, which have at their disposal data and assessment tools to decide upon the equitable distribution of water among the riparian states. At times of crisis, their directions may be completely ignored by a state, and even the principle of “pro rata” sharing when monsoons fail may go unheeded. This is exactly what Tamil Nadu is accusing Karnataka of doing. The chief minister, Mr S.M. Krishna, has made it clear that his state cannot follow the directions of the tribunal because it is drought-hit. Ms Jayalalithaa’s accusations have been piling up for a few months, since Tamil Nadu has reportedly received only a minute fraction of the water that Karnataka was meant to release in June and July. Now the situation is critical, since, according to the Tamil Nadu chief minister, the standing crop in the state’s basin is about to go to waste. Her complaint is that Karnataka has been building up its water reserves for a while now, expanding its irrigated area and starting kuruvai cultivation at the expense of water to the lower riparian state. That is, Tamil Nadu’s legitimate share of water has fallen prey to Karnataka’s agricultural ambitions, violating the spirit of the water tribunal’s direction.
This can go on. As it has done sporadically over the years. There can be no solution if interstate rivalries take precedence over cooperation where the growing of food is concerned. It is no help when political interests intrude to muddy the issue further. It would be interesting to speculate what the Congress members in Tamil Nadu feel about their partymen in control in Karnataka. Plans for a national water grid have been aired and forgotten, and it is too much to expect that one will materialize out of thin air. Meanwhile, river water tribunals have to be given more teeth and monitoring authorities need to carry out regular inspections. Running to the Supreme Court, as has been done before, does not offer a permanent solution, beyond the formation of different bodies for monitoring and assessing requirements. Cooperation between states and stronger implementation powers vested in the water authorities are the only keys to resolution.