Cauvery dispute: Absence of Central govt. action prompted Supreme Court to assert authority, says author

Leela Fernandes’s ‘Governing Water in India: Inequality, Reform and the State’ chronicles inter-State river water-sharing disputes of Tamil Nadu with neighbouring Karnataka and Kerala

September 24, 2022 10:13 pm | Updated 10:13 pm IST - Bengaluru

‘Governing Water in India - Inequality, Reform, and The State’, book authored by Leela Fernandes.

‘Governing Water in India - Inequality, Reform, and The State’, book authored by Leela Fernandes.

Dispute over the sharing of the Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has become one of the most infamous examples of the inability of the Indian state to effectively mediate conflicts over water resources, says Leela Fernandes, professor, University of Washington, who has authored the book Governing Water in India: Inequality, Reform and the State.

The book chronicles tendencies towards centralisation and the Supreme Court’s interventions in resolving inter-State river water-sharing disputes of Tamil Nadu with neighbouring Karnataka and Kerala.

The author argued that the absence of the Central government action on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu water dispute prompted the Supreme Court to assert its own authority and compel the Centre to form the Cauvery Water Management Board. “Such interventions of the Supreme Court in the years after the tribunal award in themselves reflected a failure of the Central government’s regulatory state capacity,” argued Prof. Fernandes in her book published by the University of Washington Press recently.

In the context of dire water scarcity within both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the court attempted to manage an emergency situation that should have been the responsibility of the Centre. “The Cauvery dispute is illustrative of a case in which state-civil society relationships in both States have been polarised by the cumulative effects of decades of state institutional incapacity,” she noted.

Bengaluru’s drinking water needs

“Tensions between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the release of water are also shaped by the drinking water needs of Bengaluru during periods of water scarcity,” she said.

If the Cauvery river dispute was an example of institutional failure, the Telugu Ganga Project that produced an agreement between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh is heralded as a model of inter-State cooperation. The project supplies water from the Krishna for catering the drinking water needs of Chennai.

In contrast to the Cauvery case, the author said, disputes between Tamil Nadu and Kerala on Mullaperiyar Dam on the Periyar river is a dispute over the management of the dam and not over water sharing. The dam is located in Kerala but fully operated by Tamil Nadu. Kerala had been raising issues related to the dam’s safety.

Prof. Fernandes said that underlying the overt focus on the safety of the dam were political-economic interests in both States. Tamil Nadu relied on water from the dam for both irrigation and drinking water. Kerala’s plea is “more nuanced”, with interests in land and tourism with its concerns over the safety of the dam.

Politicisation of issue

As with the Cauvery river dispute, years of adjudication, the politicisation of the issue by political parties, civil society organisations, and a set of political-economic factors, have transformed the issue of dam maintenance into a decades-long dispute between the two States.

Contemporary political and economic relationships centered on the sharing of water between Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala are rooted in the geopolitical power of the British-ruled Madras Presidency, she said.

Prof. Fernandes said inter-State disputes and negotiations involved a range of state and civil society actors, including the Central and State governments, the centralised institutional machinery of tribunals, the Supreme Court, political parties, and social movements.

Complex Centre-State relationship

Inter-State water negotiations are shaped by the complexities of Center-State relationships and national political alliances that affect the interests of both Central and State governments, she argued.

The book revolved around the challenges for urban water governance, particularly in Chennai, in the post-liberalisation times. Noting that Tamil Nadu provided a rich case of institutional reforms, she mapped out the role of the PWD, which is commonly known as the “engineer-contractor-politician nexus”, and “water bureaucracy” in water dispute negotiations and the State policies, which contributed to inequality in accessing water.

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