The on-going water wars between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka go back more than a century. There was a time soon after independence when the same party was in power in all the States as well as at the Centre. If it had foresight it could have resolved all such issues since its central leadership was in a position to enforce its will over all the States. It did not. The result is there for all to see. A fair and just solution for sharing of the waters has eluded most States which have inter-State rivers flowing through their borders. Even the higher courts have not helped resolve the highly emotive disputes. Nor have various tribunals of experts succeeded in clinching the matter since their awards too become contentious. In the case of the Cauvery waters, it is Karnataka which has often dragged its feet on implementing the award. The problem is that when either State faces water shortage to irrigate the farm lands and/or to meet the needs of its people for drinking water, the dispute gets further accentuated. Only rarely during the occasional floods has the lower riparian Tamil Nadu complained that Karnataka has released excessive waters which damaged its crops and other properties. In the latest eruption of the old dispute, on Monday the Supreme Court directed Karnataka to release a minimum of 15,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu for the next ten days. Tamil Nadu had sought the apex court’s intervention after Karnataka failed to honour the tribunal’s award. The court also directed Tamil Nadu to release water to Puducherry as per its earlier interim order. Pleading helplessness before an all-party meeting, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said the Karnataka Government was duty-bound to release the water to Tamil Nadu as per the court order. This angered the Karnataka farmers who protested publicly, damaging government property in several places and threatening to physically prevent the supply of water to the neighbouring State. Opposition parties were joined by even members of the ruling Congress Party in protesting the release of water to Tamil Nadu. In fact, people in big cities such as Bengaluru and Mysore too held protests, fearing that taps in their homes too might go dry if the State Government obeyed the apex court order. Hopefully, the protests will die down once rival politicians have scored enough brownie points. No party wants to be seen being less solicitous of the State’s concerns than the next. That explains why the Congress Party in Karnataka despite being in power is keen to associate itself with the anti-Tamil Nadu sentiment. These lingering disputes have periodically degenerated into attacks on people of Tamil origin in Karnataka and on Kannadigas in Tamil Nadu. It is the failure of successive governments to resolve the old water disputes which has kept the troubled cauldron simmering. The Ravi and Beas waters dispute between Punjab and Haryana and Rajasthan continues to be sub-judice despite it being as old as the State of Haryana. In this case, the Akali-BJP Government in Punjab has failed to implement the apex court order to build the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal for the supply of water to Haryana. Recently, the Punjab Government took the extraordinary step of returning the lands acquired from farmers for building the canal to its original owners. These lands were acquired more than two decades ago. Likewise, Karnataka, Maharasthra and Andhra Pradesh are locked in a fierce fight over the waters of the Krishna river. The newly-created Telangana State too has now become a party to the dispute. Again, Maharashtra is in dispute over the waters of Mahadayi waters with Karnataka and Goa. The decision of the tribunal in this case is awaited. Likewise, there are some more inter-state water disputes.
The only way these can be resolved is if our politicians show maturity and foresight. Instead of whipping up partisan passions, if rival claimants exercise tact and restraint and approach the problem with an open mind a mutually agreed formula for the sharing of waters can be found. Otherwise, the sensible alternative is for rival politicians to stop whipping up passions and accept the award of independent tribunals assigned to divide the disputed waters. Lingering disputes and litigations cannot generate acceptable solutions. Unless rival politicians are able to resist the temptation to play to the gallery, the inter-state water disputes would continue to defy an amicable resolution.