No. 43, July 2007

No. 43
(July 2007):

What Keeps Disputes on River Waters Alive?

What Keeps Disputes on River Waters Alive?

There is no shortage of disputes among various states of the Indian Union on the sharing of river waters. Among them are the Cauvery dispute, mainly between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu; the Alamatti dispute between Andhra Pradesh (A.P.) and Karnataka; the Babli project dispute between Maharashtra and A.P.; and the dispute regarding the distribution of river waters between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Why have these disputes proved so intractable? How can they be resolved, and who can resolve them?

Official mechanisms set up to resolve such disputes generally fail to put an end to them, in the sense of resolving the dispute in the minds of the masses of people involved: Witness the agitated reaction in Karnataka to the Cauvery Award. What is more, parliamentary political parties have competed with one another in displaying sectarian extremism on this issue. It was the erstwhile Congress government of Punjab led by Amrinder Singh that brought about the Termination of Agreements Act 2004, annulling previous water-sharing agreements between Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan – in doing this it was stealing a plank of the Akali platform; in response the new Akali Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, has announced recently that his government will go even further, and do away with the section of the Act which protects the existing supply of water from the Beas and Sutlej rivers to Haryana and Rajasthan.

As a result of such competitive chauvinism, the official mechanism set up to settle a dispute itself often becomes the focus of mobilisation to perpetuate the dispute. The Cauvery Tribunal took 16 years to announce its Award, during which inordinately long period the issue continued to be whipped up by parliamentary parties in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka each year, especially when the monsoon failed. Even the final Award (of February 5, 2007) leaves scope for the dispute to continue in another form. It is estimated that 740 tmc ft (thousand million cubic feet) of water is available for the basin states on 50 per cent dependability (i.e., in one out of two years). The Tribunal has taken this as the basis for its Award, and has laid down that the shares allocated to the states should be reduced proportionately in case of a distress year (i.e., when less than 740 tmc ft is available). How is this to operate in practice, since the extent of the shortfall can be measured only after the monsoon is over? It appears that the Tribunal has laid down no formula for making the reductions during the course of the deficient monsoon. It has recommended the setting up of a Cauvery Management Board with the responsibility to make the allocations; but in the absence of a formula laid down by the Tribunal, disputes can still arise once in two years.

The question of the ‘correct’ or ‘just’ distribution of river waters is a complex one. There is no simple rule to follow. The different parties to river water disputes marshall all sorts of arguments: legal, historical, technical, and developmental, as well as arguments based on ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’. For example, Karnataka has argued that, as the upper riparian state, it has primacy of rights over the waters flowing through its territory, leaving only the residuary flows to the lower riparian state (along the lines of the Harmon Doctrine, whereby countries claimed sovereignty over rivers flowing through their territory). Tamil Nadu has based its position on a 1924 agreement between the Madras Presidency and the princely state of Mysore, and on prescriptive rights (i.e., arising from past practice). However, experts on issues related to water consider neither the Harmon Doctrine nor the doctrine of prescriptive rights to be valid; they point instead to the principle enshrined in the Helsinki Rules: i.e., of “equitable apportionment for beneficial uses”.1 Evidently, a determination based on this principle involves considering and balancing a number of factors, which can give rise to more than one defensible conclusion.

Given these complexities, some who wish to defuse tensions over river waters appeal for greater communication and understanding on the part of the various parties to the dispute. In other words, they place the dispute in the frame of ‘conflict resolution’, whereby historical antagonisms and prejudices are to be overcome by a mix of official and unofficial (what are termed ‘Track II’ or ‘people to people’) initiatives. However, when the Cauvery Award was actually announced – i.e., precisely when such communication and understanding were most required – some of those who had been part of the earlier Track II efforts proceeded to oppose the Award as “unfair”. At any rate the strength of those agitating against the Award drowned out voices appealing for understanding. The forces making for the dispute are so powerful that efforts to bring about communication and understanding are by themselves inadequate. Why is this so?

The desperation of the peasantry
The Cauvery Award is ‘final’; it cannot be challenged in the Supreme Court. That is the legal position. However, for the peasant masses concerned, such authorities matter little, especially when they believe their very livelihood is at stake.2 For, in every year of distress, it will be drummed into the peasantry that the source of their misery is the Award; and no parliamentary party will tell them that the real roots of their problems lie elsewhere.

It hardly needs to be stressed that poor peasants in the country today are in a state of desperation. They are acutely aware of the many-sided agrarian crisis. The phenomenon of peasant suicides is a stark indicator of peasant distress. Some of the main features of the crisis are well known. Output growth has halved during the period of the ‘reforms’; the yield of several crops has stagnated or even fallen; per capita foodgrains production has fallen in absolute terms. Bank credit to the poor peasantry has been reduced as a matter of policy, and the grip of usurers has tightened. Agricultural extension services have collapsed (the Finance Minister remarked during his 2007-08 Budget Speech that “Sadly, the extension system seems to have collapsed” – as if it had done so spontaneously, of old age as it were, rather than because of Central and state fiscal policy). Public investment in agriculture has been declining steadily; and, in defiance of currently fashionable economic theory,  private investment has not filled the gap. In the last decade or so, such expenditure as has taken place on irrigation has failed to extend significantly the actual area under irrigation. Public procurement (which could lend some support and stability to production) has been wound up in several crops and is being wound up slowly in foodgrains, leaving cultivators and consumers to the winds of the market. Input prices have steadily risen, and the quantum of fertiliser required to obtain the same yield has multiplied over the years. The genetically modified seeds (notably in cotton) distributed by private firms are very expensive and raise other costs as well. As quantitative restrictions on agricultural imports have been removed for the most part, and as tariffs have been reduced, imports have displaced domestic production in some crops. In other crops, the option of imports has been used to depress prices. Output prices, after remaining depressed for several years, have fluctuated sharply, benefiting the speculator rather than the peasant. Peasants are driven to shift to cash crops in the effort to earn better returns, thus not only increasing the risk of crop failure but undermining the family food security once provided by subsistence farming. Environmental degradation has advanced, particularly where commercial crops are grown. The water table has declined in large parts of the country, either denying irrigation to poor peasants or hiking their costs. The subdivision of farms continues to swell the number and proportion of uneconomic holdings. According to the National Sample Survey (59th Round), the monthly expenditure of the average farmer household is larger than its income; presumably the gap is bridged by sale of assets, borrowings, and remittances. If in these conditions peasants cling grimly to their small plots, it is for lack of an alternative employment: 40 per cent of peasants, according to the Survey, say that given a choice they would leave agriculture.

It is clear from the above list that the neoliberal economic regime has greatly aggravated the fundamental contradictions of India’s agriculture. Thus the very thrust of current policy intensifies the uncertainty and desperation of the peasants. It is not surprising, then, that (in the absence of organisation and struggle based on a true explanation of their problems) they are susceptible to the divisive propaganda of ruling class political parties, and that they do not listen to appeals for understanding when they are led to believe that their very livelihood is at stake.

The state of ruling class politics
Nor is it surprising that the ruling class parties, and assorted appendages of ruling class politics (regional chauvinist outfits, ambitious clerics, film stars and their fan clubs, opportunist trade unions/peasant fronts), choose to present the issue of the inter-state distribution of river waters as the most important problem of the peasantry. For they have little else by way of programme to take to the peasantry. A serious addressal of the basic problems of the peasantry was in any case never on their agenda; but under the neoliberal regime, ruling class politics has lacked even a significant populist economic programme. (The sorry condition of the much-trumpeted National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is a case in point. To make a dent in the unemployment in rural areas would require multiples of the Centre’s present allocations for the Scheme; that is of course not on the cards. In fact, neither have state governments headed by the whole range of political parties implemented the Scheme seriously, nor have the opposition parties made this failure an important issue.) The gamut of parliamentary parties have little but manipulation and diversion to offer the discontented peasantry.

Which is why they depict river waters as a ‘pot of gold’ to be grabbed by one side or the other. They treat as givens the rising costs of production, the declining net income of the peasantry, their growing indebtedness, the absence of public investment in agriculture, the lack of any guarantee of income if crops fail, the lack of any other employment; nothing can be done about them; only a larger share of river waters can help the situation; and that can only be got by taking water away from the peasantry of the other state.  

False counterposing of the interests of the peasants of the two states
This propaganda is essentially false. The supply of water can be increased without subtracting from the water available to other states. For example, irrigation canals are in a poor state3 and deliver to the field only 35 to 40 per cent of the water released; investment in improving the canal system could increase this supply without affecting the amount released to the other states.

More important is the scope for rainwater harvesting and watershed development. According to one study, it is possible by 2020 to provide 142 billion cubic metres (BCM) for irrigation (18 per cent of projected total requirements) through such methods.4 Indeed tanks are an ancient form of water harvesting in India, particularly well developed in the south. They have traditionally been controlled by local communities. However, over the decades the failure of successive governments to allocate funds for the maintenance of tanks has led to their disintegration. In A.P., Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Orissa (which together account for 60 per cent of the area irrigated by tanks countrywide) about 37 per cent of the tank-irrigated area has been lost during 1965-2000. The loss in A.P. alone is equivalent to one-fourth of A.P.’s net irrigated area.5

This neglect has an important class aspect: The beneficiaries of tanks are largely small and marginal farmers (in south India 80 per cent of the farms in tank command areas are less than two hectares).

The shift in expenditure from tank irrigation to canal irrigation is thus part of a systematic promotion of the ‘viable’, commercial farmer at the expense of the poor peasantry. In a sense, it too represents a ‘distribution’ of irrigation water (although there is no trade-off between tanks and canals). On this maldistribution, the forces which whip up a frenzy on the question of river waters remain silent.

Bias against demand management
One can address a deficit of water either by increasing supply or by reducing demand.6 Other things being equal, there should be no reason to prefer increasing the supply to reducing the demand through better practices. On the contrary, increasing the supply generally involves greater financial and environmental costs than does reducing the demand. And yet (as we find also in the case of energy requirements) there are strong vested interests in favour of projects to ‘increase supply’: These are the interests who would earn commissions from awarding contracts, and the firms which would earn a profit off constructing or operating such projects. These interests ensure that there is simply no discussion of demand management. Instead they typically project large growth in demand; this creates the case for massive investments in increasing supply, the funds for which – it is claimed – the private sector alone can bring in. By contrast, of course, there is hardly any scope for fat contracts or private corporate sector profit in increasing the efficiency of water-use in agriculture, and hence that option is being ruled out.

It is widely accepted that better agricultural practices can yield ‘more crop per drop’; this could greatly reduce the demand for water, and in this way actually extend the area under irrigation. Reportedly, India’s efficiency of water use in agriculture is dramatically worse than that of China, even after accounting for differing environmental conditions. (Significantly, in India, yields per unit of water consumed are 10 to 30 per cent lower in irrigated areas than in unirrigated areas.7) But far from promoting efficient practices, wasteful practices have been actively encouraged over the last four decades with utter disregard for their unsustainability. Often, in the same states which are today fighting to maximise their share of river waters, waterlogging and consequent excess salinity have degraded considerable areas of cropland. Official estimates of land lost to waterlogging and salinity are between 3 and 4 million hectares; other studies put the figure at double that. Such is the use to which the practices of the Green Revolution put water, when the supply of water was plentiful.

The Government's current policy to promote corporate sector-driven contract farming will aggravate this tendency toward wastefulness and sacrifice of long-term development of agriculture. For it is a standard practice of the corporate sector to appropriate and exhaust the natural resources of an area, even when these are normally renewable, and having exhausted them, to move on to fresh territories.

Bias of distribution between classes not questioned
Those who mount massive campaigns on the inter-state distribution of river waters maintain a strict silence on the distribution of water within the state. For example, in Maharashtra, sugarcane, which accounts for some four per cent of the gross cropped area, consumes some 60 per cent of the irrigation water. This in a state in which only 16 percent of the gross cropped area is irrigated (as compared to 41 per cent nationwide). The water consumed by a single hectare of sugarcane could irrigate ten hectares of the coarse grains bajra or jowar,8 crops grown by poor farmers in the state. This is not to suggest that all sugarcane growers in Maharashtra are prosperous; indeed most are small peasants controlled and exploited by a small class of sugar barons who control the cooperative sugar factories. This class constitutes the most powerful agrarian clique in the state, and monopolises water on the basis of this clout. The water of major irrigation projects thus gets consumed by sugarcane growers in the head reaches, preventing the realisation of the full irrigation potential of a project: As a result, while an irrigation potential of 5 million hectares has been created under irrigation projects in Maharashtra, actual utilisation is only 1.6 million hectares.

The question of distribution of water between sugarcane and other crops, between the powerful sugar barons and the mass of small and marginal peasants, is rarely even raised, except in academic forums – never as a live political issue.9

This despite the fact that it has helped cripple agricultural production in Maharashtra, which has been declining in absolute terms for the last decade. The reason for this silence is that the class interests that control the political life of the state, and dominate all the parliamentary parties, do not wish to raise it. In contrast to its silence on this, the Maharashtra government does not hesitate to take a confrontationist stance on the distribution of waters with Andhra Pradesh.

In India as a whole, the nature of much of the agricultural investment taking place now tends to aggravate existing inequities in water distribution. Not only has there been a steady decline in investment in agriculture as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product, but within this the share of public investment has fallen, from 33 per cent in 1993-94 to 24 per cent in 1999-2000.10

The bulk of capital formation in agriculture, both public and private, goes toward irrigation facilities, but the character of the two is distinct: the benefits of private investment accrue to those carrying out the investment, to the exclusion of the rest. In the words of the RBI’s Report on Currency and Finance 2002-03, "most of the private sector capital formation goes towards minor irrigation facilities like pump sets.... private sector capital formation in irrigation typically favours digging of wells, as this practice has the advantage of excludability, as opposed to the non-excludable nature of canal irrigation. However, it needs to be recognised that such implements [like pump sets] draw water from the ground water table, which covers larger area beyond a farm size. This means that farmers with larger capacity pumps can actually draw water away from the water table adjoining their farms, and at a faster rate than those with smaller pumps. This tendency clearly has adverse impact on the level of the water table and the ability of small and marginal farmers to irrigate their farms." Note again that no political party whips up a frenzy on this distribution of water among farmers within a state; for that would involve class questions.

‘Market forces’ generate irrationality
The market as it is structured today drives peasants to grow ‘high-value’ – generally water-intensive – crops wherever there is scope to do so. The prices they receive for, say, coarse grains, which require relatively little water, are so low that they do not meet the cash needs of the family. Thus every farmer who has access to irrigation in the Cauvery delta grows water-intensive crops, largely paddy in the area falling in Tamil Nadu and sugarcane in area falling in Karnataka. As many cultivators as get access to water switch to these crops: “Sixty-year-old Marigowda from Kodishettypura in Mandya district has sown ragi on four acres of land in an elevated area not covered by the irrigation network. ‘If I had access to irrigation, I would have grown either sugarcane or paddy’, he said.” (Frontline, 23/2/07) Moreover, traders, who generally are dealers in both inputs and farm produce, are also the main source of short-term credit to cultivators. They push cash crops whereby they make more profits (on both inputs and produce) than they could on subsistence crops. Market forces operate to increase the demand for water virtually without limit. Consequently, even regions like the Cauvery delta which are relatively better-off in water resources consider themselves to have a ‘deficit’.  

A rational approach
Two important principles emerge: First, there is no way to satisfy in full the demands made by the claimant states.11 Secondly, any allocation in a wide range can be accepted by the peasantry of both states, and can be managed in a way such that labouring peasants need not suffer.  However, the latter hinges on a rational approach to the question of river waters. To this, as described below, there are major obstacles.

Of what does such a rational approach consist? First, as we have mentioned above, primacy must be given to the attempt to conserve water; to harvest rain water; and to use water more efficiently. Secondly, cropping patterns must be planned according to their sustainability and the needs of mass consumption, rather than be left to ‘market forces’.

The Green Revolution brought paddy to Punjab, displacing less water-intensive crops. The high-yielding varieties introduced, which at first brought attractive returns, required heavy irrigation. Today, the water table has sunk in large areas of Punjab because of over-exploitation of groundwater, whereas in some canal-irrigated areas there is waterlogging and salinity. Nevertheless, the area under paddy in the state is even now increasing, since there is still public procurement for paddy, which gives some guarantee of income.

From the angle of sustainability, Punjab needs to shift to less water-intensive crops. However, since Punjab under the Green Revolution has been established as the major contributor to surplus paddy and wheat in the country, a shift away from cereal production in Punjab would imperil the country’s food security without first building up production of cereals in other regions. (The fragility of that food security has been highlighted again by the recent rise in wheat prices and the growing dependence on wheat imports.) Secondly, without a system of guaranteed procurement for the crops to which they are to shift, peasants’ incomes would fluctuate around a declining trend. Peasants in Punjab have bitter experience of a number of crops for which there was no public procurement, and at times mandi prices crashed so sharply that farmers in protest simply dumped their output on the road. 

Clearly, each element in the rational approach we have described requires a large-scale intervention by the State.

(i) The conservation and sustainable expansion of water resources call for public investment in improving canal infrastructure, large-scale water harvesting (which could be linked to a rural employment programme), and the great expansion of agricultural extension services in order to bring about better agricultural practices.

(ii) An appropriate shift of cropping patterns requires (a) planning of the country’s consumption requirements and the selection of regions suited to growing those crops in a sustainable way; (b) spread of irrigation, improved seeds, credit, extension services, transport, marketing infrastructure and public procurement to states and regions where agriculture has stagnated or declined (that is, most of India), so as to ensure adequate production of foodgrains; (c) steps to ensure that water-intensive crops at the head-reaches of projects do not monopolise irrigation water (e.g., sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra); and (d) provision of seeds and extension services to help cultivators to shift to less water-intensive crops wherever necessary, and, critically, guaranteed public procurement at remunerative prices of such crops.    

The obstacles to a rational approach
The resources required for such a programme would be substantial, but they should not be hard to raise; as is well known, vast amounts are squandered on the military and vast revenues are forgone as a result of the State’s giveaways to the wealthy and the private corporate sector. The main obstacle is not paucity of funds. Rather, it is that all these measures involve State intervention and subordination of market forces to requirements of rational development serving people’s needs. That is, they go directly against the basic tenets of the neoliberal regime for agriculture and the broader designs of agribusinesses for India.12 And so such a programme is not on the cards under the present balance of class forces. In brief, the political economy of India (i.e., the class relations prevailing in the country today) actually generates such disputes and prevents their rational resolution.

So are we to resign ourselves to river water disputes and all the havoc they wreak? Surely not. What then is the way out?

It is in the labouring peasantry’s own interests to resolve these disputes and focus instead on its basic problems, rather than waste its energies in fratricidal conflict. Democratic organisations of the peasantry have a special responsibility in this regard. These organisations carry a different type of credibility among the masses of peasants, flowing from their dedicated struggle on the peasantry’s basic problems. They can show the concrete steps needed for overcoming the distress in which the affected peasants find themselves, and formulate concrete demands towards that. They can explain to the peasantry the real obstacles in the way of resolving such disputes. On the other hand, if such organisations were tacitly to join the chorus of the ruling class parties, or even remain silent on these issues, their basic agenda would get swept away by the ruling class diversionary agenda.



1. Ramaswamy R. Iyer, Water: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns, 2003, pp. 45-46. (back)

2. For that matter, the only class over which the notion of the ‘law’ has much ideological influence – the middle class – is happy to break the law when it is led to believe (as on the question of reservations) that its interests are at stake. (back)

3. Presumably this explains why the area irrigated by canals has declined sizeably between 1985 and 2000 in U.P., A.P., Bihar, Orissa and Tamil Nadu, which account for 50 per cent of the irrigation potential created nationwide – S. Selvarajan, “Sustaining India’s Irrigation Infrastructure”, NCAP Policy Brief 15, Indian Council for Agricultural Research, 2001. (back)

4. Kanchan Chopra and Biswanath Goldar, “Sustainable Development Framework for India: The Case of Water Resources”, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, 2000, cited in Iyer, Water, p. 287. (back)

5. S. Selvarajan, op cit. (back)

6. Demand can be reduced through better practices or through a shift in pattern of crops. At this point we look at only the question of changing the cropping pattern; the cropping pattern is dealt with later. (back)

7. National Commission on Farmers, First Report, p. 20. (back)

8. When these are grown as irrigated crops; if they were to be provided only protective irrigation, the figure would go up further. (back)

9. Where the villagers are organised for rational conservation and use of water, as in Ralegan Siddhi and Hirwe Bazaar (Ahmednagar), and in villages under the schemes of Pani Panchayat (Pune), they have banned sugarcane cultivation. However, these are the exceptions which prove the rule. (back)

10. 1993-94 series of capital formation in agriculture. (back)

11. In the case of the Cauvery, the demands of the four states involved – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puduchery – total 1200 tmc ft; whereas only 740 tmc ft is available on 50 percent dependability, and 671 tmc ft on 75 per cent dependability. (back)

12. Indeed, during the period of neo-liberal ‘reforms’, there has been a steady deterioration in the expenditure of state and Central governments on agriculture and irrigation. State governments’ spending on agriculture fell from 7.6 per cent of total expenditure in 1990-91 to 4.4 per cent in 2002-03; on irrigation, from 7.8 per cent to 5.2 per cent in the same period. (Aspects no.s 39 & 40, p. 40) The Centre’s expenditures fell even more sharply: on agriculture, from 2.6 per cent of total expenditure in 1990-91 to 1.1 per cent in 2004-05; and on irrigation, from 0.3 per cent to 0.1 per cent over the same period. Indeed, after accounting for inflation, the Centre’s spending on agriculture actually fell by 20 per cent between 1990-91 and 2004-05; spending on irrigation and flood control fell by 15 per cent. (RBI, Handbook of Statistics on State Government Finances, 2004.) (back)


NEXT: The Transfer of Power: Real or Formal?


All material © copyright 2015 by Research Unit for Political Economy