India’s Recurring Water Disputes: Needed Less Politics, More Macro Vision – OpEd


The inter-state water disputes in India are now becoming a matter of concern. The present dispute between states in southern India on sharing of water only highlights the fact that the political leadership at the state level lack matured approach with understanding of the problems of the neighbouring states. Sometimes, the exchange of bitter communication between the political leaders makes one think that they behave like urchins.

There is considerable and justifiable anxiety in Tamil Nadu over the proposed move of Karnataka government to construct check dam in Mekedatu; move of Andhra Pradesh government for check dam in Palar and move of Kerala government for check dam in Attapadi (Siruvani) and for restricting the water level in Mullaiperiyar dam.

It appears to the people in Tamil Nadu that the three neighbouring states are proposing such check dams without considering the interests of Tamil Nadu, which is largely a lower riparian state.

However, one has to note that the above three states also claim that they have justifications in mooting the above proposals.

The Karnataka government says that in the common reach of the river, it will have a regulating dam at Mekedatu, where it can produce power and will also share water with Tamil Nadu. The idea is that when it gets excess water, it will hold it instead of wasting it.

The Andhra Pradesh government says that no construction work is happening on the Palar river in Kuppam area. However, small check dams are being constructed in the river in deep forest areas to provide water for elephant herds.

Andhra Pradesh says that what is being done is only a preliminary survey covering technical and financial feasibility aspects, ecology and submergence factors, so that in the event of the government deciding to go ahead with the proposal, it could then sit down for full-fledged negotiations with its other riparian partners.

The Kerala government’s argument for constructing check dam in Attapadi is that there are no major or medium retaining structures in the command area of the project. Most of the irrigation facilities are privately owned lift irrigation systems, which are confined to small patches and the farmers, mainly tribals, relied mainly on rain-fed agriculture.

Kerala has been arguing that the existing structure in Mullaiperiyar dam has outlived its safety and longevity and that there is a need to construct a new structure and that it is unsafe to maintain water at 46.3 metres, which is at the full capacity and that should be restricted to 41.45 metres.

In this scenario, what is surprising is that the Chief Ministers of the four states do not think it to be necessary to meet and discuss the issues thread bare, so that a mutually acceptable solution can be arrived at, with the good understanding of the issues faced by each of the state. A give and take attitude with maturity and foresighted thinking by the four Chief Ministers appear to be conspicuous by absence. On the other hand, they seem to be approaching the issues like sworn enemies.

The Tamil Nadu government is responding to the scenario by repeatedly writing to the Prime Minister and also taking up the issue to the Supreme Court. Such approach has not really yielded any results in the past and is unlikely to lead to any solution in future, in the absence of readiness of four chief ministers to meet and sort out the issues with understanding.

The ground reality is that if a few lakhs of people in Tamil Nadu would protest and demonstrate demanding justice for Tamil Nadu, similar number of people in neighbouring states also can reciprocate the same. In such circumstances, neither the Prime Minister nor the Supreme Court can enforce any decision in the absence of co operative attitude by the Chief Ministers of four states.

Obviously, Tamil Nadu is the most affected state in the water dispute in southern India. In such circumstances, it would be appropriate if the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister would take the initiative and convene a meeting of the Chief Ministers of neighbouring states to thrash out a solution. It is not clear as to why Tamil Nadu Chief Minister is not exercising this option.

Of course, in all issues today, there is more politics in the approach of the state governments, with the opposition parties in each state likely to criticize any move of the respective government towards finding a solution.

However, it has to be kept in mind that apart from politicians, there are large number of citizens in all the four states, who do want peace and harmony and not conflicts between the states. There is considerable inter-dependence between the four southern states and one cannot be totally oblivious to the interest of other states, particularly in viewing such critical matter as sharing of water.

Probably, Tamil Nadu’s stand in such inter-state water disputes would be strengthened, if Tamil Nadu can take steps to conserve water in the state, avoid wastage of water particularly in the monsoon season and even examine the feasibility of changing crop pattern to reduce the requirement of water in the agricultural fields. Of course, there are many ways and means of doing this including measures for rain water harvesting , treatment of sewage water for use in industries and for non drinking purposes , construction of check dams within the state without affecting the requirement of neighbouring states, desilting of tanks to improve the storage etc.

Of course, it is important that not only Tamil Nadu but the neighbouring states of Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh should also implement such measures to conserve water and avoid wastage of water. The fact is that all the four states are not taking adequate steps in earnest, for implementing such measures for conservation and storage of water.

The matter is very urgent now, since the demand for water is increasing in all the southern states due to population growth and other development activities. This problem cannot be allowed to linger on forever, which would be detrimental to all the four southern states.

The politicians ruling the states need to keep long term perspectives and needs of the states in view, without approaching such issues with immediate political consideration and short term exigencies.

N. S. Venkataraman

N. S. Venkataraman is a trustee with the "Nandini Voice for the Deprived," a not-for-profit organization that aims to highlight the problems of downtrodden and deprived people and support their cause. To promote probity and ethical values in private and public life and to deliberate on socio-economic issues in a dispassionate and objective manner.

One thought on “India’s Recurring Water Disputes: Needed Less Politics, More Macro Vision – OpEd

  • September 16, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    Water issues cannot be a problem that is addressed in isolation. Change the topic and Tamil Nadu’s image changes. It defaulted on payment of 10,000 crore (1953 rs) to AP in lieu of Madras. AP doesn’t have a capital city yet. It doesn’t crack down on red sanders smugglers in TN that cross state border to steal AP trees worth thousands of crores every year.The roads connecting to AP from TN are not maintained on TN side. TN wrote to center against AP special status.
    Karnataka and Kerala may have their issues too. And TN may have many more in return. What we need is good interstate relations and time bound dispute resolution mechanisms across the board. Does it make the problem bigger and intractable yes. But assuming problem is small doesn’t make it so


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