October 14, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

What A Lovely Water War!

Had they been two belligerent countries, recent words and deeds in two populous southern states might make you think that they were going to war. A man drowns himself; demonstrators attack vehicles registered in the other state and trains heading there; films are banned; the two chief ministers speak about each other in terms reminiscent of graffiti in public toilets.

And all this, over water.

What could be more mundane, and yet more fundamental to life? Far and away the most abundant substance on our planet, the irony of water is that it is getting ever scarcer for ever more of us. Yet an even greater irony may be that it probably doesn't have to be so scarce. It's the hare-brained way we use it that makes it so. If that doesn't change, we can look forward to more than just toilet talk by chief ministers.

If you thought that the Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu was a recent one, think again. There have been arguments over the water in that river for two centuries now. Tribunals and agreements, imperial powers and homegrown governments, all have come and gone, but one thing doesn't change in the southern reaches of our country: the tension over the Cauvery water. Some eight years ago, to much fanfare, Jayalalithaa even went on a farcical chief ministerial fast to force a settlement. Farcical, because solicitous -- or shall we say pliable -- doctors pronounced her too ill to continue fasting, if I'm not mistaken, within a few hours of when she first declined food. But farcical most of all because it brought no resolution of the wrangle.

As we know today.

The dispute is simple. Karnataka wants to use the water in the river for irrigating its water-starved areas. Dams have been built on the Cauvery for this purpose; effectively, they control the flow of water in the river. This worries Tamil Nadu. For its farmers who depend on the Cauvery for water are really dependent on how Karnataka releases water through those dams.

But what complicates things is that water from dams is traditionally used thoughtlessly. This is because it is supplied to farmers at absurdly low rates. They pay nowhere near what it has cost to bring it to them, nowhere near what would make them use it wisely. As a result, they pour it onto their fields with abandon, growing water-intensive crops like sugarcane and cotton in areas which, left to themselves, might even be worthless for agriculture. A team from the Cauvery River Authority reported on a trip along the river recently that "field[s] not best suited for sugarcane cultivation had been planted with sugarcane." (The Times of India, October 8).

This is typical. But by no means is it a phenomenon unique to India. The American southwest, for example -- the states of New Mexico, Arizona and California -- is really no more than an enormous desert. But it is also now one of the great cotton and fruit-growing areas of the world. Thanks to rivers dammed and their water brought from hundreds of miles away, you can find vast fields of cotton there, besides miles of fruit and vegetable orchards. To use this water, farmers pay, in some cases, less than a thirtieth of its true cost.

The problem in India, as in the USA, is that if farmers were told in advance that they would have to pay the actual cost of the water they use, they would not support building the dams that supply them the water. Thus if governments want to build dams -- and few governments can resist the temptation to do so -- they must promise to heavily subsidise the water they will supply to farmers. So farmers get water so cheaply that they have no incentive whatsoever to use it well. This is why dams invariably encourage the waste of water. (Another irony here is that a major argument to build dams is this: how can we allow river water to flow "wastefully" into the sea?)

This is what has happened on the Cauvery. Using cheap water from dams on the Cauvery like Mettur and Kabini, farmers in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu grow crops like sugarcane in abundance. At times of scarce rains and lower flows in the river, they feel threatened. Naturally. How will they feed those constantly thirsty stands of sugarcane? How will they earn enough to eat, to live?

Spurred on by the breed of politicians who put them in this situation to begin with -- by delivering practically free water to them -- they channel their frustration across the state border at people who speak another language. So in Karnataka, Tamils become the villains; cross the border to find that Kannada-speakers are rogues. Almost as if the problem lies in the language rather than in the myopic approach to river water. (How many of our vexing problems would we have to actually solve, as opposed to learning to point fingers at convenient scapegoats, if we all spoke one language?)

A solution to this impasse is impossible as long as it is left solely to politicians, who have their own professional compulsions, to find one. I don't mean this only in the sense that it is hard to rely on politicians. I mean it also this way: that as long as water remains a political tool, we will have wrangles over the Cauvery.

So what's the answer? The only one that occurs to me, and it won't happen at rock-bottom rates, is to make water-users think about the water they use. This removes politics and its practitioners from the equation -- though I feel sure they will look for ways to climb back in. It also gives tangible shape to the idea of paying fairly for water.

Two Pune scientists, Suhas Paranjape and KJ Joy, once suggested just such a scheme as an alternative to the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river. They proposed

    "to make the availability of [Narmada] water conditional on the adoption, by the beneficiary villages, of regenerative, sustainable and equitable water use, thus opening up a path to self-sustaining prosperity."

As a condition for getting water, they wanted farmers to adopt an alternative cropping pattern that would make best use of that water. About one third of the water would be devoted to food grains; another third to agro-forestry; the last third would be used for 'marketable produce' like fruits and vegetables. This way, beneficiaries would give over part of their land to what Paranjape and Joy called 'permanent vegetative cover.' As they wrote:

    "We have therefore included the provision of permanent vegetative cover on 1/3rd of the service area as one of the minimum conditions to be accepted by the water users' group in return for the provision of basic service."

I don't mean to pronounce that this is the definitive answer to Cauvery, or Narmada. But I do mean to draw your attention to the philosophy behind this proposal. Think of the value farmers will place on water when it comes to them not at absurdly low rates, but with conditions like these attached. Think of the value of making users of water aware of the responsibility that using water places on them.

Think, finally, of what such an approach to water might do to numbingly familiar conflicts on the Cauvery.

The Cauvery Dispute

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