Rivers of dispute

Quiet flow the rivers as politics make their waters murky

Published: Monday 30 September 2002

once more, there is talk of nationalising the country's rivers and river basins. And this time around, the idea came from the Supreme Court. During the hearing over the sharing of the river waters, the apex court asked solicitor general Harish Salve if it was possible to bring rivers under the central list, saying this problem would happen in every river.

Disputes over sharing of river waters are by now a depressingly familiar story in India. As water-intensive agriculture forms, power needs and wasteful urban consumption put pressure on available river water, fights are breaking out everywhere. Whether it is Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over Cauvery, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh over Krishna, Karnataka and Goa over Madei or Punjab and Haryana over Satluj, practically every river in the sub-continent has become a contested domain.

But bringing rivers and river basins under the central ambit is no solution as this would further alienate the users. At a time when decentralisation process is in motion in every sector, central control of river waters would be, to say the least, absurd and regressive. What is required is greater community involvement over the water usage.

As we have said time and again, politicians will never resolve the issue -- it is in fact in their vested interest to stoke the fires and harvest votes. What is needed is a well-defined conflict-resolution system. And for this, we need to bring the demand down to a sustainable level, which can only be achieved by the involved user groups.

It will not be easy to resolve the conflict over sharing of river water. But we must work towards a long lasting system of solution. The intricate decisions over sustainable crop pattern and water pricing must be taken by a group that includes users from both upper and lower riparian states.

Lessons should be drawn from such people-driven models across the country. In Ladakh, for instance, water from melting glaciers is remarkably managed under the churpun system. Equitable distribution of this precious resource is ensured by the community members to irrigate their fields and meet households' water needs. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, neerkattis, or irrigation managers are even today responsible for maintaining the inlet channels and distribution of water in villages.

The examples may be small, but the concept is not. We only hope government takes the cue from them.

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