On March 13, NTPC’s 2,100 MW Farakka Super Thermal Power Station in West Bengal had to stop generation, given a declining availability of cooling water from the Farakka feeder canal. This hit power supply in five states, affecting 38,000 households, while leaving the town of Farakka without potable water. On the Ganga, ferries were suspended, while 13 barges carrying coal were left stranded. The Ganga, it seems, is running shallow.

With Haryana’s fields increasingly running dry, the Jat agitation obscures an agrarian crisis. The passage of the Punjab Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal Bill (2016) by the Punjab assembly on a non-partisan basis has unilaterally sparked a crisis in riparian management. Water availability in India’s 91 reservoirs has now reached its lowest level in a decade, touching 29% of storage capacity. Eighty-five per cent of the country’s water needs are now supplied by rapidly declining aquifers. With increasing tanker dependence, water conflicts are arising — prohibitory orders have been imposed in villages in Latur, Maharashtra, while water supply to local swimming pools has been cut off. Short-sighted political tactics, combined with irrigation inefficiency, have served to make water disputes intractable.

Water is a commodity that resists commodification — a recipe for market failure. States have often cited the Harmon Doctrine, ignoring externalities and past investments, to support the idea of absolute sovereignty over water flowing through its territories. More successfully, the social contract approach has focused on deciding on an initial allocation of property rights and creating a mechanism to trade such rights. The Inter-States Water Disputes Act (1956) was enacted to deal with conflicts, creating adjudication tribunals where direct negotiations failed. However, such tribunal decisions have often not been accepted by disputing parties, leaving arbitration as a non-binding mechanism. Interventions by the Centre, as in the Ravi-Beas dispute, have also been unsuccessful.
India’s water settlement dispute mechanisms remain opaque and ambiguous. As rivers generally cross state boundaries, the construction of equitable mechanisms for allocating river flows has been a constitutional legacy. With a plethora of stakeholders — state governments, Parliament, courts, water tribunals, central ministries and civil society — water disputes have remained a persistent phenomenon. With growing consensus that many such disputes are increasingly intractable, existing institutional arrangements have clearly failed to generate outcomes that focus on growth and the national interest.

The Cauvery dispute, led to 26 meetings between 1968 and 1990 at the ministerial level, between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, with no consensus reached. Tamil Nadu argued that Karnataka’s construction of the Kabini, Hemavathi and Swarnavathi dams on the Cauvery, along with a unilateral expansion of its irrigation works, led to a diminishing water supply to Tamil Nadu, while leaving the 1924 agreement between the Madras Presidency and the Mysore state unimplemented. With the dispute increasingly politicised, the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (1990) has found resolution a distant mirage.

Success has required a sub-basin focused approach, similar to the Indus Agreement between India and Pakistan. The Krishna Godavari water dispute focused on the inter-state utilisation of untapped surplus water among Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. The Krishna Tribunal decision, awarded in 1976, was weighted towards projects that were in operation or under consideration, while allowing the diversion of the Krishna waters to areas outside the river basin but within the boundaries of the riparian states. With little to no quantification division of flows, this marked success was supported by extensive sub-basin focused negotiations between the states themselves.

India’s agricultural policies need tinkering as well. India’s water tables are dropping by 0.3 metres annually — a consequence of a system that “encourages using more inputs such as fertiliser, water and power” (Economic Survey, 2016). Water management is regulated by multiple central, state and municipal bodies, along with the Central Water Commission — bad coordination exacerbates localised pollution. We encourage sugarcane planting in arid regions, and advise farmers on cropping decisions without any consideration of local surface water availability.

Our systemic focus on rice and wheat production, over dry land agriculture, needs to be reversed, while drip irrigation can help restore declining water tables. A central regulatory agency, focused on the design, control and coordination of national programmes for water conservation needs to be instituted. Water allocation decisions need an operational mechanism for sectoral allocation, based on logic, need and social equity. The government should undertake regional- and basin-level water planning, enabling communities, industries and civil society to negotiate over allocation. Regulatory protection for riverine ecosystems needs to be strengthened, with illegal sand mining curbed. We must institute legal protections for minimum water flow in our rivers while political interference in water allocation needs to be curbed.

The Keoladeo National Park, a veritable cornucopia of swamps, grasslands and woodlands, is located near Bharatpur in Rajasthan. When winter approaches, this Ramsar-designated site becomes popular as a nestling habitat for the migratory Siberian crane, while hosting over 370 species of avian fauna. The sanctuary needs 500 million cubic feet of water annually during the monsoon to maintain its resident ecosystem — most of it historically provided by the Gambhir River (now dammed by the Panchana dam).The Supreme Court’s notice to the Rajasthan government to release water from the Panchana dam has been held up by protests by farmers seeking irrigation. Such riparian disputes have seen water scarcity tying into a political ecosystem that encourages patronage for ‘free water’ — the political value of surface water has risen. Seeking long-term riparian sustainability remains the only way out.