Friday, June 21, 2024

Need for fresh approach


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Mullaperiyar Dam Row

Dr. S. Saraswathi

The current controversy between the Congress-led Government in Kerala and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar Dam has once again brought into sharp focus the weakness of the existing principles of sharing river water flowing through two or more States and the ineffective mechanism for resolving differences.

Construction of dams and sharing of available water has invariably become contentious issues among States depending on the same river(s). Politics comes into play and political parties take positions on the issue which should instead be beyond politics and treated as non-political developmental question to be handled by construction engineers, agriculturists, economists, environmentalists, social welfare activists, and other experts.

The worst scenario is presently witnessed in the dispute over Mullaperiyar Dam where one party – the Government of Tamil Nadu – is asking for deployment of Central Industrial Security Force for the protection of the dam on a fear of deliberate damage to the dam as if the dispute is with an enemy country. On the other side, fear of possible collapse of the dam in the event of an earthquake in the vicinity is spread like wildfire and makes people and government collapse at the very thought of any such event.

It is unbelievable that State borders drawn on linguistic lines can divide people on the question of sharing a free natural resource which is a primary requirement for life for all. But, they do and call for arbitration, settlement, and judicial decisions by authorities expected to be neutral between the warring parties.

Some of these disputes have been going on for several decades. Water disputes between Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala over Cauvery, between Gujarat and Maharashtra over Narmada, between Punjab and Haryana over Ravi-Beas, and between Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka over Krishna are some of the more serious problems fought like mini-wars that seem to be never ending. The Supreme Court is again and again dragged into water disputes despite the presence of tribunals for arbitration.

Water, in matters relating to supplies, irrigation, canals, drainage and embankments, storage, and power, is a State subject in the distribution of powers in the Seventh Schedule of the Indian Constitution. However, this is subject to item 56 of the Union List under which Parliament may by law declare the extent of Union control in regulation and development of inter-State rivers and river valleys if it is expedient in public interest.

Further, Article 262(1) of the Constitution states that Parliament may, by law, provide for adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution, or control of the waters of any inter-State or river valley. It is followed by a safeguard to maintain Central control under Article 262(2) which states that notwithstanding anything in the Constitution, Parliament may by law provide that neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall exercise jurisdiction in respect of any such dispute or complaint referred to in clause (1). It seems that the Constitution makers did not rule out the probability of “disputes over waters” which is indeed the caption given to this Article, but did not foresee the vigour with which they would be fought.

Along with the States Reorganization Act of 1956, the Union Government adopted the Water Disputes Act 1956 which has provided for setting up a Tribunal to deal with any water dispute. The River Board Act adopted in the same year enables States to propose, develop, and manage inter-State rivers. River basin States can undertake projects to develop, conserve, and use inter-State river water.

However, the Central Government has enormous power and authority in the federal system and no State can on its own carry out projects within its territory in respect of any inter-State river that would adversely affect another State. This limitation in the States’ space has been confirmed by the Supreme Court while dealing with the dispute between Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka over the Almatti Dam. In any case, the Union Government has the financial control which effectively restricts the freedom of the States.

However, litigations in the course of inter-State disputes over river water have enlarged the authority of the Supreme Court contrary to the purpose of the 1956 Act. In fact, in many cases, settlement by Water Tribunals is resented by political parties or governments involved in the dispute. The verdicts of the Supreme Court are generally accepted and taken as final. Such disputes are not so much among concerned people directly, but among concerned governments. Water, particularly sharing of river water, has become an explosive political issue.

While river water is a crucial dividing factor between States, the country lacks a comprehensive and relevant national river water policy. The National Water Policy, which makes a reference to river water, was first adopted in India 1987 and was revised in 2002 but retaining its main features. It envisages development and management of water resources of the country in an integrated manner. It also ensures that States share the waters of joint rivers, i.e. rivers running through two or more States. The national policy has been supplemented by a number of State policies on water management, use, conservation, prevention of pollution, etc.

Declaration of national policies is no guarantee for amicable solution of problems. Policies must be followed by clear operational guidelines, and have to be backed by appropriate structures with adequate authority for implementation. In matters that raise rival claims and competitive demands, guidelines may be flouted and the task of arbitration is not easy.

In view of frequent clash of inter-State water interests, the feasibility of total central control of all rivers may be a way out and can be examined. To eliminate the play of politics altogether, the country may also be classified into water zones cutting across State borders for the purpose of protecting and sharing river waters which are unquestionably national property. —INFA


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