Managing river and water disputes are among the top political challenges of India. There are several disputes between different States in India, which involves different States over different rivers. Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhyapradesh, Orissa, Rajastan, Haryana, Uttarpradesh, Punjab, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi J & K, UP, Bihar, Punjab, Manipur, Assam are all involved in such disputes over different rivers Mullaperiyar, Kaveri, Narmada, Godavari, Yamuna etc.
River water disputes between states are a very sensitive issue. Though water sharing raises passions, the challenge of keeping the rivers pure and unpolluted, without throwing garbage and waste into them, is not a priority issue nor does it raise any passions among us.
Dealing with river water disputes in India need consensus. Confrontation is not the way. The potential of such disputes being misused for political gains by ‘an imaginative politician’ can endanger the peace and development process. It’s interesting to note the comments and response to a river water dispute by the CPI(M) leader and the new Chief Minister of the South Indian State of Kerala, in a dispute where his state is involved with the neighboring Tamil Nadu. Immediately after his first visit to New Delhi after becoming the Chief Minister of Kerala he said in Delhi that “it is of no use whipping up passions”.
His message to political parties and leaders, including from his own that ‘theMullaperiyar dam issue cannot be resolved through unnecessary controversies’. And he added that ‘the expert committee report on dam safety would be taken into consideration while handling the issue’. (The Hindu, May 30, 2016 ‘Kerala CM’s dam remarks draw flak’)The State of Kerala and Tamilnadu are in a cold war over the issue for a very long time. Kerala argues that the dam, which was constructed some 120 years back is now weak and a new dam need to be constructed. But Tamil Nadu says there is no need for a new dam, it’s strong and the water level also can be raised from 136 to 141. Former Supreme Court judge justice KT Thomas, who was a member of the expert Committee, which looked in to the safety issues took a stand that the dam was strengthened thrice in the past and is stronger than a new one. According to Justice Thomas ‘strengthening of the dam was done in 1979, 1989 and 1981. But it has not been reported by the media’. (First Post, Mullaperiyar issue: Kerala CM Pinarayi's bold new stand is better for ties with TN, May 30, 2016)
Political parties and leaders act to maximize their vote share during the course of river water disputes. Often business and possibility of earning a commission from a mega project contract also come up in their discussions on strategies. Do they ever consider ‘development’ or interests of people? It’s important that a political culture emerges where leaders and political parties prioritize nation and people as their prime interest.
Mr. Pinarai Vijayan’s mature response would bring peace that otherwise had the potential to slip away. He was candid enough to admit and emphatically defend his position over and over again, despite criticisms from different quarters including his colleagues from ruling coalition. Mr Vijayan has correctly evaluated the situation and told after assuming office that nothing can be done at Mullaperiyar without the cooperation of the people of Tamil Nadu. There is an agreement of lease exists for 999 years between these States signed during British days. He said what is needed is consultation, discussion and a consensus on the issue and said there is no scope for any confrontation in such issues.
It’s indeed more pragmatic to explore the possibilities of further strengthening the existing structure rather than demolishing it and building another one in its place. Strengthening the existing one may be a greener approach too. A new dam would benefit contractors, bureaucrats and politicians rather than people.
Mr. Vijayan, later on, under pressure, attuned his position to the larger political consensus in Kerala, which favors a new dam. But his earlier statements have several implications and an important one is that both the States can now forget about an environment of confrontation that prevailed in this matter between them. Two southern states may hopefully discuss and work together to resolve this in a spirit of cooperation now on. Certainly confrontation is not the way in resolving river water disputes. Pinarai Vijayan shows a commendable and admirable path in managing river water disputes.