Back in 1972, I, along with my wife, was on a visit to Kolkata and stayed with my uncle who was yet to migrate back to Bangladesh leaving behind his thriving business. One evening he took us to Rabindra Sarani to watch the incredible magic of P.C. Sarker Junior, son of the great magician P.C, Sarker who originally belonged to East Bengal. His son, born and brought up in Kolkata, had still some fascination for the land of his forefathers. The last item of the show was named “Water of India”. He asked a number of girls each with a pot in hand and representing a state of India. One of the girls was named Bangladesh, as if it was a state of India and stood beside West Bengal. By turn, he asked the girls to make the pots upside down. Plenty of water flowed down from every pot. When Bangladesh’s turn came, very little amount of water came down from its pot. Then, the magician became a joker. With applause of the audience, he remarked that there was shortage of water in Bangladesh as Ganges water was being diverted after commissioning of Farakka Barrage on the Indian side of the border. This tremendously hurt my feelings. I sought permission of the sorcerer to go to the stage. After thanking him for his unique performance, I told him that I had objection on two points. One, Bangladesh was not a province of India, but he almost equated the newly independent sovereign country with Indian states. Then, showing Bangladesh drying up due to the upstream Farakka Barrage in violation of rights of a lower riparian country was nothing but a cruel joke. In response, he apologised to the Bangladeshi people present among the audience.
A war on water was about to break out when President Ayub Khan of the then Pakistan threatened to bomb the Farakka. He was restrained by the world leaders. Now after some fifty four years, it seems that a water war is breaking out within India itself, between two states that may entangle a few more states. Large scale violence has broken out in India’s technology hub Bangalore in Karnataka state last week over a long-running dispute about water of the river Kaveri. Protesters are angry at a Supreme Court ruling ordering Karnataka to share water from the Kaveri with neighbouring Tamil Nadu. As reported by BBC and NDTV, on Monday a school bus was stopped in the Banashankari area in southern Bengaluru. Three men got into the bus and asked aloud “Which child belongs to Karnataka and which child belongs to Tamil Nadu?’’ The 15-odd students, aged between 10 and 14, were stunned. Their school had asked them to leave early because the situation was tense, with violence and arson taking place in many parts of the city. The driver handled the situation tactfully. He told the intruders that everyone was a native of Bengaluru and that their families supported Karnataka on water sharing with Tamil Nadu. In no time, dark smoke had filled the Bengaluru skies. Some 35 buses had been set on fire by protesters, just because the buses belonged to a transport company whose owner is a Tamil. Earlier this month India’s Supreme Court ruled that Karnataka must release 12,000 cubic feet of water per second to Tamil Nadu from the Kaveri River until 20 September. Both states say they urgently need more water for irrigation. A battle about access to it has actually been raging for decades.
Karnataka says water levels in the Kaveri have declined because of insufficient rainfall - 42% of the 3,598 irrigation tanks in the state are dry - and that it cannot therefore share water with Tamil Nadu. So, Tamil Nadu went to the top court demanding 50,000 cusecs. When the Supreme Court on 2 September asked Karnataka to “live and let live”, the state softened and offered to release 10,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu every day for five days. On 5 September, however, the top court ordered Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs for 10 days. This ruling was later modified to 12,000 cusecs until 20 September. This would mean that nearly a quarter of the water now available in the Kaveri basin will flow into Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu says it badly needs the river water for irrigation. Drought-hit Karnataka argues that most of the river water is now needed for drinking water supplies in Bengaluru and some other cities, leaving no water for irrigation at all. Farmers in Tamil Nadu are unhappy even with this share. P Ayyakannu, president of the local South Indian Rivers Interlinking Farmers Association, called it “akin to giving pigeon feed to an elephant”.
The latest violence brings back memories of the anti-Tamil riots in Bangalore in 1991 over the same issue. Then, some 200,000 Tamils were reported to have left the city, after incidents of violence and arson targeting them. There was a proposal in 2013 to set up a panel comprising representatives from the two warring states to resolve disputes over river water sharing. But successive governments have dragged their feet on this, and the two leaders - Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah and his counterpart in Tamil Nadu, Jayaraman Jayalalitha - have not reached out to each other to resolve the crisis. And, with Delhi reduced to being a reluctant referee, the onus has fallen on the Supreme Court to resolve the issue.
Karnataka-Tamil Nadu water conflict is just one of the many inter-state water disputes in India. Some of these existed since the British period, and could not be solved mutually or through Union Governments intervention. Conflicts proliferate and escalate as more and more regions are engulfed by drought and inter-state river waters are diverted to dry areas. Moreover, India has disputes over sharing the waters of common rivers with most of its immediate neighbours – Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and China - that have existed for ages without any probable solution in sight.
Water conflict is a term describing a conflict between countries, states, or communities over access to water resources. The United Nations recognises that water disputes result from opposing interests of water users, public or private. A wide range of water conflicts appear throughout history, though rarely are traditional wars waged over water alone. Water has historically been a source of tension and a factor in conflicts. However, water conflicts arise for several reasons, including territorial disputes, a fight for resources, and strategic advantages. Studies show that violence over water has been going on for centuries since the dawn of river-based civilisation nearly 5,000 years back.
Water wars occur over both fresh water and saltwater, and both between and within nations. While international conflict can be resolved by UN initiative and intervention, intra-national conflicts are to be resolved by the national governments by properly addressing the genuine grievance of the warring regions and making fair and equitable distribution of river waters for the sake of peace and balanced development of all the regions. It will be interesting to see how India’s Union Government is going to resolve the existing inter-state disputes and avert further crisis. India’s co-riparian neighbours are eagerly waiting to see India coming out with a lion’s heart and mitigate their justifiable grievances.
The writer, a former civil servant, is Executive Director, Centre for Governance Studies