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Water remedies

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

Even as the Cauvery waters-sharing dispute continues to simmer, despite the Tribunal's final verdict, another decades-old, and equally contentious, row over the distribution of the Ravi-Beas waters has flared up. This follows the announcement by Punjab's new chief minister, Parkash Singh Badal, that the state will discontinue the supply of the Ravi-Beas waters to Haryana and Rajasthan because they have no riparian rights over the waters. For this, he intends to amend an even more controversial law, the Punjab Termination of Riverwater Agreements Act, 2004, which sought to abrogate in one go all the existing water-sharing pacts with other states. The only exception under that statute was the supply of the Ravi-Beas waters to Haryana, which was carved out of Punjab in 1966, and its neighbouring Rajasthan. Badal is now seeking to do away with this exception by amending the Act.
Indeed, by taking the novel legal route for not sharing waters with others, Punjab has added a disconcerting dimension to the inter-state water-sharing wrangles. For, this can serve as a precedent for other states that want to deny waters to lower riparian or non-riparian neighbours and can have ominous consequences. There is no doubt that the matter needs to be viewed from a national perspective and not on a case-by-case basis. Besides the Cauvery and the Ravi-Beas waters disputes, the other major inter-state wrangles that have been surfacing from time to time include that of the Yamuna (Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Haryana), Sutlej-Yamuna link canal (Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan), Sone (Bihar and Uttar Pradesh), Damodar (West Bengal and Jharkhand), Krishna (Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh) and Telugu Ganga (Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh). Then there are the technical objections to the heights of dams under construction, and other related issues.
The genesis of most of these disputes can be traced to a common factor""the increased water requirement for sustaining irrigated agriculture in the river basins. This has made water sharing a politically sensitive issue. As such, all political parties, regardless of their other conflicting interests, tend to get together on this issue, making negotiated settlement all the more difficult.
Thus, keeping these realities in view and given the disability of the adjudication agencies like tribunals to hand down lasting solutions, it seems imperative to try out new approaches to address this issue. Of course, ending the states' control over river waters by moving water to the Concurrent List under the Constitution could provide a viable solution. But this cannot be done without the consent and cooperation of the states, and this is unlikely to come about. The alternative, also suggested by the Sarkaria Commission, which ruled out putting water on the Concurrent List, is to amend the Inter-State Water Disputes Act to make the awards of the tribunals binding and effectively enforceable by the states by granting them the same sanction as enjoyed by the orders or decrees of the Supreme Court. However, the question of accountability for breach of the verdict among the state administrations concerned would have to be addressed unambiguously. Yet another option that merits consideration is to nationalise major inter-state rivers, without altering the Constitutional provision regarding water in general, as was done in the case of banks and some other sectors in the past. This will bring river water management under the Centre's control. Unless some such innovative solution is discovered, the menace of water disputes may continue to threaten peace and progress.

First Published: Fri, March 09 2007. 00:00 IST