A positive dialogue

Print edition : May 23, 2003

A dialogue organised by the Madras Institute of Development Studies brings together representatives from the principal interest groups involved in the Cauvery dispute and marks a first step in creating a non-official, people-to-people track in seeking to resolve it.

AT a recent meeting in Chennai organised by the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), around 150 representatives from the principal interest groups in the long festering dispute over the sharing of the Cauvery water met to exchange ideas and clear misconceptions in a spirit of reconciliation and good neighbourliness. Billed as a `dialogue' rather than a formal seminar, the two-day interaction was a cautious first step in creating a non-official, people-to-people track in dispute resolution. It brought farmers and representatives of the major farmers' organisations from both States, irrigation experts, agricultural scientists, economists, retired bureaucrats, representatives from non-governmental organisations and journalists among others on a common platform. Although no consensus on any of the issues of contention was arrived at, the meeting created both goodwill and an eagerness on the part of both sides to continue with the process of dialogue. The dispute has over the years created deep schisms and hostilities amongst water users on both sides of the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border. Animosities peaked last year when drought conditions served to harden the positions of the basin States with respect to water sharing. The unanimous decision by the participants at the dialogue to meet again in June in Karnataka for another round of the "Farmers' Dialogue as a Means for Breaking the Cauvery Deadlock" is a measure of the high expectations from direct negotiations as a way of finding a solution. "The very fact that we were able to get opposing groups to begin talking to each other is itself a measure of the success of this effort", S. Janakarajan, Professor, MIDS, and the main organiser of the dialogue, told Frontline.

This is not the first attempt to open a non-official channel of communication between the two States. More than a decade ago, when the Cauvery dispute had taken a particularly ugly turn in Karnataka, with pro-Kannada groups instigating violence against Tamil lives, homes and property, a group of concerned citizens from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka organised a meeting in Bangalore in 1992 aimed at healing wounds and building goodwill (Frontline, April 24, 1992). Initiated by the late S. Guhan, a person who will be remembered for his untiring efforts in resolving the dispute in a spirit of reason and non-partisanship, the meeting was attended by H.N. Nanje Gowda, a former Union Irrigation Minister from Karnataka, B.K. Chandrashekhar, currently Minister for Primary and Secondary Education in Karnataka, N. Ram, Editor, Frontline, S. Ranganathan and M.D. Nanjundaswamy, leaders of the Cauvery Delta Farmers Association (CDFA) and the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) respectively, engineers, and others connected with the dispute. This initiative, however, was not pursued, and in the years that followed, Cauvery basin politics only grew in acrimony and discord.

The tone of the interaction was set by MIDS Director Professor V.K. Natraj. In his introduction in fluent Tamil and Kannada, he underlined the cultural, literary and social commonalities and links between the Tamil and Kannada speaking regions. Speaking to Frontline after the dialogue, Professor Natraj said that the modest expectations of the organisers of the event were more than realised. Delegates from the two States were willing to hear each other out and were keen to continue the process.

In his introductory comments, Professor Janakarajan discussed the Multi Stakeholders Dialogue approach in resolving conflicts in the use of natural resources such as the Cauvery dispute.

The dialogue was inaugurated by Era Sezhiyan, a former member of Parliament. Two of the major farmers' organisations from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were represented. Around 45 members of the KRRS under the leadership of Puttaniah participated actively. The KRRS, a key component of the Cauvery Hitarakshana Samiti, formed last year to protest against the release of water to Tamil Nadu and to direct the Cauvery movement, has a substantial following in Mandya and Mysore districts. From Tamil Nadu, there were several representatives from the CDFA.

Once the dialogue got under way, some of the ill-informed and regionally blinkered perceptions of delegates from both States with regard to agricultural practices and water requirements on the other side of the border became apparent. Some of the agriculturists from Karnataka were both unaware and wrongly informed about delta agriculture, as were a section of Thanjavur delta farmers on agriculture in the Karnataka basin. For example, it has always bothered Karnataka that Tamil Nadu's demand for water is based on a cropping pattern in which there are three rice harvests - kuruvai, samba and thaladi. In his presentation, S. Ranganathan explained how this is a wrong view. In normal years, water from the Mettur dam is released between June and January, that is, for seven months or roughly 210 days. "Only two crops can be sown in this time-span," he said. In the upper reaches of the delta near Grand Anicut and Mayiladuthurai, two crops, namely the kuruvai and thaladi, are grown on roughly three lakh acres (about 1.2 lakh ha). However, in the remaining eight to nine lakh acres of the delta there is only a single long-duration samba crop that is sown in mid-July and harvested in January. "I was surprised that even agricultural scientists were ignorant of this. How then can we blame farmers?" asked Ranganathan. There were similar misconceptions in Tamil Nadu with regard to agricultural practices and irrigation systems in Karnataka and the dialogue provided an opportunity for information to be shared.

IN his presentation, Ramaswamy R. Iyer, former Secretary, Water Resources, Government of India, pointed to the resolution of other seemingly intractable river water disputes. The Ganga water dispute between India and Bangladesh was resolved in 1996 by the Ganga Treaty, which has been since working well. The Indus Treaty of 1960 between India and Pakistan has held even through periods of war. In the case of the Cauvery dispute, the Final Award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, when it is announced, will earmark allocations for all the basin States. "The possibilities of allocation are not infinite; the range of possible sharing is fairly limited," Ramaswamy Iyer said. Even though the allocation may appear inadequate to both States, the challenge before both of them is to manage their needs within the allocated requirements, he argued. Ramaswamy Iyer emphasised that in the matter of water rights, there is an equality of rights (of use and not ownership) but not necessarily an entitlement to equal shares. "The Cauvery must be shared and shared even in difficult years," he said.

Ramaswamy Iyer proposed a possible alternative to the Tribunal route of dispute resolution. If the non-official channel initiated in Chennai could be taken forward in a constructive spirit, then an agreement on water-sharing could be reached, which could then be placed before the Tribunal and made part of its final order. Both in the case of the Narmada and Godavari rivers, the agreements reached by the respective States were incorporated into the final order of the Tribunals, he said.

Given the accumulation of mistrust and misinformation over the years between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, several such dialogues may be required before the two sides are able to work together on a solution to the dispute. The focus, as Guhan often urged, should be on the small incremental gains that can be attained through a non-partisan dialogue. The Chennai meet appointed a committee with representatives from both States to take forward this valuable initiative. The most encouraging outcome of the dialogue, however, is the willingness and enthusiasm shown by the participants to engage productively.

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