Water Conflicts in South Asia: Lessons from the Alwar River Parliament

15 Jan, 2013    ·   3792

Roomana Hukil discusses the plausibility of an alternative solution to the Cauvery dispute

Roomana Hukil
Roomana Hukil
Research Officer

The much articulated and sensationalised meeting of November 2012 was unsuccessful to offer respite with respect to the Cauvery water row between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. As envisaged, the Chief Ministers of both states were incompetent in addressing the principle theme of the meeting – to discuss the issue within the larger context of farmers directly affected by the issue, and seeking a final settlement between both states. For years, regulatory mechanisms including the Cauvery Rivery Authority (CRA) and the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT) have been unable to offer either of the states any compliance on ruling.

What does the status quo imply for the current plight of the farmers and the future course of the issue? Is there an existing model within India or South Asia that could be used as a template to address the Cauvery Water row? Could the Alwar River Parliament be considered a suitable case study in the context of the Cauvery, which could look into the possibility of establishing a constitutional mechanism for efficient water governance by both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka?

Alwar River Parliaments: A Case Study
Assessing the water paradigm of the Arvari River in Rajasthan in 1985 can help in identifying an excellent example of effective resource revival. Before the leadership of water conservationist, Rajender Singh, the Arvari waterway was a dead river. This was attributed to the mineral extraction and logging that had decimated the forestry of the region and damaged the entire watershed. As a result, the entire watercourse and farmland had completely dried up. More so, floods caused by monsoon rains became perennial; due to which villagers abandoned their johads or rainwater storage tanks thus leading to acute water shortages.

In these circumstances, Singh established community-led institutions in each village in the region; from Gram Sabhas to Mahila Banks and River Parliaments. One of the most successful developments was the introduction of the Alwar River Parliament that was not only garnered in the interest of reviving the defunct watercourse, but also to establish effective water governance that would prevent future crises from taking place. With a view to meet escalating village requirements, Rajendra Singh initiated rural development and employment generation, whereby integrating water conservation as his primary motive at Gopalpura village. He built 8600 johads in 1058 villages spread over 6500 sq.km. Out of these, 3500 were built by the Tarun Bhagat Singh NGO and as an aftereffect, the local community was motivated enough to build the remaining 5100 structures. The area covered parts of the contiguous districts of Alwar, Dausa, Sawai Madhopur, Karoli and Jaipur. As a result, five seasonal rivers – the Ruparel, Arvari, Sarsa, Bhagani and Jahajwali – in the northeast region of Rajasthan became perennial.

However, after regenerating the rivers, the Rajasthan state government gave fishing contracts to locals and outsiders in certain stretches of the Arvari River. Singh feared a derailment in his graph and consequently, in order to protect the river from ill effects, the Arvari River Parliament - a decentralised power model - was introduced in 72 villages located on the riverbanks of the Arvari River.

The idea of the Parliament was to safeguard and uphold the integrated water management efforts of the community for the river catchment. It comprised of two representatives from each village. Till today, it constitutes one of the eleven rules that pertain to the use of the river, water management, extraction or sale of the river water, revival of traditional methods for conservation, propagating equitable distribution, accessibility of the water resource, etc. A coordination committee comprising members selected by the Parliament handles operations and ensures compliance with the rules. Though this River Parliament has no legal status and its decisions are not legally binding, the moral force of the people makes its survival possible.

Cauvery: Lessons from Alwar
In the context of the Cauvery River, a marked correlation of activities can be vividly drawn from the example of the Alwar River Project. Despite socio-economic, political and demographic differences between the two Rivers, certain achievements still paramount a relationship. Looking at the current water dynamics of the South, establishing a centralised parliamentary system, solely governed by the state, may seem to offer some respite. Constitutionally, recognising such a set-up would ensure equitable distribution and access to waterways.

Water expert, B.G Verghese, advocates the need for catchment basin management for the Cauvery water dispute. “One of the ways for resolving the Cauvery challenge is by looking at the Water Parliament models of Alwar. The efforts towards water conservation have had numerous positive impacts on the communities inhabiting these areas. The Cauvery issue requires a holistic approach to our water environment. It is essential to revamp our outmoded systems and look into the intricate fabrics of the structure”. As in the case of Alwar, establishing Water Parliaments for the Cauvery, instituting autonomous state control, pricing river water, extensively engaging consumer (farmer) participation and so on, are among the few alternatives that look into providing a sense of relief to the issue.