More than 80 per cent of Indian rivers are inter-state rivers. According to the Central Water Commission, there are 125 inter-state water agreements in India. Many of these agreements are more than 100 years old and had been executed without seriously considering socio-economic, political and geographical factors. These treaties have now become permanent sources of problems for many states. Continuous redrawing of state boundaries during the British regime and after Independence have kept the disputes alive.
For effective settlement of these disputes, equitable sharing of benefits is more important than equitable distribution of water. The principle of downstream benefit-sharing is crucial for the successful implementation of these treaties. Further, water-sharing principles will have be based on the size of the river basin, population growth, historical claims, efforts taken by the state governments for water conservation, rainfall and changes in cropping patterns, scientific use of water, priority for agriculture, allocation for industry and power generation, flood control and domestic uses. These issues should be given due importance in negotiations. Therefore, it may be necessary to have independent or mutually agreed third parties revisit disputed treaties; bi/multilateral negotiations hold the key.
The water distribution agreement proposed by the World Bank in 1960 continues to be the basis of the Indus Water Treaty. The permanent Indus Commission regularly exchanges information and ensures cooperation between India and Pakistan on the use of river waters amicably. The US-Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission has been successfully implemented since 1884 with the changing course of the rivers, the Rio Grande and Colorado. This treaty has been amended more than seven times since its inception, based on the changes in irrigation uses, river boundaries, flood control, population growth, urbanisation, etc. The sharing of water during surplus and drought years is based on a five-year cycle of water flow data.
The 1996 Indo-Bangladesh Treaty on Water Sharing is based on lean season water availability. In 1972, the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission (JRC) was established for flood forecasting, control, warning and managing the Ganga during the dry season at Farakka. An interim agreement was signed for water sharing in 1977. The lean season was defined for 150 days from January 1 to May 31. A Joint Committee of Experts (JCE) headed by the irrigation secretaries of the two countries was constituted in 1985. Both sides agreed to reduce their water demand in the lean season. In 1996, another treaty was signed by considering the average water flow for 40 years (1949-88). The assured minimum water quota sharing between the two countries was fixed on alternate three 10-day cycles during the lean season, including a critical lean period from March 1 and May 10. The joint committee decides the daily flow and in case of disputes, it will be referred to the JRC and further to the governments. The water sharing arrangements is reviewed at five-year intervals or earlier on request from either side. Both up and downstream irrigation activities have been restricted. Based on the bilateral negotiations in 1977, 1982, 1985 and the recent one, the two countries reached an effective mechanism for water sharing. Now JRC and JCE settle water disputes between the two countries.
The Indo-Bangladesh treaty can be the model for the resolution of the Cauvery dispute. The bone of contention between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is about sharing water during the lean/scarce period. This dispute is alive for more than 200 years. It started between Mysore and Madras in 1807, which led to an agreement in 1892 and 1924. Though this agreement allowed for changes after 50 years, the linguistic re-organisation of states in 1956 triggered new problems.
There is an immediate need to constitute a permanent dispute settlement body like the JRC, JCE of Indo-Bangladesh treaty, the Indus Commission, the US-Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission etc. for the Cauvery dispute. The Cauvery Management Board proposed by the Supreme Court may act like these bodies. The states can even re-negotiate the existing treaty, involving mutually agreed third parties like World Bank to arrive at a permanent settlement.