Water sparks passions in Tamil Nadu and the state’s politicians know it only too well. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam has announced that his government will move the Supreme Court to stall Karnataka’s plan to build more dams on the Cauvery. A proposal by Kerala to dam one of its east-flowing rivers has also been opposed by Tamil Nadu after farmers complained it would affect their livelihood. Meanwhile, the Mullaperiyar dispute has flared up again after a bountiful northeast monsoon helped Tamil Nadu raise the water level in the dam, causing alarm among people living downstream of the Periyar river in Kerala.
Water is a scarce resource in Tamil Nadu and agriculture in the state is heavily dependent on rivers that originate in neighbouring states. The dependency has forced the Tamil Nadu government in recent times to adopt an aggressive approach to neighbours in the name of safeguarding its interests. But this has not always been the case. In the past, Tamil Nadu had successfully pleaded its case with neighbours and cajoled them into letting it construct dams or provide water for drinking and farming needs — the Parambikulam-Aliyar project with Kerala and the Telugu Ganga scheme, which provides water from the Krishna to Chennai, are examples. This should have served as the template for Tamil Nadu in negotiating with neighbours for water because taking disputes to courts only sours inter-state relations and prolongs the conflict. And courts — or tribunals — may not necessarily be able to settle the dispute, as is evident from the Mullaperiyar issue and the Cauvery water-sharing awards. Closure is achieved only when leaders sit across the table, sympathetically respond to the other side’s concerns and work out solutions based on give and take.
Tamil Nadu must also rethink its water management strategies and explore ways to decentralise storage. Prior to the arrival of European engineering practices, this region depended on tanks and inter-connected reservoirs that conserved rain and floodwaters to meet its needs. This system went into disuse and disrepair as the focus shifted to building dams upstream of rain-fed rivers. A revival of the traditional storage structures could reduce the dependency on dams and even help the state achieve self-sufficiency in water.