Let the last word, then, belong to the river. Recall the names that ribbon out like a litany of discontent—Cauvery, Indus, Sutlej, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Teesta. Every name a mantra, and every mantra vitiated, its potency hijacked by the din of fratricidal war.

Imagine a pastoral idyll comprised of two farmers. Reflect that the word “rival" comes from the Latin rivalis, which means those who share the waters of a river, and be prepared for trouble in paradise. There are only two units of water to be distributed. The total surplus is maximized when the upstream farmer uses one unit, watering the most fertile portion of his land, and the downstream farmer uses the remaining one unit on her most fertile acreage. However, the upstream farmer may well use his positional advantage to grab both units of water. From the point of view of efficiency, this is not ideal. If the second farmer is relatively poor, then there is a further issue of inequity.

Governmental intervention to settle “riparian rights" (the rights of those owning land on the borders of a river) often involves laying down rules on the quantity of water that can be used by each user. On occasion, the adjudication involves not merely private parties but different governmental jurisdictions.

For instance, the Cauvery agreement prescribes the quantity of water that accrues to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala. Such agreements are susceptible to delays and opacity in decision making, and the challenges of monitoring. To reduce problems, some agreements divide the rivers in a basin between upstream and downstream users instead of dividing the water of a single river. The Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan is an example where India gets the waters of the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas, and Pakistan gets the waters of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab with limited rights for India on the upstream portion.

An important factor affecting the agreements reached is the relative power of the negotiating parties. The Cauvery agreement was struck in 1924 between a powerful Madras Presidency under British rule and the Mysore state under the Wodeyars. As a result, it is believed, the terms were skewed in favour of Madras. The agreement has been revisited frequently after a tribunal was constituted in 1990 but implementation in a situation when the Central government, and the two main state governments involved, are governed by different parties becomes difficult.

The sharing of waters between Haryana and Punjab was decided at the time of the formation of Haryana in 1966, when the Central government and both the state governments were under Congress rule. Construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal was officially started in 1982 to operationalize the agreement under the same configuration of governments. Today even though one party is involved at the Centre as well as in the state governments, it is not in a position to openly support the transfer of water from Punjab to Haryana. Indeed, the sabre rattling of the Prime Minister on the Indus Waters Treaty in the run-up to the Punjab election can partly be construed as a cover-up for the fact that the Central government cannot openly oppose the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal. This is a reflection not just of political and legal realities, but also of the far greater stress on water resources after close to 50 years of over-exploitation.

The utilization of common property resources is subject to the “tragedy of the commons", a concept popularized by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. Each user of the resource fails to take into account the effect of his usage on the depletion of the common property resource for other users. As a result, the resource is overused.

The problem of the commons becomes amplified when the total stock of the resource is depleting every year. In the alluvial aquifers of northern Gujarat, the reserves, and therefore the tube wells, are evenly spread out. This allowed the cohesive Patidar community to cleverly use the groundwater for a time. However, in the hard rock aquifers of the Deccan plateau, tube wells are often situated in close proximity due to the spatial concentration of suitable reserves. As a result, each user is quite cognizant that their access to water becomes reduced by the water extraction activities of their neighbour. A race to the bottom ensues as each user aims to maximize the cash per drop. The cultivation of high water intensity crops like sugar cane, paddy, mulberry and vanilla abounds in areas of maximum water scarcity, precisely where it is most unsustainable.

The depletion of groundwater reduces the flow in rivers in two ways: It reduces the recharge of rivers from groundwater, and it occasions the demand for dams and canals from communities that have become powerful in the groundwater economy—for instance, the demand for the Sardar Sarovar dam by the Patidars. This further reduces the flow and quality of surface water and puts river agreements at risk.

When the exploitation of groundwater becomes unviable due to receding levels, when dams are delayed, and when exit options in the form of government jobs or migration to other countries dry out, there is unrest as powerful agricultural communities hit the streets. The Patidar, Maratha and Jat agitations are symptoms of agricultural distress that can be traced back to the drying up of water resources and the lack of viable alternatives.

The clear and present danger of a water emergency stares us in the face. A radical revision of our relationship with natural resources is urgently needed lest the rumblings of disaster turn into a full-blown catastrophe.

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.

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