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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Water War in India

What government has done, by not allowing private ownership and free markets, is to pit man against fellow man.

The governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, two states in India, are at loggerheads yet again over the Kaveri river. Each state wants a larger share of the river water. The dispute is over a century old.

Essentially, water cannot reach Tamil Nadu until it is released from the dam upstream in Karnataka. Since the Kaveri is a rain-fed river, every time there is a deficit rainfall during monsoon, the dispute flares up, as it has now.

Since farmers are an important vote bank in both states, both governments pander to them. Therefore the Karnataka government decided that, in order to meet Karnataka’s own agrarian needs, it would not share water with Tamil Nadu. The Supreme Court intervened and directed Karnataka to release 15000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu.

As a result, protests erupted all over Karnataka which was virtually shut down. Schools and offices remained shut. Public transport services were also suspended, leaving thousands stranded at train stations. The politicians in power want to be re-elected, hence the government has been supporting this nonsense.

Two Countries

Standing at the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border will make you feel as if they are two different countries. Protesters barricaded roads, not permitting vehicles from Tamil Nadu to enter Karnataka. Vehicles with Tamil Nadu number plates were burned, trashed or otherwise destroyed by frenzied mobs. Tamil TV channels were taken off air, and movies starring Tamil actors were removed from theatres.

Similar violence took place in Tamil Nadu, again, backed by its government. To put it in perspective, India and Pakistan share a more amicable relationship on good days. Yet, here we have two Indian states fighting a water war, which has left two people dead (so far).

Why Did this Happen?

The root of this conflict is the absence of private ownership of the river water. Governments give out water to farmers in order to secure votes. Why do farmers require so much water? Because the same governments are giving incentives for overproduction of water intensive crops like rice. Much of that rice goes, not to a table but rather, to a warehouse where it rots.

Milton Friedman once said “If you put government in charge of the Sahara desert, in five years there would be a shortage of sand.” Similarly, putting government in charge of a river gave us a shortage of water.

How Would Private Ownership Help?

Private ownership would mean that the dam on the river would be demolished. Why? Because although it is politically profitable, it would be economically unprofitable to maintain.

If water had a market price, people would be more careful to not waste it. The price on water would counter the harmful farm price supports. Farmers would switch from growing rice to pulses and onions which, apart from using less water, are in short supply

With private ownership water would be used most efficiently; instead of being used as a political tool in so irresponsible a manner.

What government has done, by not allowing private ownership and free markets, is to pit man against fellow man. For short term electoral gains, politicians have compromised the peace and harmony in Indian society.

  • Jairaj Devadiga is an economist. His work mainly deals with public policy and economic history. Apart from FEE, his writings have been published by the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Pragati among others. He is on twitter @JairajDevadiga. Readers can also email him at [email protected].