Late in May, tensions erupted once again in Andhra Pradesh’s Rayalaseema region over the Rajolibanda Diversion Scheme, an inter-state barrage to supply water to Andhra, Karnataka and Telangana.

Farmers from Andhra Pradesh’s Kurnool – one of four districts that form the water-starved Rayalaseema – are up in arms against those in neighbouring Mahabubnagar in Telangana, both of which are fed by the irrigation project. What triggered the protests was a proposal to increase the height of the barrage. Kurnool farmers feel this will reduce the flow of water towards their district.

This battle for water is old. However, what was once an inter-district clash has evolved into an inter-state problem, courtesy the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh to carve out Telangana in 2014.

Sharing rivers

At the heart of this issue is a tussle over sharing water from the Tungabhadra River, a tributary of the mighty Krishna river, which flows through both districts. The Rajolibanda Diversion Scheme is built across this river.

In 1973, the Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal had decided that farmers from the Kurnool and Mahabubnagar districts would draw water in a ratio of 60:40. Both parties, however, accuse one another of trying to prevent water from reaching the other side.

The government had constituted the tribunal to resolve water-sharing disputes between Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. However, Telangana, ever since it was carved out of Andhra in June 2014, has been demanding that the tribunal treat it as a separate entity and accordingly draw up a fresh water-sharing agreement.

“We do not want to fight, but farmers of Kurnool are blocking the flow of water or diverting it to their fields. Unless our share of Tungabhadra water is released from Andhra’s side of the river, our crops will dry up,” said Gopal Reddy, a farmer of Gadwal in Mahbubnagar district of Telangana. Farmers from Andhra levy similar accusations.

Mahabubnagar, despite being the mouth of the Tungabadhra, has historically not benefitted from its waters – a focal issue in the movement for the creation of the state of Telangana. This is because a network of irrigation schemes and dams lead these waters into the lush paddy fields and tobacco crops of the rich Krishna delta areas in Andhra Pradesh. Mahabubnagar, on the other hand, grapples with drought year after year, which has also resulted in widespread migration.

An old issue

Clashes between farmers of Kurnool and Mahabubnagar – which have often turned violent – were an annual feature even in undivided Andhra.

“This has been happening for the past decade. This year onwards, we in Telangana aim to ensure that water-sharing is done peacefully,” said R Vidyasagar Rao, irrigation advisor to the Telangana government.

This, however, is a tough task for many reasons. First, the acrimony on both sides has only increased post bifurcation. Second, even if the conflict over the Rajolibanda Diversion Scheme is resolved, this is just one of the many theatres of the water wars between the two states.

Those like Kiran Kumar Reddy, the last chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, who were opposed to the bifurcation, had foreseen that problems would escalate once the state is divided. “Both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, two Telugu-speaking states, have so integrated since (sic) the last 60 years that if divided now, [it] would pose battles on several fronts,” Reddy had said while arguing against the division of the state before the Congress Working Committee in 2013. “First and foremost is over sharing of river waters and also power distribution – key factors for development of both the regions.”

Former Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament and senior leader of the YSR Congress party, MV Mysura Reddy, told “It would have been better if the bifurcation was pushed through after resolving all these issues, particularly water and power sharing.”

The Pattiseema battle

Most water-sharing troubles between the states revolve around two rivers: the Krishna and the Godavari. Geography plays an important role here. While Telangana is located upstream and therefore, receives a steady flow of water from both, it has been unable to tap into this, thereby suffering drought-like conditions annually. Parts of Andhra, such as Rayalaseema, also face a similar shortage because the state is located downstream, and therefore attempts to draw more water from these rivers.

In February 2015, this conflict had played out at the border of Telangana’s Nalgonda and Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district.

Water levels had plummeted in the major reservoirs of both states – Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh and Nagarjunasagar in Telangana. Both are fed by Krishna. Telangana did not open the sluice gates at Nagarjunasagar to release water downstream towards Srisailam. Irrigation officials, revenue department officials and the police of both states came to blows at the crest gates of the Nagarjunasagar reservoir.

Andhra Pradesh Governor ESL Narasimhan had to intervene and play mediator between the two chief ministers – N Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh and K Chandrasekhar Rao of Telangana.

This year, however, the battle over the two rivers is threatening to escalate, courtesy the Rs 1,400 crore Pattiseema Project to divert 80 thousand million cubic feet of water from the Godavari into the Krishna at Vijaywada, thereby interlinking the rivers. The Andhra government had commissioned the project last year, to increase the supply of water to the state and reduce its dependence on the Srisailam reservoir.

Telangana has staunchly approached the project because they too rely on the Godavari for a bulk of their water supply.

The Telugu Desam Party government in Andhra, which is part of the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre, claims that the project will not affect water availability in Telangana. Naidu claims that they are only using the portion of the Godavari water that is currently being drained into the sea.

Similar story

Projects being undertaken in Telangana too have been opposed by the Andhra government over similar concerns.

Naidu’s cabinet last month sought the Centre’s intervention in halting irrigation projects taking place on parts of Godavari and Krishna that fall in Telangana. The Andhra government has also moved the Supreme Court over two lift irrigation projects in Telangana over Krishna river – the Palamuru-Ranga Reddy project and the Dindi Lift Irrigation project – contending that these amounted to a violation of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014, which served as a framework for the bifurcation of the states.

On June 2, however, at the two-year anniversary celebrations of Telangana, KCR, as the chief minister of Telangana is popularly known, said: “No one – [be it] Chandrababu [Naidu] or for that matter any Babu – can stop Telangana from utilising its due share of the Krishna and Godavari (rivers).”

KCR is determined to implement his poll promises of bringing water to one crore acres in Telangana through schemes collectively worth Rs 1.31 lakh crores over the next five years. “If we cannot resolve it through negotiation, Telangana will not spare any effort, including a people’s agitation, to get its due,” he said in Assembly.

KCR has also signed a historic agreement for five joint reservoir projects on the Godavari and its tributaries with Maharashtra. Two of these projects are inter-state, while the other three are for Telangana.

In May, KCR also laid the foundation stone for the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project in Karimnagar district, which will lift 300 thousand million cubic feet of water from the Godavari.

None of these moves have gone down well with Andhra Pradesh.

Which way will it go?

Foreseeing that water could become a flashpoint between the two states, the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act had ordained the setting up of management boards for the Krishna and the Godavari to regulate projects on both rivers.

The Act further called for appointing an apex council, headed by the Union Water Resources Minister and with chief ministers of both states as members, to oversee the two boards.

The Act stated that the role of the council would include:

However, both sides have alleged that necessary clearances were not sought for the Palamuru-Ranga Reddy and Dindi projects in Telangana and the Pattiseema Project in Andhra.

Many of these conflicts have made their way to the Supreme Court, which is hearing petitions on the Palamuru-Ranga Reddy and Dindi projects, on the demand for a fresh water-sharing agreement by the Krishna Tribunal and the Polavaram irrigation project in Andhra. The Pattiseema project, meanwhile, has been challenged before Andhra Pradesh high court.

Experts said that decisions taken by successive governments that overlooked regional concerns – specifically, those of what now falls under Telangana – in the interest of the majority, resulted in increasing discontentment and the desire for statehood and continues to be a flash point between the two states.

“Development and investment on irrigation infrastructure in the undivided state was not made on a regional basis,” explained irrigation expert T Hanumantha Rao. “Dams and canals were built wherever it was environmentally possible and cost-effective. Since irrigation projects were difficult in Telangana, efforts were made to promote agriculture through borewells and pumpsets and in Andhra Pradesh, through canals on the Krishna and Godavari. Power was generated in parts of Andhra Pradesh for the benefit of agricultural pumps in Telangana. But Telangana’s dissatisfaction with the political class remained and culminated in the movement which won them a state of their own.”

The fate of several irrigation projects in both states rests with the Supreme Court. If the verdicts go against Telangana, the state, as well as KCR’s ambitions, will suffer a setback. And if the ruling is against Andhra’s interests, the lack of water will fuel a hot Rayalaseema agitation, which Naidu is likely to find difficult to handle.