Transboundary politics of cooperation: Telugu ganga project, India


The Telugu Ganga project in India supplies the Krishna river waters to meet drinking water needs of the Chennai city in the state of Tamil Nadu, a nonriparian state. This has happened through an unusual historic accord between the riparian states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. The instance is often celebrated as the finest example of interstate river water cooperation in the history of independent India. This paper presents an alternative and a more complete and critical appraisal of interstate cooperation in the Telugu Ganga project focusing on transboundary political interactions to offer the following findings. One, the case of Telugu Ganga project showcases how and why cooperation and conflict coexist in transboundary water sharing. The celebrated interstate cooperation has turned into a source of conflicts eventually and is connected to the current shape and the state of the Krishna river water dispute. Two, it reveals a nexus of water provisioning politics and mainstream party politics in its making, and its subsequent contentious history. This nexus is a challenge to inter-basin transfer across territorial boundaries—an important drought coping mechanism. This challenge defines the character of politics of cooperation and conflict resolution in federal democracies, such as India. Three, India’s interstate river water governance suffers from dormant policy space and absence of institutional models for interstate river cooperation. This makes it ill-equipped to address the adverse implications of politics or to channelize for progressive outcomes of cooperation. At a broader policy level, India has to reconsider its excessive reliance on dispute resolution, and shift its focus to enabling cooperation for a better governance of its interstate rivers.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1., accessed on 24 February 2017.

  2. 2.

    For e.g., see, last accessed 17 January 2017.

  3. 3.

    To illustrate, the Ravi-Beas dispute has remained without closure for the past 30 years. The Cauvery dispute has taken 17 years to receive final award in 2007. It has remained unimplemented fully for the last 10 years, as it has run into legal wrangles.

  4. 4.

    The seventh schedule under the article 246 in the constitution has three lists prescribing this division: Union List, Concurrent List and State List. The parliament has exclusive powers to make laws about subject matters in the Union List and the states have powers with respect to the matters in the State List. The Concurrent List includes subject matters where the centre can also make laws besides the states.

  5. 5.

    Roughly translated as “holy waters from the Telugu speaking land.” Telugu Ganga project thus invokes the Telugu speaking Andhra people’s identity.

  6. 6.

    Since 2014, Krishna has four riparian states. Andhra Pradesh state has been bifurcated into two states: Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

  7. 7.

    Presidencies are the provincial administrative divisions under the British rule.

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    Prasada Rao, “Krishna Pact Augurs Well.” The Times of India (1838–2004), May 2, 1983, 9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

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    The Indian constitution provides for declaring a state of Emergency in the event of any external aggression or threat to internal security. Indira Gandhi had the Emergency declared citing (much contested) reasons of threat to internal security and bad economic conditions. During this period, the civil rights are suspended and Mrs. Gandhi was bestowed the authority to rule by decree.

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    Prasada Rao, Op. cit.

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    “Waterless and desperate.” The Times of India (1838–2004), March 19, 1983, 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

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    “Water trains cannot slake Madras.” The Times of India (1838–2004), April 12, 1983, 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

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    Surplus waters are the waters in excess of the estimated yield of Krishna river at the 75% probability, allocated between the three states.

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    The Supreme Court’s engagement with the interstate water disputes - in spite of the bar on its jurisdiction - is a contested one. The Supreme Court has allowed suits when there are questions of law to be addressed, or when disputes arise out of already adjudicated disputes, or when enforceability of tribunal awards is involved (see Salve 2016). But others have accused this engagement as contravening the constitutional schema, and reducing the scope and spirit of Indian federalism (D’Souza 2009).


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I am grateful to Dr. Lucia De Stefano for her detailed comments on earlier drafts. I also express my gratitude to two other anonymous reviewers. I thank Dhruv Arora and Ajay Kumar Katuri for their help with preparing the figure.


The research presented in the paper has been carried out for my doctoral dissertation, funded partially by a CRE (Committee for Research and Exploration) research grant no. 8831-10 of the National Geographic Society.

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Correspondence to Srinivas Chokkakula.

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Chokkakula, S. Transboundary politics of cooperation: Telugu ganga project, India. Reg Environ Change 18, 1645–1654 (2018).

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  • Interstate river water cooperation in India
  • Krishna river dispute
  • Telugu Ganga project
  • Transboundary river water conflicts
  • Federal river water governance