Water-related disputes in India have been a fraught area of contestation between state governments in the post-colonial period. Since the late 20th century, much of this conflict has been centered on mechanisms of legal adjudication both through the centralized state machinery of tribunals set up by the central government and by legal suits brought by states before the Supreme Court. Formal records of tribunal and court judgments provide skeletal accounts of legal claims, technical evidence, and judiciary responses between unitary state governments with hardened positions and conflicting interests. Tamil Nadu, a lower riparian state is reliant on water-sharing arrangements and the shared management of water-related infrastructure with its three neighboring states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala. The water-related agreements that link Tamil Nadu with its neighbors vary in significant ways in terms of the scope of the agreements, the kinds of issues under contention, the political dynamics of the agreement, and the outcome and implementation of each of the agreements. Political, institutional, and agential dimensions of state action are both shaped and constrained by historical structures of political economy. Both centralized structures of the colonial state and the political economy of India’s planned developmental state shape this set of interstate water negotiations and disputes that weigh on the states that share water resources and infrastructure in Southern India. While historical processes have produced the structural conditions that have shaped such disputes, recent policies of liberalization have intensified conflicts over water. For instance, processes of urbanization and city-centric models of growth have increased pressures on water resources in India. Social scientific scholarship that has focused on the politics of economic reforms and on the ways in which reforms have been shaped by India’s federal structure has tended to treat states as discrete entities. Such scholarship has analyzed the impact of India’s federal structure on reforms through a focus on relationships between states and the central government. While this has produced a heightened focus on the significance of federalism in the post-liberalization period, such work has paid less attention to relationships between states. The focus of such social scientific scholarship on particular sectors of the economy (such as telecom, electricity, and land/real estate) that are visibly associated with reform policies has compounded this analytical gap. Unlike such sectors, water is not contained within the territorial boundaries of states. A historical perspective on water disputes provides a means for unsettling the conventional analytical boundaries of political scientific conceptions of federalism in the post-liberalization period.
In India, as in much of the world, the 19th century witnessed the emergence of urban capitalist classes, effected by the rapid growth of global mercantile capitalism and, later, industrial manufacturing. As a colonial city, Bombay—like its eastern counterpart, Calcutta—developed two connected, but distinct business communities: one, a European community with foreign, imperial connections, and the other, an Indian community with roots in long-standing regional networks. In Bombay, the latter took the form of a class known as the “Merchant Princes,” who capitalized on long-standing commercial traditions in western India and their ability to command both Indian and colonial networks to establish themselves as commercial powerhouses. These commercial networks and patterns of behavior, established before the arrival of the British, had an indelible impact on the character of Indian business in colonial Bombay. The business community brought such traditions with them when they migrated to Bombay at the end of the 18th century and used them to build the famous mercantile firms of the early 19th century.
The Indian business elite likewise built collaborative links within their own community to expand their business interests; when barriers erected by the colonial establishment sought to limit their expansion, Indian businessmen used the resources at their disposal (both in the Indian hinterland and within the city itself) to circumvent them. Class identity similarly began to emerge as they cooperatively campaigned for particular agendas, intended to improve the fortunes of the entire community. They fought for greater influence in the Bombay government—in line with the wealth they then commanded—and used their financial resources to mold the physical and intellectual landscape of the city in their favor.