Timeline and Journey


The Forum beginning was an unforeseen one. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in November 2004 organised a meeting for water sector professionals in Bangalore, to discuss a draft publication of 20 case studies on water conflicts from peninsular India. This documentation was done as part of WWF’s freshwater initiative ‘Dialogue on Food, Water and Environment’ by ‘Pragathi – Farmer’s Society for Rural Studies and Development’ and supported by WWF. The case studies were primarily authored by R. Doraiswamy and Biksham Gujja, who represented Pragathi and WWF respectively. This meeting brought about some realisations, that there were many more conflicts of varied nature undocumented and the information on the few documented conflicts was unorganised. While earlier modes of inquiry were built around water issues and movements to address these issues, the viewing of these case studies from the perspective of conflicts rather than simply as water issues was the contribution of Biksham Gujja. These realisations drove the participants of this meeting to decide to form the Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India.
One thing that came to the forefront early on was the fact that very little was understood about smaller water conflicts happening across the country, because public discussions are often limited to the bigger, more well-known, inter-state water conflicts (e.g. Cauvery, Krishna). The realisation that the true geographic and typological spread of water conflicts was not being captured became apparent. Discussions brought to light the occurring contestations and contradictions, lack of knowledge based decisions, political pressures surrounding water and the lack of consultation of the stakeholders in the decision making. 
What was needed were organisations to engage with these issues from a conflicts perspective. The aim of this initial dialogue was not to develop tools to resolve water conflicts but merely to understand them better, initiate a national dialogue and then lobby for better policy. This would involve studying water conflicts by the nature of conflict, investigating relevant data, policies, laws and socio-economic information for context and understanding reasons that drove conflicts. A decision was taken to come out with a larger document with more case studies that would engage with the issues raised. Out of these discussions, the Forum was born.
The next step was to nurture this idea into reality. This required setting up an institution to run the activities, funding, setting up a process to write the case studies and publish it. A Steering Group was therefore nominated to guide the publication. It was decided that this work of documenting water conflicts would largely cover case studies of peninsular India because that is where the strength of the initial group lay. It would also attempt to capture the range of typologies of water conflicts occurring in different parts of the country. 
Thought was also given to institutionalise the Forum, but the consensus was against this, since that would require a firm commitment from core people, academics and faculty and also resources of a different magnitude. The arrangement of a network (individuals and organisations) housed in an already existing organisation working on water issues instead, would be more flexible. In the course of time, the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM), an organisation based in Pune, was requested to coordinate the workings of a formal network to prepare a project proposal, secure the required funding and take forward this effort. The first set of resources to the Forum was made available by the WWF and people from different states took up roles of coordination. An official Steering Committee was also formed to take decisions for the Forum, consisting of Bhaskar Rao, K.V. Rao, R. Doraiswamy, Rakesh Tiwary, Srinivas Mudrakartha, Ganesh Pangare, Uma Maheshwari, S.K. Anwar, Malavika Chauhan, Biksham Gujja, N.J. Rao, A. Latha, Vinod Goud and K. J. Joy. This was the beginning of the First Phase of the Forum’s work.

Phase 1

The first phase officially ran from 1st January, 2005 to 31st December, 2006, although much of Forum’s work started in 2004 itself. The broad objectives of the First Phase of work included ‘preparation of a compendium of case studies on water conflicts’, ‘media outreach’ and the ‘organisation of a National event in the form of a Policy Dialogue’. Besides this the Forum also did exploratory work on facilitating dialogue on the Sardar Sarovar Project and Polavaram project.

Documentation (First Compendium)

A call was circulated inviting abstracts for case studies for the Compendium and 63 case studies were selected and commissioned. Once these case studies were drafted, a large meeting was held on the 21st and 22nd of March, 2005 at ICRISAT, Patancheru (close to Hyderabad) wherein approximately 120 people representing civil society, academia, activists, bureaucracy, legal and media were present and people’s opinions were sought. The case studies and the Forum’s effort were well appreciated. After a peer review the authors revised their work and the work was published in December, 2007. Eighteen selected case studies of the compendium were published in a special issue in the EPW issued on 18thFebruary, 2006.
The case studies went beyond mere opposition of projects such as dams, but also sought to come up with alternatives, for example in the Tawa struggle, people who opposed the dam, mobilised the people who were displaced and struggled for the fishing rights in the reservoir area thus opening up alternative livelihoods. There were alternatives suggested on the subject of the Sardar Sarovar Project. These possibilities were eye-openers. The approximately one hundred authors cut across different backgrounds including academia, activists, senior water sector professionals and even first time authors. This was the compendium’s speciality.
Feedback was received from different groups, including faculty members who wanted to use the case studies as reading material for their classes, PhD scholars who wanted to conduct further research on these issues and also some feedback from activists on the ground who appreciated the effort. People suggested that this work should be made available to a wider audience and thus Routledge was chosen as a publisher. The Forum within this compendium also attempted to develop a typology of water conflicts. This proved a very difficult task and instead of developing mutually exclusive typologies the Compendium’s case studies were grouped into eight broad themes with an overarching review article for each theme/type. 

Media Outreach

The second task in the first phase was a strategic effort to engage with local media in different states, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala. In some of these states, taluka and district level reporters were approached to write about some local water conflicts and the newspapers agreed to publish the first five or so pieces in the paper serially. In Maharashtra alone, about 500 entries were received and a selection committee was set up comprising of Bharat Patankar, Kumar Ketkar, and R.K. Patil. 5 articles were selected and published in the local newspapers. An award ceremony was also organised in Pune to felicitate these writers and also give away the prizes..  
The Forum also organised a poster exhibition on the theme of water conflicts. The posters were the work of the graphic designer and cartoonist, Rustom Vania and these were displayed in various places and occasions including during a week-long film festival titled “Peace and Conflict Resolution: Reflections through Cinema” in Bangalore from October 13-19, 2008. This is available on Forum’s website. 

Exploratory work (Sardar Sarovar Project and Polavaram)

The Forum held discussions with some key people involved on the Sardar Sarovar Project and came out with a note explaining the context, rationale and key issues for the dialogue to consider. The Forum also constituted a team to look into specific technical and economic aspects of the Polavaram project to facilitate a more informed discussion around the project. However both these exploratory work did not move forward: the SSP because one of the very critical persons dropped out; the Polavaram because the team could not complete the report. However, in the case of SSP, the note formed the basis for an appeal by eminent persons in the country which was submitted to the water resources ministry when the new government at the centre decided to raise the height of the dam by installing the gates.


The initiation of the dialogue process itself was one of the biggest gains of the First Phase. The Forum had been able to bring together a wide range of people – especially academics, activists, civil society groups and media persons – unite them in this network and generate a lot of goodwill in the process. There was a call from people associated with the Forum that it should go beyond just documenting and also cover other aspects of conflicts, such as prevention and resolution. In this effort it should develop a framework for conflict resolution and advocate for a legal mechanism for conflict resolution. At the same time, there was also the saying that conflicts are part of the process of change and the Forum has therefore been keen not to, in the attempt to ‘resolve’ conflicts end up suppressing them. There were to be certain basic principles based on which conflicts were to be resolved to avoid one-sided agreements between contesting parties which the Forum believes can only be a temporary solution.

Phase 2

The second phase officially began in May, 2008 and ran until January, 2013. Prior to this the Forum received some seed funding from WWF between January, 2007 and April, 2008 to enable it to draft a second phase proposal. A large National Consultative meeting was held in Pune on 31st of July, 2007 to end the first phase and initiate the second phase. During this meeting an ad hoc committee was formed to give the final shape to the proposal for the second phase.  The Forum approached Arghyam Trust and other agencies for funding. Arghyam agreed to provide partial support and thus became one of the Forum’s major funding partners.
The second phase proposal had the following three components/ objectives: ‘understanding water conflicts’, ‘conflict resolution’ and ‘conflict prevention’. 

First Objective

The first objective, ‘understanding water conflicts’ was a continuation of the Forum’s previous work. The plan was to cover geographical areas and themes that were not covered in the first phase. The plan was to document conflicts in Odisha, the North East region and flood related conflicts. A map of water conflicts was also planned as an output. Training programmes were planned to fulfil the objective of capacity building.
Compendiums (Odisha, North East & Floods)
In the second phase there were three compendiums released, the first ‘Water Conflicts in Odisha: A Compendium of Case Studies’ (February, 2012), the second ‘Agony of Floods: Flood Induced Water Conflicts in India’ (October, 2012) ‘and the third Water Conflicts in the North East: A Compendium of Case Studies’ (21st June, 2013)
The process of compiling each compendium was comprehensive, with a team of core Forum members as well as external peer reviewers set up to review the case studies. Regional workshops and Focus Group Discussions were held at various stages during the compilation, to identify authors and conflicts as well as receive inputs with respect to the methodology and content of the case studies. It must be stressed that the case studies were largely not carried out by academics but practitioners and often first time writers, nevertheless an effort had been made to create a uniformity in documentation through which different case studies can be better understood. Therefore despite its shortcomings, the Forum believes that there is significant value in documentation of this nature.
Training Programmes (Cochin, Chilika & Guwahati)
Three training programmes of about five days each have been organised during the second phase. The first one took place in Cochin in Kerala from 5 to 9 April 2010, the second one in Chilika in Odisha from 18 to 22 July 2011 and the third one in Guwahati in Assam from 23 to 26 January 2012. The participants were selected so as to have a balanced mix of persons, mainly the youth, from activist, academic as well as media backgrounds. 

Second Objective

Under the second objective, ‘conflict resolution’ the aim was to intervene in a well-informed, sensitive manner such that stakeholders did not end up being victims of intervention. This was to be done via engagement in active water conflicts, analysis of causative factors behind successful resolution of water conflicts, outreach to stakeholders and resource support. 
The Forum realised that direct resolution of water conflicts was difficult, hence as a step in that direction the Forum decided to take up ‘action research’ on live conflicts. The first such issue was the Hirakud case where there was active conflict and mobilisation around the dam water allocations. The second was the Chalakudy River and the development of a potential Reservoir Operation Model (ROM) that could meet the hydropower requirements and better downstream flows (irrigation, environmental flow, etc.). In line with its objectives the Forum after strong outreach to stakeholders also decided to set up two state centres in Odisha and Kerala which respectively managed these action research projects. 
Action Research (Hirakud & Chalakudy)
The Forum’s action research comprised of a lot of engagement with stakeholders as well as gathering of physical and socio-economic data. The people involved in the Hirakud movement were not willing to have dialogue with the representatives from the industries and hence could not result in anything tangible in terms of conflict resolution except that we could ring out a good action research report. In Kerala however it was different, the conflict may have not been as sharp but still faced difficulties because initially the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) didn’t attend meetings whereas the agricultural department, gram panchayats did attend. The Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samithi (CPSS) dialogued with the local political leaders who gave them their support and they then approached Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy with their ROM. In the last season 2012-13, the ROM was partially implemented, which was a major achievement for the Forum. Two action research reports, ‘Floods, Fields and Factories: Towards Resolving Conflicts around the Hirakud Dam’ (August, 2012) and ‘Linking Lives – Reviving Flows: Towards Resolving Upstream Downstream Conflicts in Chalakudy River Basin’ (March, 2012) were released. A short policy brief about the Kerala conflict was also prepared. 

Third Objective

The third objective of the Forum was to prevent water conflicts by developing a social consensus around the issue of water allocations across different uses and also the legal and institutional mechanisms around water.
Prevention of Water Conflicts (Water Allocations & Legal, Policy & Institutional Framework)
Towards this end the Forum sought to develop frameworks that were sensitive to the unique nature of water resources. In India the legal framework around water, for instance, is not informed by the bio-physical and socio-cultural peculiarities of water as a common pool resource; the legal system is still embedded in concepts such as private ownership of a resource. Two working groups,  the first comprising K.J. Joy, Priya Sangameswaran, A. Latha, Shripad Dharmadhikary, M.K. Prasad and K.P. Soma and the second comprising Philippe Cullet, Suhas Paranjape, Himanshu Thakkar, M.S. Vani, K.J. Joy and M.K. Ramesh were set up to research these issues. They both came out with their draft reports titled ‘Life, Livelihoods, Ecosystems, Culture: Entitlements and Allocations of Water for Competing Uses’ and ‘Water Conflicts in India: Towards a New Legal and Institutional Framework’ respectively. 
The documents were discussed at a national conference on 30th and 31st March, 2009 at Pune to receive feedback on the themes. A similar workshop was held from 25th-26th Feb, 2010, again at Pune, to receive final feedback. On 16th of March, 2011 there was a release function organised for the first working group report on ‘Life, Livelihoods, Ecosystems, Culture: Entitlements andAllocations of Water for Competing Uses’. The book was released at the hands of then Minister of Environment and Forest, Shri Jairam Ramesh at Delhi. There was also a panel discussion on the same theme chaired by Prof. A. Vaidyanathan and the panelists included Mihir Shah, Rohini Nilekani, Navroz Dubash among others. The second working group report on ‘Water Conflicts in India: Towards a New Legal and Institutional Framework’ was released in a similar function in March 2012 at Pune. 
The document on Entitlements and Allocations brought out many nuances surrounding the questions of prioritization of water allocations, such as the need to broaden the conversation from just ‘drinking water’ to ‘basic water’, the neglect of non-agricultural livelihoods, the inability of current allocations to distinguish between agriculture for livelihood and agriculture as a supplementary commercial activity. The issue of pricing and the Right to Water are also discussed. The second document on Legal and Institutional Frameworks complements the first with recommendations on how existing frameworks can be improved to recognise the nuances that arise in the management of water resources. Shorter versions of these books were made available in the form of policy briefs to reach a larger audience. 

Learnings and Decisions

To end the Second Phase the Forum held a National workshop on the 26th-27th of March, 2012 in Pune. At this workshop the first day’s discussions centred around the deliberations of the Working Groups on the Draft National Water Policy under the 12th Plan. These discussions covered Water Database Development and Management, Flood management, Major Irrigation and Command Area Development, Minor Irrigation and Watershed development, Urban and Industrial water supply and sanitation, Groundwater management, Rural Domestic water and sanitation, Draft National Water Framework Act, the Model Groundwater Bill, State Water Regulatory System Act and the Draft National Water Policy. 
The second day’s discussion centred on the Forum’s work in the Second phase. The group present reflected on the Core activities, the work of the State centres and the North East and Flood Initiatives. One shortcoming so far had been the fact that the Forum had not been able to actively engage its large membership to put its weight behind active issues. There was a conscious decision to take this up in Forum’s next phase. There had been a gradual increase in the Forum’s engagement and taking stance on active issues like the Mullaperiyar issue, the Inter Linking of Rivers, the Groundwater Framework Law, National Water Policy and the decision to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar Project. It was decided to restructure Forum’s work and take up ‘Thematic activities’ wherein the work was decentralised to thematic group leaders to ensure wider participation.
There was also rethinking on the issue of conflict resolution and the Forum realised that it wasn’t in an advantageous position to take up the issue of conflict resolution. This was especially true since many of the Forum’s members were actively engaged with water conflicts on the ground and could not therefore ‘not care’ in what manner the conflicts were resolved. Besides the Forum also did not have the wherewithal to handle these issues. The Forum decided that it would ‘Backstop Water Conflicts’ i.e. provide knowledge that facilitates resolution of a conflict and it would only get actively involved in a conflict if both conflicting parties ask the Forum to do so. 
The Forum decided to also plan for ‘Contingent Activities’ which may not be known at the outset of the Phase but given the volatile nature of water conflicts it was acknowledged that the Forum needs to be prepared to intervene at short notice where necessary. A part of the Forum’s resources were therefore kept aside for this purpose. The Steering Committee of the Forum was reconstituted to be more gender and geographically balanced, with 50% of the existing members resigning and new members taking their place.

Phase 3

The Forum’s work in the third phase thus was divided into three areas: core activities (documentation, knowledge building, dissemination, capacity building, internship) which the Forum had always been working on, thematic activities and contingent activities. 

Core Areas

The Forum would continue to develop better understanding of water conflicts, with a better informed and inclusive public discussions, so as to arrive at common perceptions and consensus on important issues. Thus the core areas cover, a) Documentation and research, b) outreach, dissemination and policy advocacy, c) capacity building of different stakeholders, d) backstop water conflicts and e) further build up the network. 
As part of its Core work the Forum has planned a compendium of case studies on framing of water conflicts, to shed light on how different ways in which water conflicts are framed, as how conflicts get framed can shape the process of dialogue around these conflicts. The Forum also planned Training Programmes on understanding water conflicts and has conducted one training programme in the current phase at Palampur, Himachal Pradesh from the 16th – 19thof June, 2014 in partnership with Sambhaavna Trust. In this phase a dedicated, short term internship programme has also been instituted and many young researchers and students could get associated with Forum’s work through the internship programme.  

Thematic Areas

The second area of focus, was devised in part to take advantage of the strength of the Forum’s diverse capabilities. The Forum’s Steering Committee members were asked for suggestions for possible areas of research. Agricultural-Industrial water allocations was suggested an important current issue, Environmental-flows were selected as it was a theme often neglected but slowly gaining importance and Groundwater was chosen as a theme the Forum hadn’t previously engaged with. These three themes it was decided will be rooted in the Mahanadi River Basin, a basin which is relatively less stressed in terms of water resources but one that is seeing rapid change. In the course of these activities the Forum has held two stakeholder meetings in Raipur, Chhattisgarh and Sambalpur, Odisha on the 15th and 16th of November, 2013 respectively. One more joint stakeholder meeting was held on the 27th of February, 2015 in Bhubaneshwar to provide updates on the project and hear from stakeholders in the Mahanadi Basin. To serve the purpose of continuous communication with the different stakeholders, the Forum decided to bring out a bilingual newsletter – Mahanadi Basin Newsletter – once in three months. The first issue was released at the India River Week on the 27th of November, 2014 in New Delhi.
It is planned for each of these themes to have thematic reports drafted covering the nature of the theme’s relevance in the Mahanadi Basin. Right to Water and Sanitation (RTWS) was the fourth theme, envisioned as a pan India initiative that could support the ongoing national campaign for the Right to Water and Sanitation. This is a collaborative initiative between the Forum and WaterAid India for three years, and Forum is mainly acting as a knowledge partner. The main focus of this theme was to develop the content around RTWS, conduct state-level and regional level workshops for outreach, develop larger consensus on RTWS and networking to strengthen the campaign. In terms of outputs for this theme, a compendium of case studies, ‘Conflicts around Drinking Water and Sanitation: cases, issues and prospects’ was published in January, 2013 and short policy brief papers on sanitation, namely, position papers on Right to sanitation and sanitation from the perspective of Adivasis, homeless people in the urban areas and needs of the physically challenged people were published in March, 2013. ‘Reform Initiatives in Domestic Water and Sanitation in India’, a compendium of four case studies on the different sector reform experiences to provide drinking water and sanitation services was published in 2015. In addition, two short policy briefs on right to sanitation from perspective of gender and Dalits were also published. The discussions and suggestions put forward during the state and regional level workshops were put together and the content for Right to water was developed. This small booklet is titled as, ‘Right to Water in India: Privileging Water for Basic Needs’. 

Contingent Activities

The third area of focus, was chosen since it was known that water conflicts often come to the forefront of wider attention at short notice and the Forum should have resources that aren’t tied to a particular task to engage with such issues. Also, such issues require prompt intervention at various scales. The first such contingent activity undertaken by the Forum in its Third Phase is the initiation of a dialogue among the civil society of the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana over the issue of water sharing between the two states. A meeting held in Hyderabad in December 2014, brought together about 35 representatives of civil society from both the states. Those gathered decided to take forward the Forum’s initiative and form a people’s group, the exact nature of which is being decided in ongoing discussions.

Kerala State Resource Centre

The Kerala State Centre (KSRC) of the Forum, in its Third Phase carries forward its work on multiple fronts, with action research, training and advocacy on ROM, farmstead water conservation, analysis of the groundwater situation in Kerala, impact analysis of small hydro projects. The KSRC also plans for the release of its Malayalam website in the coming months.

Looking Ahead

The Forum has been able to make a mark in bringing diverse people together, many of whom were working independently on issues now collaborate on a common platform for research, advocacy and capacity building, while keeping the overall Vision of the Forum in mind. The importance of viewing water through the lens of conflicts and contestation is now widely recognised.
The Forum has had its limitations as well. Working with the government, on a sustained basis to bring about a policy change, has not progressed as much as ideally desired. The Forum is seeking to make its efforts at backstopping of water conflicts as effective as its documentation has been. The Forum currently does not have the strength to translate all the material it produces to effectively reach out to regional members. Finding regional members to serve as the bridge between the Forum and grassroots groups for dissemination of its work has proved a challenge. These are challenges the Forum intends to continue to work on and we welcome any help in this regard.