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Cauvery controversy: To end Karnataka and TN fight, Centre has to step in

Long-term formulas to end the dispute have to range from changing cropping pattern to stopping pollution.

CauveryWaterDispute Updated: Sep 21, 2016 15:07 IST
Rapid Action Force personnel patrol in Bangalore amid tightened security following protests over a water dispute.
Rapid Action Force personnel patrol in Bangalore amid tightened security following protests over a water dispute.(AFP)

The Supreme Court has once again left both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu unhappy. Its latest order directing Karnataka to release 6,000 cusecs of water every day until September 27 is double the volume ordered by the Cauvery supervisory committee only a day earlier. Before that, the top court had directedKarnataka to release 15,000 cusecs and then 12,000 cusecs daily.

Karnataka, since the beginning of September, has been saying it can’t afford to release the water as its storage was sinking and the monsoon had ended in its catchment area. On the other hand, Tamil Nadu, which has more storage in its reservoirs than Karnataka, is not satisfied with the court-ordered quantum. It has one and a half times more area under irrigation than Karnataka and its water-intensive crops like paddy and sugarcane need more water. Moreover, Tamil Nadu farmers in the Cauvery delta are used to three crops--kuruvai and samba and a minor one--and expect them to irrigate with water from the Cauvery. Karnataka farmers are traditionally known to grow a single major crop in a year.

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This year is a classic distress year as the Cauvery tribunal in its 2007 order had envisaged. It wanted the states to divide the water during such a year on pro-rata basis, as per its allocations--out of 740 TMC water available in the basin, 419 TMC ft to Tamil Nadu, 270 TMC ft to Karnataka, 30 TMC ft to Kerala, 7 TMC ft to Pondicherry and 14 TMC ft to be left for environmental purposes.

The problem in a distress year (2012 and now 2016 since the tribunal award) is that neither state is willing to trust the other about the actual water availability in each other’s reservoirs. This has lead to litigations before the SC, which has been giving ad hoc relief that satisfies neither of the states.

The mechanism to objectively assess the real situation has not been evolved, though the tribunal spoke of forming a Cauvery Management Board which will take over the management in all basin states. However, it has not been formed yet partly because of the SC itself. The apex court is yet to give its final decision on the various special leave petitions filed by Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and even Kerala, seeking clarifications and raising objections to the tribunal award, even though it is nine years since the petitions were filed.

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These pending litigations in the SC have bound the hands of the central government from forming the Cauvery Management Board, which the apex court has now asked the Centre to establish in four weeks in a highly optimistic order.

Meanwhile, a Cauvery supervisory authority--an ad hoc body formed with the Centre’s water resources secretary as its chairperson--has been rendered ineffectual by the SC by overruling its decision of asking Karnataka to release 3,000 cusecs of water every day by doubling the quantum next day.

This has lead to a situation in Karnataka, where people feel that despite its distress, its situation is not being taken note of. Its claims that any further release of water to Tamil Nadu will hit even the drinking water supply to Bengaluru have also been largely ignored. However, Tamil Nadu is unwilling to believe that the situation is so bad and feels that the water is being diverted in Karnataka.

While passions once again are speaking in Karnataka and pressure on its government to ignore the apex court order to release 6,000 cusecs is being built up, the Centre has been silent. It is now time the Centre steps in to cool down the situation, form a committee to look into the real situation of water availability on the ground in both the states and sit with them to evolve a long term formula on the grounds suggested by the tribunal. One of the long-term formulas would be to change the cropping pattern, go in for fewer water-guzzling crops and ensure that pollution of the river is controlled.

(Girish Nikam is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)