Understanding the Cauvery dispute: From SC order to possible solutions

  • Maya Palit
  • Updated: Sep 21, 2016 20:56 IST
Rapid Action Force personnel patrol amid tightened security following protests over a water dispute, as the country’s Supreme Court prepared to address the issue, in Bangalore on September 20, 2016. (AFP)

Cauvery, the largest river in South India, originates from Talakaveri, Kodagu, and moves through Karnataka for 316 km before going through Tamil Nadu and ending up in the Bay of Bengal. It was a cause of major conflict between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for more than a century before the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was set up in 1990 to mediate between the two states.

The first negotiations between the states of Mysore and Madras, dated 18th February, 1892, are old enough to contain the piercing observations of British colonels about “the arrangements which have been come to in an informal manner both by personal discussion and demi-official correspondence between the Chief Engineer, Madras Irrigation Branch and the Chief Engineer in Mysore.” Things became difficult again in 1924, with the construction of the Krishna Raja Sagara Dam at Kannambadi, a village near Mysore. Although another agreement was signed between the two states with limits on the extension of areas for irrigation, after 1960 Karnataka began the construction of more irrigation projects on the Kaveri’s tributaries, which further reduced the water flow to Tamil Nadu and created further resentment between the states.

In 2007, 17 years after the Tribunal was set up, it used the riparian water rights system of water sharing (which organises water into partition units based on the possession of the land on which the water runs) to allocate 419 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) for Tamil Nadu and 270 tmcft for Karnataka, with the rest of the 726 tmcft of water being allocated to the minor shareholders, Kerala and Pondicherry.

The deal was that in “distress” years, i.e., when there was a rainfall shortage, the “upper riparian state” which in this case is Karnataka, would share water proportionally with Tamil Nadu. Both states were not pleased, and challenged the tribunal’s order in the Supreme Court. Karnataka wanted to triple its share of the water, claiming that it has not got an adequate share so far. Tamil Nadu on the other hand, said it needs more water to help with the extensive farming plans that were initiated because of Karnataka conceding to provide the additional water it needs. Until 2013, the friction between the two states continued and Karnataka often released less water to Tamil Nadu, justifying this by saying that there wasn’t enough in the state’s reservoir.

What’s up with this year’s trouble?

In years when there is an ample monsoon, there haven’t been too many skirmishes about the quantum of water being released. But earlier this year, the dispute was stirred up again when Karnataka announced that it would be unable to release any water because of an 80 tmcft deficit in its four reservoirs after inadequate rainfall from the southwest monsoon. The state feared that it would have drinking water shortages and irrigation problems if it were to release more water, while farmers said their livelihoods were at stake despite their recent transition from sugarcane (a water-intensive crop) to paddy. According to a recent analysis, however, Tamil Nadu’s reservoirs were 49 percent short of water, whereas Karnataka’s reservoirs were 30 percent short

All this meant that the Supreme Court had to intervene.

Kannada activists are arrested in Bengaluru while protesting against the Supreme Court’s order to share Cauvery water with Tamil Nadu. (PTI)

What did the Supreme Court have to say?

On September 5, the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 15,000 cubic feet per second (cusecs) to Tamil Nadu every day for 10 days, which would effectively mean giving away 24 percent of the water available in Cauvery basin reservoirs.

Although it altered this to 12,000 cusecs for eight days, because of escalating protests in Karnataka, when the new verdict came out a week later, riots broke out on the streets in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The government filed a plea on September 17 asking for another modification of the order. Yesterday, yet another body associated with this conflict, the Cauvery Supervisory Committee (put in place by the Ministry of Water Resources in 2013 to ensure that the tribunal’s order is enacted) ordered Karnataka to release 3,000 cusecs of water per day to Tamil Nadu between 21st September and 30th September, but the state “vehemently” refused.

There have been several critiques of the way in which the judiciary has handled the dispute. Ramaswami R Iyer, former secretary at the Union Ministry of Water Resources, said last year that the Supreme Court should not have allowed states to use Special Leave Petitions to contest the 2007 order made by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal and accused it of prolonging the matter.

The Supreme Court heard the case again on September 20 and reduced the amount yet again, to 6000 cusecs over six days. Predictably, the two states had contradictory reactions, with Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayaraman Jayalalithaa praising the decision even as officials in Karnataka dismissed it as “unimplementable”. Meanwhile, experts are suggesting that the dispute will ultimately have to be resolved between the states rather than through litigation.

Violence and strikes

September this year has been witness to large-scale agitations, street violence and arson across Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in response to the court’s verdicts. Mandya in Karnataka was worst-affected, with protests and roadblocks initiated by farmers and activist groups like the Cauvery Horata Samiti breaking out in Srirangapatna and other areas in the district on 6th, 12th and 19th September. There were state-wide strikes in Karnataka on 9th and 13th September.

Meanwhile, a video of a 22-year-old Tamil engineering student being beaten up by Kannadigas did the rounds on social media and some news channels and managed to rile up protestors prior to the court’s directive. Cars and trucks were set on fire by mobs, residents with license plates belonging to the rival state were harassed and prohibitory orders including Section 144 had to be imposed in both Bengaluru and Chennai.

Is much of the water lost anyway?

A recent study put out by India Spend suggested that Bengaluru, despite receiving 19 tmcft (about 7%) of the Cauvery water (and currently waiting on a proposal to increase this amount to 30 tmft) that is allocated to Karnataka, loses 49% of the water in distribution because of leakages and damages in the city’s water service pipes and supply system. It is, however, almost entirely dependent on the Cauvery as its groundwater resources are polluted and over-used. While 20% of the total Cauvery water is used for rural and domestic purposes, the remaining 80% is used in agriculture and industry in Karnataka. It appears that Cauvery water in Tamil Nadu has also been affected by pollution, sand-mining and over-exploitation, and farmers claim that the river will be dead in ten years.

Aren’t there any solutions?

There is no obvious formula for managing the situation during years of rainfall shortage. Experts have suggested that Tamil Nadu improve its water management, reduce the number of water-intensive crops and begin to rely more heavily on its ground water resources, but whether any of these solutions have been taken seriously remains to be seen. Meanwhile, environmental activists have expressed their concerns about the damage that the Cauvery will undergo with the increasing demand for its water and activities like sand-mining that have a serious impact on the river, stating that the river is being approached by both states as “a mechanistic producer of water, not as a dynamic life-giving system that is responsive to local and global triggers of use and abuse”.

The Cauvery is by no means the only river that has been the subject of bitter conflict between states in India. Joint water regulation boards have been established in the past and have successfully negotiated projects between members from the riparian states as in the case of Parambikulam-Aliyar. There are many disputes still stuck in deadlock, however. Only three days ago, the Odisha government announced that it plans on approaching the Supreme Court to request another tribunal to be set up under the Interstate Water Dispute Act to resolve its dispute with Chhattisgarh over the Mahanadi river . Sound familiar?

(In arrangement with GRIST Media.)

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