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Cauvery water dispute verdict: An explanation of the issue

Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have fought over South India’s largest river for more than 150 years.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2018 11:53 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Cauvery,Cauvery water,Cauvery water sharing dispute
A truck burns in Bangalore on September 12, 2016 after it was torched during protests against the Supreme Court’s order asking Karnataka to give Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu.(Kashif Masood/ HT file photo)

The Supreme Court has given its decision in the Cauvery water dispute. Here is what you should know about a dispute that is more than 150 years old and its resolution is crucial for three states and union territory Pondicherry.

The river

Cauvery is the largest river in southern India: it’s 802-kilometre long, originating in Talacauvery in Kodagu district of Karnataka, flowing mainly through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and its basin covering parts of Kerala.

According to legal language, Karnataka is the upper riparian state and Tamil Nadu is a lower riparian state. Cauvery water was originally divided according to British-era agreements, but over the years the two states have fought with each other over water to be used for irrigation and asked for a judicial review. Kerala and Puducherry too are involved in the disupte. The river flows into the Bay of Bengal in Puducherry and Kerala contributes more water to the river than it can utilize, because of its geography, says this Mint article.

The dispute

Tamil Nadu and Karnataka largely dealt with the Cauvery dispute through arbitrations and agreements during the British era, but that changed after Indian states were reorganised in 1956. This Outlook magazine article says that in the sixties, Tamil Nadu started objecting to Karnataka building two dams on the river. Karnataka ignored the protests and five rounds of talks to solve the dispute failed.

Karnataka said in 1974 that a 1924 agreement allowed it to discontinue water supply to Tamil Nadu after 50 years. Karnataka said the river originates in its territory and it’s entitled to use it accordingly. The state also argued that it was not bound by agreements signed during the British era and allegedly skewed in favour of Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu says Karnataka has built new dams and expanded its agricultural areas, affecting its water supply. It also says that Karnataka doesn’t release water on time. It wants the annual Cauvery releases to be made in a regulated manner, from week to week, from June to May.

Law, tribunals and courts

The number of demands, stakeholders and complexities surrounding the Cauvery dispute has increased over time. Karnataka, from 1974, started diverting the river into four new reservoirs. Tamil Nadu protested and the central government referred the matter to the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal in 1990--20 years after being approached by Tamil Nadu under the Inter State River Water Disputes Act, 1956.

The 1990 tribunal gave an order in 2007, but Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala challenged it before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s 2016 decision

The dispute flared up in 2016 when Karnataka released water during June-August. Tamil Nadu said out of a total due of 94 thousand million cubic feet (TMC), Karnataka released 33 TMC--leading to a deficit of 61 TMC. Tamil Nadu filed an urgent plea before the Supreme Court, claiming crops in the state would be damaged without Cauvery water.

Karnataka offered to release 10,000 cusecs of water per day. Tamil Nadu, however, demanded 20,000 cusecs. The Supreme Court ordered the Karnataka government to release 15,000 cusecs of Cauvery water every day to Tamil Nadu for the next 10 days and later reduced the amount to 12,000 cusecs.

The impact of SC order

The Supreme Court order sparked protests in Karnataka in September 2016. Bengaluru, India’s IT hub, shut down for almost three days and parts of the city were put under curfew after protesters blocked vehicles and set fire to public property. Protesters attacked businesses and vehicles with Tamil names or number plates in other parts of Karnataka. One person died and four were injured in police firing, reports The Hindu.

The Karnataka government released water for Tamil Nadu, but appealed before the Supreme Court to reconsider its order. A technical body, which was empowered by the Supreme Court, cut by three-fourths the quantum of Cauvery water that Karnataka is required to release downstream between September 21 and September 30.

First Published: Feb 16, 2018 11:22 IST