Home > General, Musings > The Cauvery river water dispute and beyond…(1st part)

The Cauvery river water dispute and beyond…(1st part)

September 24, 2016

The home office of the UK government has predicted that future migrations will be led not by economic reasons but by the availability of water and good weather.  Future wars have been predicted over water and its use. The recent dispute over the sharing the Cauvery waters is now clearly demonstrating that such events are no longer something that will happen in the distant future but issues that we will have to deal with, in the here and now.  The Cauvery water dispute has been simmering for over a century but we are yet to find a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution.  This issue is no longer one of mere water sharing or a farmer’s issue, but has evolved into an inter-state dispute, an expression of linguistic chauvinism and a tool for manipulative politicians.  Amidst all the noise and fire of burning vehicles, we seem to be losing sight of the larger issue of ‘water’ and how we are using it.

While it is genuinely emotional for many, I found that very few had a full understanding of what the complete issue was or the historicity of the dispute.  Trying to find a resolution without fully comprehending the problem will only leave the issue festering. The Cauvery basin is a system of rivers consisting of the Cauvery and its various tributaries such as the Hemavati, Kabini, Bhavani, Amaravati and others. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are the primary states in the Cauvery basin. However, a small part of the basin is in Kerala and, at the fag end of its course, the Cauvery delta includes Karaikal which is a part of the union territory of Puducherry. The crux of the Cauvery dispute is a conflict of interests between a lower riparian state (Tamil Nadu) which has a long tradition of irrigated agriculture by substantial utilisation of Cauvery waters, and an upstream state (Karnataka) which started late in irrigation development. However, Karnataka made rapid strides in irrigation facilities along with advantage of being an upper riparian  state which provides it with greater ability to control the flow of the river. Kerala (an upstream state with a modest demand for Cauvery waters) and Puducherry (the lowest riparian with a small demand) have subsequently become parties to this dispute.

The Cauvery water dispute has a long history and it goes back to the 19th century. The principal parties then were the Madras Presidency in British India and the princely state of Mysore. The dispute arose over objections raised by Madras to the new irrigation projects which the then Mysore government wanted to take up. The primary opposition was based on the ‘Doctrine of Prior Appropriation’ i.e., farmers from Madras were the first to use the waters of the Cauvery from the era of the Cholas, who had built an excellent irrigation system in the Thanjavur Delta, and had, therefore, acquired elementary rights over the Cauvery waters by prescription.  After prolonged wrangling and subsequent discussions, an agreement was signed in 1892 by the erstwhile Mysore State and the then Madras Presidency.

When Sir M. Visvesvaraya decided to build the Krishnaraja Sagar dam, the Govt of Madras was agitated over the size and the storing capacity of the K.R. Sagar reservoir and refused to give its consent to Mysore under the 1892 agreement. The dispute was then referred to arbitration for the final decision.  Sir H. D. Griffith, the arbitrator, gave an award in 1914 which was favourable to Mysore and the same had also been ratified by the British Government of India. The Madras government appealed to the Secretary of State for India. Eventually, the British Government prevailed upon Mysore for an amicable settlement with Madras and the agreement of 18 February 1924 was signed. Under the 1924 agreement, Mysore undertook not to build fresh irrigation projects either on the Cauvery river or its tributaries, without the prior consent of Madras. Madras also agreed not to refuse consent except to protect its prescriptive rights.  The 1924 agreement also provided for the review of certain clauses after 50 years i.e., in 1974, but the review did not take place nor was the agreement terminated or renewed.

A few years before 1974, the dispute over Cauvery flared up once again.  Mysore’s argument was that, according to clause XIV of the 1924 agreement, if the Tamil Nadu government built reservoirs on the Bhavani, the Amaravathi or the Noyal— the tributaries of the Cauvery in Tamil Nadu— Mysore would be entitled to construct offset storage reservoirs on the tributaries of the Cauvery within its jurisdiction. Tamil Nadu had already constructed reservoirs on both the Amaravathi and the Bhavani.  The Hemavathi reservoir’s potential, which  Mr Dharna Vira, the then Governor of Mysore ordered to be raised, was estimated to be 34 TMCF (thousand million cubic feet). Some leaders of Mysore also made a case for four more projects of the Kambadakadi, the Yagachi, the Lakshmana Thirtha and the Sagab Doddakere which together was supposed to create a potential of 10 TMCF. When added to 34 TMCF of the Hemavathi, it would have been 44 TMCF. They argued that if every TMCF of water upto 45 TMCF was not impounded before 1974, the control of Mysore on the water would be permanently lost.

We now need to see the dispute from the context of the realities that had changed by this time. Karnataka (Mysore) was no longer a native state under the British but stood on equal footing with Tamil Nadu (Madras). The re-organization of states brought about enormous changes in the territories of both the States which changed the equation of the riparian areas. Kodagu — which was not a party to the 1924 agreement— became a part of Mysore besides being the birthplace of the Cauvery. And Kerala— which was not a party to the 1924 agreement— became a party to the dispute.  Whether the 1892 and 1924 agreements continued in force and bound Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as successor states to the old Madras Presidency and Mysore state was also a point of contentions between the states.

In July 1986, Tamil Nadu made a formal proposal to the Central Government under the Interstate Water Disputes Act (ISWD Act) 1956 to set up a tribunal and resolve the dispute. However, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Central government dithered on setting up a tribunal and continued to favour a policy of negotiated settlement. Finally, during a hearing on a petition by few farmers’ association of Tamil Nadu to the Supreme Court (SC) of India, seeking an assurance of irrigation water from the Cauvery, the Apex Court instructed the central government to establish a tribunal within 30 days. In agreement with the SC Order, the government of India established the Cauvery Water Tribunal on 2 June 1990.  In 1991, an interim order was passed by the Tribunal in response to a plea by Tamil Nadu that since the adjudication process would be time-consuming, there was a need for some assured availability of water for irrigation in the Cauvery basin in the state. The Interim order directed that Karnataka should ensure an annual release of 205 TMCF of Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu (of which six TMCF should go to Puducherry). The Tribunal also laid down a detailed monthly schedule of releases.

In its final order that the Tribunal issued, it proceeded on the basis of an annual availability of 740 TMCF in the Cauvery on a “50 percent dependability” basis and made an allocation as follows
Tamil Nadu 419 TMCF
Karnataka 270 TMCF
Kerala 30 TMCF
Puducherry TMCF

Out of 14 TMCF left, 10 was meant for “environmental protection” and four was factored in for the “the inevitable escapages into the sea.” For years of low rainfall, the Tribunal envisaged a proportionate adjustment of the allocations. The Tribunal also recommended the establishment of a Cauvery Management Board to monitor the monthly schedules and act as a “regulatory authority”.

The present position of both the states is, to a large extent, rooted in their refusal to give up burdens of the past that they carry. Tamil Nadu revels in nostalgic imagery of an agro-civilization that flourished on the intricately complex irrigation network build by the Chola empire, and the historic head start it enjoyed on the use of Cauvery water. An emotional feeling driven by a sense of vulnerability, that it is in the mercy of Karnataka for irrigation needs, drives its often hawkish position in negotiation. Karnataka, on the other hand, feels that 1924 agreement was an unjust one forced on a weak Mysore state. It has steadfastly refused to accept the basic principle of riparian law and continues to hold a tacit position that points to the primacy of upper riparian state. Karnataka is also of the view that the explosive growth of Bengaluru into a metropolis and its ever growing water needs have not been factored in by the authorities

One of India’s foremost water policy experts, the late Ramaswamy R. Iyer suggested the following: “As for Karnataka, what is important is not the allocation of 270 tmcft to it but the fact that it has to release 192 TMCF to Tamil Nadu. In most years, the flow from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu will be higher than that figure. It is only in a year of low rainfall that difficulties may be experienced. In other words, even the release of 192 tmcft (which was earlier described as of operational significance) really means nothing in a normal year: the crucial point – and this is what has been causing all the trouble – is the sharing of water in a distress year. Here the Tribunal has offered no formula but has stated the principle of proportionate adjustment and has left the detailed management of this to the proposed Cauvery Management Board and its committees.”

One fails to understand the logic or the basis on which the Supreme court has based its recent order of releasing water while Karnataka itself is in a distress situation.  While we do seem to lack both the political and legal leadership with the vision to articulate the needs and the present situation scientifically and rationally, the citizens need to think thru alternate means of putting the demands across and clear strategies for comprehensive water use.  What the state of Karnataka needs to immediately demand is a clear and practical formula to arrive at an understanding on how water will be shared in distress years. Each state projects a figure based on what it thinks it needs and the sum of those figures far exceeds the availability of water in the river itself.  Keeping aside the emotions, the people of both states have to realize that it is bad water management and politics that has been keeping a permanent solution at bay.  Both states seem to lack mature and statesmanly political leadership with the vision to see beyond the Cauvery river.  Water management is not just about storing or releasing water.  It is not about rhetoric but doing the hard adaptive work of getting to realize that each of us have a role to play in this.

What can be specifically done to alleviate the water crisis?….to be continued in the next article
– Balu

Categories: General, Musings
  1. September 25, 2016 at 4:29 am

    Thank you for this informative blog, Balu.

    I remember Tagore’s Muktadhara when I read about water disputes.

  2. sindhu suresh
    September 24, 2016 at 9:36 am

    well researched article to understand the problem.

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