Insights into Editorial: Cauvery dispute

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Insights into Editorial: Cauvery dispute


The Cauvery water dispute, which has been a bone of contention between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for decades now, has again led to violence in Karnataka after Supreme Court pronounced its modified order recently.

  • The Supreme Court has modified the amount of water Karnataka has to release to Tamil Nadu, to 12,000 cusecs a day from the earlier ordered 15,000 cusecs a day. The court directed Karnataka to release this water until September 20. Since its earlier order on September 5, Karnataka has been seeing often-violent protests against the apex court’s order.


What is the dispute?

The Cauvery river originates in Karnataka’s Kodagu district, flows into Tamil Nadu and reaches the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar. Parts of three Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka – and the Union Territory of Pondicherry lie in the Cauvery basin.

Initially, the dispute was between Karnataka and TN but later Kerala and Puducherry also entered the fray.


Pre-independence issue:

The issue dates back to 1892 when an agreement was filed between Madras Presidency and Mysore for arbitration. Later, attempts were renewed to arbitrate between the two states under supervision of Government of India and second agreement was signed in 1924.

  • Under the control of the British, a 1924-agreement which laid down the directives of the Krishnarajsagar dam was signed. It gave both, the Madras Presidency and the Princely state of Mysore the right to use to use the water of Cauvery.
  • However, owing to Madras’ objection to the construction of the Krishnarajasagar dam, the agreement also allowed it to build the Mettur dam.
  • According to the 1924 agreements the river water is distributed as 75% with Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, 23% to Karnataka and remaining to go to Kerala. Consequently, the arrangement also lead to the restrictions being put on the area that could be safely irrigated by both states using the Cauvery water.


Post-independence efforts:

In the pre-independence era, these disputes were resolved by the British by arbitrary talks and discussions. But the real problem started when in, 1974, Karnataka (Mysore) asserted that the 1924 agreement entailed a discontinuation of the water supply to Tamil Nadu (Madras) after 50 years.

  • Karnataka argued that since the river originated there, it was entitled to use the water as it deemed fit and was not obligated to follow the agreements made by the maharaja of Mysore under a colonial government. It also expressed that the 1924 agreement was highly skewed in favour of Tamil Nadu.
  • Karnataka demanded that the river water should be divided according to international rules, i.e., in equal portions. They suggested that 94% could be divided equally between them and the rest could be distributed to Kerala and Puducherry. However Tamil Nadu wanted to stick to the original distribution which was laid down in the 1924 agreement.


Cauvery waters tribunal:

Owing to Tamil Nadu government’s appeal to the Central government in 1986 to constitute a tribunal for solving the issue under Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, the Cauvery Waters Tribunal was established on June, 2, 1990.

In 2007, after sixteen years of hearing and an interim order later, the Tribunal announced its final order. It concluded that the water availability in Cauvery stood at 740 tmc ft, Tamil Nadu would be allocated 419 tmc ft water (56.62%) and Karnataka 270 tmc ft. (36.48%). Kerala was given 30 tmc ft (4.05%) and Puducherry 7 tmc ft (0.94%). However, both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka filed a review petition before the Tribunal.


In 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as chairman of Cauvery River Authority, directed the Karnataka government to release 9,000 cusecs of water daily. The Supreme Court slammed state government as it failed to comply with the order. The government offered an unconditional apology and started the release of water leading to widespread violent protests.

River Cauvery Issue

What’s the issue now?

The dispute escalates when monsoon fails, as there is lesser water to share. And this year, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have received less than normal rainfall during the monsoon. Karnataka says it cannot release water to TN for agriculture as it needs it for drinking water purposes.

In August this year, the Tamil Nadu government said that there was a deficit of 50.0052 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water released from Karnataka reservoirs, with respect to the minimum limit directed by the CDWT. The Karnataka government said it wouldn’t be able to release any more Cauvery water, as low rainfall during the monsoon had left its reservoirs half-empty. Tamil Nadu then sought the apex court’s intervention saying its farmers needed the water to begin cultivating samba crops.

On September 5, the Supreme Court ordered the Karnataka government to release 15,000 cusecs of water a day for 10 days, to Tamil Nadu. This led to widespread protests and bandhs in Karnataka.


What’s the main problem?

The reason for this endless cycle of sporadic litigation and ad hoc adjudication is that both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu continue to avoid any mutual engagement to share the shortfall during distress years. And there is no permanent, independent mechanism to ensure this.

  • The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, which gave its award in 2007, has asked the parties to share the deficiency on a pro rata basis. However, a major problem in implementing this aspect is the absence of a ‘Cauvery Management Board’ and a Regulatory Authority, which the Tribunal had wanted created to oversee implementation.
  • Instead, after notifying the final award in 2013, the Union government set up a Supervisory Committee comprising officials from the Union government and the Central Water Commission and representatives of both States. The court has now asked Tamil Nadu to approach the committee, which will decide on further releases.


What needs to be done?

  • Ideally, any distress-sharing formula should come from a technical body. It would have helped if the Centre, which dilly-dallied for six years before notifying the final award under a judicial direction, had set up the Cauvery Management Board and Regulatory Authority.
  • In the longer term, experts will have to devise a sustainable agricultural solution for the Cauvery basin, as the river does not seem to have the potential to meet the farming requirements of both sides.
  • In a world of depleting water resources, fewer crop seasons and lower acreages, a resort to less water-intensive crops and better water management hold the key.
  • Non-political initiatives, such as the ‘Cauvery Family’, a body formed a few years ago covering farmers of both States, could help disperse the clouds of hostility that gather over the border whenever the Cauvery crisis erupts. Politics and passion should not be allowed to hold sway.
  • Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puduchery need to shed their present regional approach and plan collectively for the whole river basin. Farmers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu need to understand each other’s needs and fears and collectively seek solutions.
  • Initiatives like Cauvery Family, an inter-state collective of farmer groups in the two states, could facilitate this process. Besides, transmission of quick and accurate information — rainfall to reservoir storage — could help dispel the current mistrust among the different stake-holders.

The fact is the Cauvery basin is overdeveloped and legal instruments are insufficient to address the recurring water crisis.