Sharing of Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has historically been a contentious issue. Though the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) gave its final order in 2007, it has frequently triggered protests in both states. Time and again, Karnataka has refused to release the water—leading to Tamil Nadu filing an interlocutory petition for the water at the Supreme Court (SC). The SC, on September 5, asked Karnataka to release 15,000 cusec of Cauvery water daily to Tamil Nadu. On September 12, based on Karnataka’s plea, the apex court brought it down to 12,000 cusec, to be released daily till September 20.
Against this backdrop, violence broke out—two people died in Bengaluru, while property worth thousands of crores was destroyed.
What is the root cause of the problem?
The problem is complicated by the history of usage of Cauvery’s water and the changing political geography of its basin. As far back as the 10th century AD, under the Cholas, many canals and reservoirs drawing from the Cauvery were constructed in present day Tamil Nadu. By the time of the British colonial rule, the Madras Presidency (present-day Tamil Nadu) and the princely state of Mysore (Karnataka) had already started quarrelling over the river. The Wodeyar king of Mysore, circa 1881, wanted to revive irrigation plans drawn up by the British—these plans had been shelved after the Mysore famine of 1876-77—but Madras raised objections. In 1892, both finally signed an agreement that allowed Mysore to go ahead with some of the plans. In 1910, Mysore drew up a plan to construct a dam to hold 41.5 thousand million cubic (tmc) feet of water at Kannambadi village. Madras, which was planning to set up its own dam near Mettur, objected. After a round of arbitration in 1913-14, as provided for by the 1892 agreement, Mysore was given a go ahead for a 11 tmc feet dam, but Madras appealed. Eventually, an agreement was reached in 1924, to be valid for a period of 50 years (till 1974).
What has been the course of resolution after Independence?
After the reorganisation of states in 1956, Kodagu (Coorg), where the river originates, became a part of Karnataka as did parts of the Hyderabad State and the Bombay Presidency. Similarly, the Malabar region of the Madras Presidency became Kerala and Puducherry came under the Union government. Thus, not only did the quantum of need and generation of Cauvery water in the catchment areas under the respective states change, it also mean two new parties in all water-sharing arrangements—Kerala and Puducherry. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, however, remained the major parties.
While the 1924 sharing agreement was to end in 1974, in 1959-60, Karnataka demanded that several clauses of the agreement be changed. With the dispute revived, the Cauvery Fact Finding Committee was formed, and it submitted its final report in 1973—in which it had noted that the agricultural land in Tamil Nadu that was dependent on Cauvery was far larger than that in Karnataka. On the basis of this report, a draft agreement was drawn in 1974, but was only ratified in 1976. When Karnataka again started talking of a dam in Kodagu, Tamil Nadu moved the courts, demanding a Tribunal be set up under the Inter-state Water Disputes Tribunal Act 1956. It later withdrew the plea, but in 1986, a farmers’ association from the state moved the SC with the demand for a Tribunal. Following directions from the apex court, the VP Singh government at the Centre formed the CWDT in June 1990. In June 1991, after SC directed the CWDT to provide interim relief to Tamil Nadu, the tribunal ordered Karnataka to release 205 tmc ft to the lower riparian state, but Karnataka refused to implement the order—it even brought an ordinance to nullify the order, but the SC struck it down. In 1998, the Cauvery River Authority was formed to ensure implementation, and in 2002, it ordered Karnataka to release 9,000 cusec of water every day to Tamil Nadu. Refusing to comply, Karnataka went to the SC. Between then and 2007, when the CWDT’s final order came, many attempts to resolve the issue, including the ones initiated by the governments of the two states, failed. In February 2007, the CWDT announced its final order, allocating—out of the 740 tmc feet of water available in the river annually—270 tmc feet to Karnataka, 419 tmc feet to Tamil Nadu, 14 tmc feet to Kerala and 7 tmc feet to Puducherry, reserving 14 tmc feet for environmental ends.
Why has the problem lingered?
For a plethora of reasons—changing water-needs, cropping patterns, increasing climate uncertainty, all have caused the states to try and appropriate a greater share of the river’s water. Thus, while all the agreements so far mandate that the upper riparian state do nothing to undermine access for the lower riparian states, Karnataka, where agriculture has grown phenomenally, has tried to rein in more of Cauvery’s water. In 1974, it started diverting water to four new reservoirs. Eighty percent of the water-supply in Bengaluru is met by Cauvery water. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have both been urbanising fast—the requirement of their cities is only burgeoning. Meanwhile, both states have shifted from water-frugal crops like millet to water-intensive crops like sugarcane (in Karnataka) and samba rice (in Tamil Nadu). With great local variance in rainfall, despite a normal overall monsoon, Cauvery water reservoirs in both states are short of water—by 30% in Karnataka and 49% in Tamil Nadu. While it would seem unfair that Karnataka—where 462 tmc ft of the river’s water is generated—gets only 37% of the water, Tamil Nadu, too, has seen its share erode from 80% in 1924 to 58% now. Tamil Nadu complains that Karnataka is releasing very little water and whatever is released is not in time for its cropping season but Karnataka needs water for its farmers and cities, too. While politicians have fanned the emotive issue—and the Centre and the Cauvery Supervisory Authority (formed in 2013) have been ineffective in leading a resolution—many commoners have died protesting.
What can be the best way forward?
A more permanent dispute resolution mechanism—one that continually evaluates needs and usage patterns to work out solutions—needs to be instituted. Besides, usage needs to be calibrated relative to availability to prevent unjustified drawing. For instance, areas which depend on rain-fed rivers must cap cultivation of water-intensive crops; that would mean Tamil Nadu must bring down samba cultivation while Karnataka reduces sugarcane acreage irrigated with Cauvery water. Pricing water appropriately is the best way to achieve this, including in cities, to dissuade wasteful usage.