Cauvery issue has once again erupted in the two major basin states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. For several days now, the media has been reporting developments on the issue. Apart from the usual bandhs, arson and Assembly resolutions, what is unusual is the reluctance of the Karnataka government to release water even after the Supreme Court’s direction.
TN has a long history of irrigation. It has one of the oldest known dams, the Grand Anicut, which was built 2,000 years ago. Karnataka is rather new to irrigation. The erstwhile state of Mysore had not developed its water resources till much later. Two agreements were signed between the then Mysore princely state and Madras Presidency. The 1892 agreement was in general terms referring mainly to interstate rivers and streams in the two states. But the 1924 agreement, made in the wake of building of Krishnaraja Sagar dam across Cauvery, had a provision for review after 1974. However, disputes started arising much earlier, with TN alleging that Karnataka was increasing reservoir capacity in violation of these agreements by building dams across tributaries of Cauvery. Tamil Nadu, being the lower riparian state of Cauvery, had to depend on timely releases by Karnataka. In lean years, the water releases from Karnataka repeatedly led to problems, with TN complaining about inadequate releases jeopardising crops in its area. Since then, pressure of population and demand for water for various purposes has increased manifold, but total availability of water has not, leading to all-round discomfort and anxiety.
Unsuccessful attempts have been made by the Centre on several occasions from 1970 onwards, to bring about a water sharing agreement between the two states. On a request from TN in 1986, the central government issued an order in 1990, setting up the The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal under Section 4 of The Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956 and referred the matter to it. Apart from TN and Karnataka other interested states/UT were Kerala and Pondicherry. After hearing the parties at length, the Tribunal made its award in 2007, which would become operational after central government notified it in 2013. The Tribunal took into account several factors such as average contribution of water in the respective basins of the states, areas under various crops, dependence on irrigation and other requirements like drinking water, industrial use and minimum environmental requirements. The Tribunal rejected the argument of protecting customary rights. It placed emphasis on equity and passed the award after determining the availability of water in Cauvery basin on 50% dependability and made allocation to each party state after reserving 10 TMC of water for environmental flows. It allocated 270 TMC to Karnataka and 419 to Tamil Nadu, of which 182 would come from Karnataka. In distress years, shares of all states would be reduced proportionately. It also laid down a monthly delivery schedule with 10-day intervals for release of waters.
It suggested the formation of a Cauvery Management Board/Authority to monitor the flows, and also monitor the storage in the Cauvery basin along with trends of rainfall and make assessment about likely inflows to hearty states within the overall schedule.
The Central government did not take any action to constitute the Management Board recommended by the Tribunal. In the recent case before the Supreme Court, this recommendation itself has become contentious. The Board or any other agency would then have its task cut out as laid down in the award, viz, arrange release of waters in conformity with the award. In normal years, this may not be a problem, but in lean years, the board would have to regularly collect data and get adequate warning of impending shortages. This information would be of immense help in planning the releases and prepare the riparian states for meeting the situation. Several Boards /Authorities are in place and functioning satisfactorily in India, viz. Bhakra Beas Management Board, Narmada Control Authority, Krishna and Godavari River Management Boards. The Supreme Court comes into the picture only if the Board is unable to carry out its task.
Moreover, given the matter’s sensitivity, parties are prone to using this as a political tool at the drop of a hat. It is difficult to gauge the damage caused by rasta rokos and, burning buses and sundry vehicles. Precious time is lost each time there is a hint of a shortage. In this game of one-upmanship, the ultimate loser is the end user; goodwill lost seems merely a collateral. States may show reluctance to be a party to a board set up by the Centre, which will be chaired by the latter’s nominee. One way to get around the problem may be to encourage states to form a board by mutual consent, which would have Centre’s representative as an observer. States will chair the board by rotation, allowing them to have a free say and mutual give- and-take in day-to-day dealings. It would also create bonhomie, easing the way to sharing waters without ill will.
It is difficult for the government to claim efficient handling of water issues. Entry 56 in Union List, of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution empowers the Centre to regulate and develop “interstate rivers and river valleys to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the Union is declared by Parliament by law to be expedient in public interest.” The provision could be utilised to bring about planned development and sharing of benefits. No such law has been attempted in past nearly 70 years.
Many countries follow system of river basins instead of territorial units being in control of water administration. In Europe, they transcend national boundaries. The Mekong river basin in SE Asia is another example of such an arrangement. All co-riparian states would be represented on the River Basin Management Boards/Authorities and can guard their respective interests. Such an arrangement can also help in rationalising the use of waters in the basin as a whole, making appropriate allocation of waters for different purposes like drinking and domestic, industry, power etc. in addition to irrigation. It could also help in determining, through mutual consent, cropping patterns to maximise productivity and farm incomes throughout the basin. Vagaries of monsoon are too obvious to be ignored any longer. There is a need to rethink strategies and management techniques. Cooperation among co-riparian units of states is sine qua non of achieving the objectives of basin management. It is about time India moved in that direction.
The author is retired IAS officer
Views are personal.