The Supreme Court's (SC’s) decision last week on the Cauvery water dispute between Tamil Nadu (TN) and Karnataka may seem like it could put the 126-year-old dispute to rest.
The Supreme Court’s (SC’s) decision last week on the Cauvery water dispute between Tamil Nadu (TN) and Karnataka may seem like it could put the 126-year-old dispute to rest. But precedents suggest that resolution may not come that easy. The downstream state, TN, will now get lesser water than was allocated to it by the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT) in 2007, since the SC increased Karnataka’s allocation by 14.75 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft). TN loses as much water, with allocations to Kerala and Puducherry—part of Cauvery riparian system—remaining unchanged. Both Karnataka and TN have been on the boil, especially in dry years, over water-sharing, despite the 2007 order and subsequent temporary SC orders. With agrarian usage and urban water supply in both states burning electoral issues, the matter will stay politicised. So, it is difficult to see how the SC order will be implemented peacefully.
The apex court arrived at the award on the basis of the drinking and household water needs of Karnataka’s capital, Bengaluru, and availability of groundwater in TN—4.75 tmcft was deducted on the account of the first consideration and 10 tmfct based on the second. Karnataka had argued that TN’s groundwater was an additional water resource, while TN told the court that the groundwater in the basin was a result of recharge by the surface water and was subject to caprices of the monsoons. TN, as per a Central Ground Water Board survey, has the highest number of ‘dark zone’ blocks—that is, ground water consumption far outstrips recharge. Farmers in the Cauvery basin in the state are heavily dependent on the river, but the river itself has been under tremendous pressure form growing needs. At the heart of the water scarcity in the two states—thereby increasing their dependence on the river, which, in turn, affects its health and volume—is poor water usage and storage.
TN has done little to wean farmers off the water-intensive samba paddy cultivation even as bore-wells have proliferated. The state also receives some 1,000 mm of monsoon annually, of which 30% drains into the sea. Similarly, as per a water-use analysis by IndiaSpend in 2016, in Bengaluru, 49% of the water supplied to the city is lost in the process of distribution.
Prioritising one state’s needs over the other, with great consideration for just one city, is bound to rankle. The states may appear to have accepted the verdict, but things will not be as placid in rainfall-deficient years. The new allocations will be proportionally reduced in dry years, and that will test the patience of the stakeholders affected, even if there are monthly releases of water as determined by the CWDT and a Cauvery Management Board is set up—the SC directed the Centre to set this up in the next six weeks. Inter-state coordination, especially in riparian matters, remain troubled waters, and given how the Centre has conducted itself in several disputes so far, this doesn’t inspire much faith.