Perhaps one of the longest disputes between two States in the history of the country, the Cauvery water row between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka has been marked by long periods of lull as well though without dying out completely. The row has mainly been coming handy to the politicos of both the sides for swelling their ranks and gathering votes. But now when large parts of northern States reel under flood Cauvery region is starved of water amid as weak a monsoon in the area as a little over half of its normal levels. Thus, the issue is bouncing back with the rival sides gearing up to reach the Supreme Court, writes our Consulting Editor from Bengaluru
After nearly a decade of relative peace and tranquility, courtesy normal monsoons through the previous years, the Cauvery issue is back to dog both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu once again. The Cauvery river water dispute which has a history of nearly a century-and-a-quarter continues to be the longest unresolved dispute between any two states throughout the country. This year once again with the monsoon being deficient so far in the Cauvery catchment area the water rights of the two states are generating quite a bit of heat. Tamil Nadu observed a shutdown on August 30 to create an alarm and bring attention to the issue though its impact was mainly confined to Cauvery Delta region of the State.
In less than a month’s time Karnataka faces a situation where it is at loggerheads with the neighboring State. If it was the Mahadayi water dispute in early August where Goa Government refused Karnataka’s demand for seven Tmc ft (or seven thousand million cubic feet) of water for drinking purposes for Hubli Dharwad regions, now Karnataka is again in a spot as its plea for safeguarding interests of Bengaluru city residents is being ignored by the J Jayalalithaa Government in Tamil Nadu.
The row erupted when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa told the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly that she had ordered filing of an interlocutory petition in the Supreme Court seeking release of Cauvery water as per the final award of the Cauvery Water Tribunal. The petition Jayalalithaa said had been necessitated as Karnataka had refused to release the water and the Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary’s letter to Karnataka Government in this respect got no response.
“As of today, Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu has a total storage of 34 Tmc ft,” the Chief Secretary Arvind Jadhav told Policy Pulse on 28th August, to explain why it was difficult to release water for Tamil Nadu’s irrigation needs.
The preference has to be given to drinking water he explained. Bengaluru city needs 40 Tmc ft water for its residents alone. “Tamil Nadu has sought 50 Tmc ft of water in its petition filed before the Supreme Court on the basis of the normal water year’s statistics. But the ground reality is that Karnataka has a total storage of 51 Tmc ft as against the capacity of 104 Tmc ft from Krishnaraja Sagar, Kabini, Hemavathi, and Harangi reservoirs in the Cauvery basin owing to deficient rainfall,” he said.
In a show of strength the entire opposition including arch rivals BJP rallied behind the Karnataka Chief Minister and stood united in protecting the rights of the people of Karnataka. Union ministers AnanthKumar, Sadanand Gowda and other BJP leaders stood firm with S Siddaramaiah on the Cauvery issue. An all-party meeting convened by Karnataka took a decision to present facts to the Supreme Court. Karnataka’s accuses Tamil Nadu of making a petition before the Supreme Court seeking release of Cauvery water on the basis of a normal water year’s statistics, though Karnataka is reeling under “severe distress”.
“Tamil Nadu has not informed the Supreme Court about facts such as Karnataka facing severe distress, leading to its reservoirs in the Cauvery basin receiving only 55 percent of the normal inflow. We have decided to convince the Supreme Court about Karnataka’s distress. Our legal team will take up the issue before the apex court,” Siddaramaiah told media persons after a meeting that discussed the issue. A claim which Tamil Nadu has challenged, “Karnataka is releasing water from these reservoirs for its own irrigation. But in Mettur, the water level is only 27.560 Tmc ft,” she announced in the assembly.
With the issue threatening to snowball into a bigger row, both states are gearing up for a showdown in the court. The Cauvery water dispute has an ugly history of seeing emergence of conflict like situations in the past whenever the monsoons have failed. The Cauvery riots of 1991 stand as a grim reminder to the water fights between the two states. It also reflects strong sentiments that the Cauvery generates among the people of the two states. Over two lakh people of Tamil origin settled in Karnataka had to go back to Tamil Nadu after the riots broke out. While there have been skirmishes between the two states in 1996, 2000, 2004 and recently in 2012 when the Supreme Court’s intervention forced Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to come to some kind of consensus though not fully agreeable to any of the two states.
Presently, the water sharing formula between the four southern states is governed by the final award of the Cauvery water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT).
It was in February 2013, based on the directions of the Supreme Court, the Centre notified the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) on sharing the waters of the Cauvery system among the basin States of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Union Territory of Puducherry. The “extraordinary” notification in the gazette dated 19 February 2013 determined the total availability of water in the Cauvery basin at 740 Tmc ft at the Lower Coleroon Anicut site, including 14 Tmc ft for environmental protection and seepage into the sea. The final award makes an annual allocation of 419 Tmc ft to Tamil Nadu in the entire Cauvery basin, 270 Tmc ft to Karnataka, 30 Tmc ft to Kerala and 7 Tmc ft to Puducherry.
While the four states have abided by the directive with whimpers of dissent, the controversy continues to be a big ‘political’ weapon for political parties in both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Come poll time and each party promises justice to farmers and the people of its states in their manifestoes. Its only when the monsoons fail ‘partially’ that the crisis bounces back and is taken out from the backburner. This year again, the depletion in the reservoir levels along the Cauvery has taken the dispute back to the doors of Supreme Court with each State putting up its contentions.
The changing topography and the growing demand for Cauvery water has brought the nature of dispute to be very different form from 1892 when the first time water usage by erstwhile Mysore Presidency (now Karnataka) was challenged by the then Madras Presidency which is now Tamil Nadu.
While the two states have opposed water harvesting and storage projects on the Cauvery the challenges have only become bigger. Rapid urbanisation of Bengaluru and Mysore in Karnataka, Salem , Dharampuri and Krishnagiri regions in Tamil Nadu have put pressure on both state governments to launch drinking water projects.
Unfortunately, the Hogenakkal Integrated Drinking water project of Tamil Nadu and the Mekedatu Drinking Water project of Karnataka stand testimony to the states working at stalling each other’s projects. Political compulsions time and again force both the states to take up such a stance.
So with the two states getting ready for another round of sparring before the Supreme Court to seek relief for the parched throats and dry farmlands, it may take a while for any solution to emerge. But given the fact that the demand for water is only getting bigger with each passing year, it may require a larger political consensus and a very strong administrative will to take up water conservation projects together to address the water needs of the people of the two warring states.