Cauvery, Karnataka’s deep anguish

The current distribution of Cauvery waters is unfair to Karnataka and its roots lie in the 18th century, when the British defeated Tipu Sultan

By Sridhar Raghunatha Rao
Published: Saturday 30 September 2023
Thalakkaveri Temple, Brahmagiri, Karnataka. Photo: Pranchiyettan via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

The waters of the Cauvery river have been been the bone of contention between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, particularly since the end of the nineteenth century, when these two sides were represented by their predecessors, the Wodeyar Kingdom of Mysore and the British-administered Madras Presidency. Historically speaking, political development in the region where the Cauvery flows, has had a strong influence on the sharing of its waters.

The first recorded harnessing of Cauvery waters was when the mighty Chola monarchs of Southern India constructed the Grand Anicut in the Thanjavur region, far downstream.

The next important construction across the Cauvery is a barrage built by Madhava Mantri at Talakad during the powerful Vijayanagar Empire. This Madhava Mantri Dam is a civil engineering marvel in that its foundation was laid on the sandy riverbed. 

Raja Wodeyar, the powerful ruler of the Mysore Kingdom, made an attempt to construct a dam across the river. But it turned out to be a futile excerise as the structure was swept by high floods. Irrigation activities in Mysore during the rule of Hyder Ali and his son, Tipu Sultan, were not much as both mostly spent their time fighting the British during the Anglo-Mysore Wars.   

Till the rule of Tipu, Mysore was politically strong in the Deccan. But the balance of power shifted after Tipu’s capital Seringapatam fell to the British in May 1799. Mysore thereafter became subsidiary to the British who controlled Southern India through their Presidency in Madras.

This is a major political turning point as from then onwards, Mysore was obliged to take instructions from the British.

An agreement came into effect in 1892 between Mysore and Madras for the utilisation of Cauvery waters by mutual consent for irrigation purposes. No broad modalities were laid down for sharing or operational aspects and as such, this agreement could not be effectively implemented. 

In 1910, when Mysore proposed the construction of an irrigation dam across the river at Kannambadi near Mysore city, the Madras Presidency also proposed the construction of an irrigation dam at Mettur on the border of its dominion and Mysore.

After much deliberation, a Court of Arbitration was constituted under the chairmanship of Sir Henry D Griffin, which submitted its recommendations in 1916. It is important to note that Sir Griffin’s recommendations were reasonable and fair to the interests of Mysore.

However, the agreement that came into effect on February 18, 1924, was very much distorted and deviated from the main recommendations. It permitted Mysore to construct a dam of 43.56 Thousand Million Cubic Feet (TMC) capacity at Kannambadi.

Madras, on the other hand, could construct a dam at Mettur at 93.5 TMC capacity. This not only dealt the harshest blow to Mysore’s interests for the next five decades but also became the basis of the unfair legacy of the subsequent agreement of 2018.

As per this unfair 1924 Agreement, 75 per cent of the Cauvery waters were to be utilised by Madras State (Now Tamil Nadu) and 23 per cent by Mysore State (Now Karnataka). Mysore could irrigate only around 300,000 acres. But no such restrictions were imposed on Madras State. 

Further, Mysore State was obliged to ensure a minimum quantity of water flow of 900 cusecs into the river which was mandatory even during drought or severe summer season when the inflow was not even 200 cusecs.

The harshness of this unfair and heavily one-sided agreement could be best appreciated by the fact that the then British Resident Officer to Mysore, Sir Mark Cubbon, wrote to the Viceroy of India about this raw deal to Mysore.

Mr  Elliot  has  also  noted  his  dissent  to  this  type  of  biased  treatment  of  favouring  Madras  at  the  cost  of  Mysore’s  interests. The Kannambadi Dam thus became a regulator dam with the purpose to control the flow for all seasons to serve the interests of Madras State.

The same strategy was adopted by the British while executing the Nile River Agreement that favoured Egypt heavily at the cost of Sudan and Ethiopia. 

The implementation part of this 1924 Agreement capped Mysore to irrigate 301,000 acres of land but facilitated Madras State to irrigate over 24 lakh acres although the accord permitted only 110,000 acres. 

The right bank canal of the Kannambadi Dam, Krishnaraja Sagar as it is now called, could never be commissioned because of these restrictions. This is the real consequential picture of the forcibly imposed 1924 Agreement that carried forward its influence even for the latest 2018 Agreement.    

After the lapse of the 1924 Agreement in 1974, Tamil Nadu contended that the award needed to be continued with the same main frame and minor reviews where necessary. 

However, Veerendra Patil, the then chief minister of Karnataka, declared that a new and fresh agreement had to be entered into, considering all ground realities. He did not just stop at that but went ahead with the construction of dams across all major tributaries of the Cauvery. His successor, Devaraja Urs, executed and commissioned the Right Bank Canal, now Varuna Canal.  

The new Cauvery Tribunal was constituted in 1990 under the chairmanship of Justice Chittatosh Mukherjee. Former Prime Minister and Hassan native, H D Deve Gowda, has worked to ensure a fair deal for Karnataka by regularly and meticulously monitoring every proceeding of the Tribunal to this date.    

The comparative overview of the Cauvery basin scenario vis-a-vis the awarded share of Cauvery waters in February 2018 is as under:

  Tamil Nadu Karnataka Kerala Puducherry Total
Total Basin Area in sq kms  44, 016 (54%) 34,273  (42%) 2,866 (4%)   81,155
Drought Area in sq kms 12,790 (36.9%) 21,870 (63.1%)     34,660
Water Contribution in TMC 252 (34%) 385 (52%) 103 (14% )   740 (100%)
Water share as per SC Verdict in TMC     404.25 (55.68%) 284.75 (39.22%) 30 (4.13%) 7 (0.96%) 726


The  above  table  amply  speaks  of  the  raw  deal  that  Karnataka continues to receive. Although the state contributes 52 per cent of water to the Cauvery river system, it gets only 39 per cent of the water share. 

The reason for this continued inequitable distribution is due to the legacy of the 1924 Agreement that has been carried forward. Another reason is the disproportionately irrigated land by Tamil Nadu, far beyond what was permissible in the 1924 agreement and at the cost of Karnataka’s share.

Let us now go to the analytical part of the award.

For a normal flow year of 740 TMC, the award stipulates 404.25 TMC to Tamil Nadu, 284.75 TMC to Karnataka, 30 TMC to Kerala and 7 TMC to Puducherry. The balance 14 TMC is to be left untouched for environmental reasons. In this, apart from its share, Karnataka needs to ensure 177.25 TMC water flow to Tamil Nadu as measured at Biligundlu point.

So, Karnataka has to generate its share of 284.75 TMC in addition to 177.25 TMC for Tamil Nadu. This adds up to 462 TMC. But Karnataka, as could be seen from the above table, generates only 385 TMC at 52 per cent contribution.

Where will the balance of 77 TMC come from? If Karnataka has to utilise its full share of 284.75 TMC, the flow of 177.25 TMC cannot be ensured. Or, if a flow of 177.25 TMC to Tamil Nadu has to be ensured, Karnataka cannot get its share of 284.75 TMC.

It is to be noted that the river Kabini — tributary to the Cauvery — flows entirely in Karnataka, although it rises in Kerala. If Tamil Nadu claims its right on Cauvery waters because it flows on its land, the same logic applies for the right over Kabini waters to Karnataka.

Tamil Nadu’s share is 404.25 TMC. Its generation of waters to the Cauvery Basin is 252 TMC. It gets 177.25 TMC from Karnataka. This adds up to 429.25 TMC. Deducting Puducherry’s share of 7 TMC from this, Tamil Nadu is left with 422.25 TMC. 

That is an excess of 18 TMC from its allotted share. This is a bonus for Tamil Nadu. Does this distribution sound logical and fair?

However, despite the largesse that it enjoys, Tamil Nadu has already laid its claim in the apex court for surplus waters. 

Because of the wrong historical precedent of the 1924 Agreement, Tamil Nadu is unduly favoured at the cost of Karnataka’s and Kerala’s interest. Tamil Nadu is ruthless in its approach to claim the last drop of its share even when drought exists in the upper riparian states. The 2018 award is also partial towards the lower riparian state as it gets an extra 18 TMC. 

Whatever happened all these years cannot be undone. At least for the future, both Karnataka and Kerala should appeal for revisiting the 2018 Cauvery water sharing award to fully assert and utilise their contribution of waters to the Cauvery river system.  

Sridhar Raghunatha Rao is an expert on the history of the sharing of Cauvery waters. He lives in Bengaluru

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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