In deep water

Rivers Krishna and Mahanadi are in crisis. In the race to industrialise, states have drawn plans to exploit their last drop. For four decades, three states have been squabbling to exact the maximum water from the Krishna, writes Bharat Lal Seth. Two tribunals have been of little help in resolving the dispute. Richard Mahapatra travels along the Mahanadi in Odisha and witnesses conflict between farmers and industry

By Richard Mahapatra, Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Wednesday 29 February 2012

In deep water


Conflict over Krishna

Third floor of Trikoot Bhawan in Delhi’s Bhikaji Cama Place, which houses the second Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal, will turn into a war zone by February-end. A battery of lawyers, technical staff and irrigation department officials from Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh will fight hard to win the maximum allocation of the Krishna river water for their respective states.

Flowing nearly 1,400 km through the three states before merging into the Bay of Bengal, the river provides drinking water and irrigation to more than 75 million people. But today, it is a mere trickle at the tail end. Every last drop in the basin has been planned to be supplied to townships and to meet insatiable industrial needs. In fact, each state has placed its demand well beyond the quantum available, creating a conflict.

In 1969, the Bachawat tribunal was set up to resolve such disputes. Its award came in 1976, setting legal limits for use of the Krishna’s water till May 2000. The second tribunal, chaired by Justice Brijesh Kumar, was set up in 2006. It announced a provisional award in December 2010, setting limits for water use till 2050. But each state has expressed its disappointment.

The dispute

At the heart of the disagreement is the higher projected available flow in the river basin (see ‘Share of the pie’).

Rejecting Bachawat tribunal’s 78-year time period, from 1895 to 1972, to assess the Krishna’s water, the new tribunal has adopted a 47-year period, from 1961 to 2008 (see ‘Centre of controversy’). The Bachawat tribunal, it said, had based the awards on “piecemeal information”. The old tribunal had used three different sets of data. By considering fewer years for making an assessment, the average assured available water has increased from 602.8 million cubic metre (mcm) to 648.9 mcm. The Brijesh Kumar tribunal also reduced the percentage of assured water availability from 75 to 65.


Within three months of the provisional award, each state submitted its complaint to the tribunal, expressing dissatisfaction over the allocation. Andhra Pradesh also moved the Supreme Court, which, in September 2011, directed the government not to notify the final report in the official gazette. Allocations are scheduled to be finalised in March but may get delayed by a few months.

Crying foul over fresh allocations, Andhra Pradesh says the quantum of the river’s water has not increased. It argues the tribunal has based its assessment on data for years that were largely wet. It also contends that irrigation projects are designed to assure farmers water in at least three of every four years. This was recommended by the Indian Irrigation Commission in 1972. The tribunal allocated water at 65 per cent dependability, instead of the earlier 75 per cent. It rejected Karnataka and Maharashtra’s plea for 50 per cent. A 65 per cent dependability would assure water to farmers for a little less than two out of four years.

imageAndhra Pradesh says the upper riparian states are constructing projects that would require water well beyond their respective allocations. In December last year, the Karnataka chief minister announced its plan to spend Rs 17,000 crore in the next seven years to complete Krishna basin irrigation projects. Maharashtra and Karnataka have utilised their full allocated share. In 2006-07, Andhra Pradesh utilised 74 mcm more than its allocation. But during the drought years 2002-03 and 2003-04, while Maharashtra and Karnataka used their allocated share, Andhra Pradesh’s utilisation dropped by more than half. “People have mounted pressure on the government to expand irrigation facilities by another 530,000 hectares,” says Mohan Katarki, lawyer representing Karnataka.

Maharashtra has asked for enhancement of its surplus flow allocation from the present 9.9 mcm to 22.6 mcm, basing its argument on the award of the first tribunal. Surplus water is over and above assured available water.

The Bachawat tribunal protected the existing planned use of the states aggregating to 479.1 mcm, and made allocations to the states from the balance 103.8 mcm on equitable principles. Of this, Maharashtra was given 32.83 per cent. It does not want this proportionate share to be disturbed.

  Upper riparian states, says Andhra Pradesh, are constructing projects that need water well beyond their allocation  
It has also sought “correction” in the allocations to Karnataka (0.56 mcm) and Andhra Pradesh (1.98 mcm) for maintaining minimum flows during the 180-day lean season every year. It argues that this 2.54 mcm must be equally distributed among the three states.

According to Katarki, Karnataka is “largely happy” with the award. It is bound to be, says an Andhra Pradesh irrigation official. “The state has been assured water as an upper riparian.” Compared to 94 and 54 pages of clarifications submitted by Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra respectively, Karnataka has given an eight-page note on the provisional award. However, it has questioned why Andhra Pradesh has been given more water despite it having the smallest drought-prone area in the basin. With 52,735 sq km remaining dry most of the year, Karnataka has the highest drought-prone area. Maharashtra follows with 50,242 sq km while Andhra Pradesh has only 45,493 sq km.

Andhra Pradesh, the self-confessed aggrieved party, shot itself in the foot by refusing to share surplus water. Now, there is no agreement on sharing the deficit in low-flow years either. The lower riparian state wrote to the tribunal that “surplus water is not divisible and cannot be allocated to projects which comprise kharif and rabi demands”. Surplus water must be utilised in only rabi season because its availability can be recognised only after monsoon, Andhra Pradesh argues. A deficit monsoon may result in excessive use of surplus water by the two states.

The Union Ministry of Water Resources has written to the tribunal seeking clarification on deficit-sharing. In drought years, one or two states should not bear the brunt of a dry year, it says.

Demand exceeds supply

After the Bachawat award lapsed in 2000, all three states prepared their own masterplans to place before the Brijesh Kumar tribunal. Together, the three states demanded twice the available water (see ‘Mission 2050’).

imageAndhra Pradesh said its industrial sector would need 18 mcm by 2021 and twice that quantum by 2051. The total drinking water requirement would be 44.8 mcm to cater to a population of 73.26 million by 2051. The state has demanded 629.7 mcm. As per the fresh tribunal the total water available is 729.5 mcm.

Maharashtra and Karnataka argue the tribunal has allocated Andhra Pradesh a share disproportionate to its size. “Aspirations of the lower riparian are always the prime cause of dispute. It wants to protect its prior use. Infrastructure developed early in the delta,” says Katarki.

In the 1960s when the tribunal was constituted, Andhra Pradesh was already using 212.3 mcm. This was more than the combined utilisation of Maharashtra and Karnataka. Farmers in coastal areas have been using Krishna waters for 150 years through an extensive network of canals designed by Sir Arthur Cotton and other British engineers in the 1850s. Andhra Pradesh wants a lot more development. The Bachawat tribunal upheld the state’s existing use because it is a downstream state, and allocated 14.15 mcm more besides the liberty to use surplus water.

Telangana’s trauma
The dispute over Krishna waters is not just between three states. The fight is deeply entrenched within the states as well. Farmers in Telangana allege the delta region gets preference in timing and quantity supplied.

The climate of the delta region is similar to that of Telangana, says K R Parcha, farming in Telangana for the past 30 years. But water to delta farmers is released in the first week of June, ideal for paddy cultivation. The yield, thus, can be as much as five to seven tonnes per hectare (ha) if paddy is transplanted in July. Farmers in Telangana get water in August, which caps the yield to four tonnes per ha.

“In the deltas of the Krishna and the Godavari, and the Pennar basin, farmers can cultivate at least three crops every year,” says Parcha. “No wonder it is called the granary of Andhra Pradesh.” Each year the state consumes between 283 mcm and 340 mcm. In coastal areas and in the state’s southern districts, outside the basin, farmers have been using water from the Krishna for the past 150 years. Considering this, the Bachawat tribunal allocated them water enough to suffice their needs.

The tribunal allocated 51.3 mcm to the Krishna delta, but the utilisation is well beyond this. “One thousand million cubic foot (about 0.28 mcm) can irrigate 2,428 ha of paddy, and on an average, produce 240,000 bags of paddy or Rs 30 crore per year,” calculates Vidyasagar Rao, former chief engineer at the Central Water Commission. After the formation of Andhra Pradesh, the total loss of wealth to Telangana works out to Rs 3,24,000 crore, he adds. “It is clear that we are on the wrong side of the political spectrum,” says Parcha.

Parties fighting for separate statehood argue they got the short shrift because they live in a larger state with entrenched political interests. Had Telangana been a separate state before the Bachawat tribunal was constituted, it may have got 68.5 per cent of the 229.5 mcm allocated to Andhra Pradesh, they contend.

The Bachawat tribunal allocated Telangana 34.5 per cent of the 229.5 mcm, amounting to merely 64.5 mcm from the Krishna, says Rao. After the Brijesh Kumar provisional award, it was allocated 84 mcm. According to Rao, Telangana never received this. “Today, more than 1.7 million farmers in Telangana depend on groundwater for agriculture. They install pumpsets with personal investments amounting to Rs 25,000 crore. The financial burden is leading to suicides by the farmers,” says Rao.

But officials in the irrigation department disagree. “There’s no truth in this; everyone is being treated equally,” says N Satyanarayana, officer on special duty at the Andhra Pradesh Inter-state Water Resources cell.
Preference given by the Bachawat tribunal to committed projects had stopped Karnataka from executing its planned projects. In its masterplan, the state showed a pressing need to serve its drought-prone areas and demanded 286.7 mcm water.

Maharashtra asked for 378.1 mcm in its masterplan to make its planned projects operational. The tribunal, in its 1976 decision, had restrained Maharashtra from diverting Krishna’s water outside the basin for hydropower generation. The restraint was to accord higher priority to irrigation needs.

The provisional award now allows Maharashtra to use more water for hydropower generation by diverting Krishna water westward and outside the basin. The surplus water, which Andhra Pradesh had full liberty but no legal right to use, has now been apportioned among the three states. Andhra Pradesh is contesting this diversion, saying irrigation must always be given priority over power generation.

Maintain minimum flow

As the three states squabble for more water, Hanumantha Rao, former engineer-in-chief at Andhra Pradesh’s irrigation department says, “Riverine ecology must be respected.” To prevent river stretches from drying during lean season, the states must release water from dams into the river.

Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh say each state should be responsible for maintenance of minimum flow in the river and its tributaries. Maharashtra argues that the Krishna is not a perennial river and it is, therefore, natural for it to dry up during the lean season. However, it does not deny that the minimum flow of the river be maintained.

According to the Brijesh Kumar tribunal, Krishna should have at least 0.5 per cent of the dependable flow. It has based its decision on the recommendations of a working group of the Water Quality Assessment Authority, constituted by the Union environment ministry. Maharashtra must ensure an annual flow of 0.73 mcm to Karnataka, which should ensure a flow of 2.1 mcm to Andhra Pradesh. A minimum of 1.67 mcm must be released to the sea by Andhra Pradesh. “This is far too meager,” says Rao.

To ascertain the requirements, the tribunal divided the river in seven parts. The least requirement, of 1.7 cubic metre per second (cumec), is at the stretch starting from Khadakwasla dam and ending at the river Bhima on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border. The maximum stipulated release is 10.34 cumec from the confluence of Tunghabhadra and Krishna till the delta region in Andhra Pradesh leading to the sea. Maharashtra must also ensure release of 2.97 cumec from Koyna dam to the border with Karnataka between December and May.

To ascertain that the stipulations are adhered to, the tribunal has set up the Krishna Waters Decision Implementation Board. Each riparian state appoints a member, while the Centre nominates two for a five-year tenure. The board is responsible for ensuring storage, release and utilisation of water according to the allocations.

River shrinks

In the 1960s, large irrigation projects were initiated. The result is lesser flows in the lower reaches.

The mean annual run-off to the ocean from 1901 to 1960 was 57 km3, states a study conducted by International Water Management Institute, a non-profit based in Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh. The quantum of water reduced to 17 km3 during 1975-2003. The study also notes that the total reservoir storage by 2005 was 54.5 km3, close to the river’s annual discharge.

  Mean annual flow to the sea has reduced from 57 km3 in 1901-1960 to less than a third during 1975-2003  
Reduced water may not create conflict when the water is surplus. But during drought years, it can result in crisis. The hydrological station at Vijaywada recorded an average flow of 6,500 cumec in August between 1901 and 1960. This reduced to about 100 cumec between 2000 and 2004 considered a drought period.


Increasing allocation of projects away from the river basin can be largely blamed for the lesser flow. “Intra-basin use should take precedence over inter-basin transfers. If the states plan inter-basin transfers, they should inform the tribunal so that it can consider them while making allocations,” says Ramaswamy Iyer, former secretary, ministry of water resources.

Karnataka made no submissions for such inter-basin transfers, while Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh made several. The Bachawat tribunal allowed these. At the same time it said, “Future uses requiring diversion of water outside the basin are relevant, but more weight may be given to uses requiring diversion of water inside the basin.”


Maharashtra has started construction of 72 projects to utilise additional 165.5 mcm water. Andhra Pradesh has seven ongoing irrigations projects for 64.2 mcm. Andhra Pradesh opposes the irrigation projects of Maharashtra and Karnataka, but defends its own, saying the projects will not affect the upper riparian states.

No attempt has been made yet to integrate groundwater into the allocation. This is silently contributing to the shrinking river.

In the Krishna basin, it is estimated that groundwater irrigated area equals surface water irrigated area. In absence of any survey, the Bachawat tribunal gave all three states freedom to use underground water within their territory. This would not be reckoned as use of the river water.

“This was a huge mistake,” says Rao. Between 1976 and 1996, base flows from the river Tunghabadhra to the Krishna reduced by 11.46 mcm during the lean season. It broke the hydraulic connectivity between the aquifers and the river. Instead of aquifers recharging the river, over-draft of groundwater has resulted in the reverse, he says. Uncertainty in relationship between the two has led to limited understanding of water in the basin. With none of the three states raising the issue, the tribunal has made no attempt to stipulate groundwater use.

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