The 140-year-old conflict
There is nothing unnatural about the Cauvery conflict. Any river that runs through different political boundaries is bound to have regions and people fighting over the resource. What is unnatural is the factors that have rendered the water-sharing agreements between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu—the two main stakeholders in the dispute—dysfunctional since they were first drafted in 1872.
This September, the conflict once again dominated the news after Karnataka refused to release water to Tamil Nadu, the downstream state. Karnataka says it cannot share water when the Cauvery reservoirs are barely able to satisfy the drinking water needs of the state. By refusing to share water, it flouted the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT) award of 2007 that mandated a proportionate reduction in each state’s share in rain-deficit years.
This year the two states received deficit rainfall, especially around the source of the river. Tamil Nadu promptly took the matter to the Supreme Court. It maintains that its farmers growing the winter crop of paddy, or samba, are totally dependent on the Cauvery water.
The apex court has made stopgap allocations through three rulings in September. The first was on September 5, which ordered a daily release of 10,000 cubic feet per second (cusecs) to Tamil Nadu for 10 days. The order resulted in violent demonstrations in Karnataka. The clashes led to the death of two persons in Bengaluru. Curfew was imposed in several parts of the city. Both the states observed bandhs, bringing life to a standstill. The last order on September 20, which stipulates a daily release of 6,000 cusecs till the end of the month, was also rejected by Karnataka. On September 23, both the Houses of the Karnataka legislature passed a unanimous resolution not to release any water. On September 24, Tamil Nadu released water in the Cauvery delta from the Grand Anicut dam to ensure that the samba crop does not fail.
The Supreme Court on September 26 disregarded the resolution passed by the Karnataka state legislative assembly on September 23 and ordered the state to release 6000 cusecs of water per day for three days to Tamil Nadu starting September 28. The Karnataka government responded by calling an all-party meeting and a cabinet meeting to mull over the order as the state maintains that it is not in a position to release the amount being asked for by the court. The Centre, too, has stepped in to try and mediate the conflict and invited the CMs of both states for talks with Uma Bharti, Union Minister for Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, on Thursday, September 29.
The Supreme Court on September 30, pulled up Karnataka once again for defying the apex court by not releasing Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu as mandated and ordered the release of 6000 cusecs of water per day between October 1 and October 6. The court further warned the upper riparian state of the “wrath of law” if it decides to defer release again.
The SC also directed the centre to speed up the setting up of the Cauvery Water Management Board, asking for the board to be constituted by October 4 to study and report on the ground realities in both the states. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry are to submit names of members for the board by October 1.
But the conflict, clearly, is far from over.
The 140-year-old conflict
The dispute first began over 140 years ago between the princely state of Mysore (now Karnataka) and the Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu). In 1872, a water-sharing agreement was reached (see ‘140-year-old conflict’ on p18). Another water-sharing agreement was signed in 1924 which lapsed in 1974, after which the conflicts over the sharing and use of water of the largest river in south India have become more frequent. In 1990, the Union government constituted CWDT to resolve the dispute, which passed an interim sharing order in 1991 and final recommendations in 2007. But nine years later, there is no resolution in sight.
Water-sharing agreements, committees and tribunals have failed to resolve the Cauvery dispute
- 1872 | First inter-state water-sharing agreement between Mysore and the Madras Presidency
- 1924 | Second water-sharing agreement for the next 50 years
- 1960s | Karnataka proposes to build new reservoirs. The Centre rejects the plan. The state still builds four reservoirs
- 1970s | Cauvery Fact Finding Committee set up in anticipation of the ending of the agreement in 1974. Its final report came in 1976 which was accepted by all the states. But when Karnataka began construction of the Harangi dam, Tamil Nadu went to court
- 1980s | Litigations, conflicts and negotiation between the parties continue
- 1990 | Supreme Court directs the Centre to constitute Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT)
- 1991 | CWDT announces an interim award. Orders Karnataka to release water. In a move to nullify the interim awards, the Karnataka government passes an ordinance "to protect" irrigation in the "irrigable areas" of the Cauvery. Supreme Court strikes down the ordinance; upholds the CWDT award. Karnataka refuses to oblige
- 1993 | Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa goes on fast, demanding the state's share as stipulated by the interim order
- 1998 | Centre constitutes Cauvery River Authority to ensure implementation of the interim award of CWDT
- 2002 | Cauvery River Authority chaired by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee directs Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu unhappy with the order, says will move the Supreme Court
- 2005 | Karnataka refuses to implement the distress-sharing formula
- 2007 | CWDT gives final award, calling the agreements of 1872 and 1924 executed between Madras and Mysore as valid. Karnataka protests
- 2015 | Jayalalithaa writes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, requesting him to advise Karnataka to release water. Karnataka refuses to release water since it is a "distress year"
- Sept 2, 2016 | The Supreme Court asks Karnataka to consider releasing water to Tamil Nadu to help the state continue to "exist as an entity". Violence erupts
So what are the factors that have precipitated the conflict time and again? One thing that experts seem to agree on is that the problem is limited to years when the rainfall is deficient. This was seen in 2002-03, 2003-04, 2012, and this year. To understand the issue, it is imperative to take a look at the sharing method proposed by the tribunal and its operational realities.
The Cauvery runs for about 800 km, from the Western Ghats in Karnataka to the Bay of Bengal near Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. The river irrigates an area of about 81,155 sq km in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. However, the distributaries that fan out of the river and irrigate the fertile delta are non-perennial, and depend on the release of water from Karnataka. This dependency of the Cauvery delta has been one of the major reasons for the dispute boiling over. The river and its tributaries have 86 dams across Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, of which 37 were constructed after the 1924 agreement lapsed in 1974. Though both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have seen heavy damming activity since 1974, construction of dams and reservoirs in Karnataka has altered the balance of the equation, with the upper riparian state’s needs taking precedence, says S Janakarajan, a professor of economics at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
To resolve the mad scramble over river water-sharing, CWDT decided to make allocations to the states concerned whose cumulative demand stood at 1,260 thousand million cubic feet (TMC), while the total utilisable flow of the river, as per the tribunal’s calculations, was only 740 TMC. On the basis of demands, the number of users, the area of the fertile delta and hydrological factors, the tribunal made an annual allocation of 30 TMC to Kerala, 270 TMC to Karnataka, 419 TMC to Tamil Nadu (of which 192 TMC was to be released by Karnataka and 227 TMC was to be generated from Tamil Nadu’s own catchment areas) and 7 TMC to Puducherry. It also calculated that 10 TMC should be allowed for “environmental flows” and around 4 TMC would inevitably flow into the sea. What this distribution means is that virtually every year, the river is 100 per cent utilised. So whenever there is deficit rain, there is a crisis. Although the principles of apportionment stipulate careful consideration of the ecological aspects concerning the river, the allocations have been made primarily on the quantum of use submitted by the states. This is one of the major criticisms the tribunal has faced. However, D V Singh, former secretary of the water resources ministry, who presided over the Cauvery Monitoring Committee, a body set up in 1998 by the Union government to monitor the implementation of the tribunal’s orders, says, “The allocations to states were done after several years of deliberation and studies. They have been made in the best way possible keeping in mind priority to existent users of the water. The problem with including dynamic aspects of land use and water use changes is that it introduces too many variables, which make it susceptible to constant questioning and scrutiny.”