Cauvery: manage demand, not supply

Published: Thursday 15 February 1996

OCCAMISM and chicanery marked the latest in the annual ritual of the Cauvery dispute, with the Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao, ordering Karnataka to release six thousand million cubic feet (TMCF) of water to Tamil Nadu immediately at the Supreme Court's behest.

This being an election year, Rao's 'award', typically settling for the golden mean, was expected. Rao stopped the crisis from blowing up by immediately appointing a three-member experts committee, headed by Y K Alagh, the vice-chancellor of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University and agricultural economist. It is another matter that the committee missed its January 10 deadline because the chairperson was on a jaunt to Italy. It came late on January 19. Meanwhile, politicians in both the states wrangled and chucked silt at each other.

The politicians, in fact, will never resolve the issue - it is their renewable source for harvesting agrovotes. What has to be brought to the fore is flow unsustainable water me can be changed and how the people themselves can do so. In this context, fresh thinking on water pricing and crop patterns is absolutely necessary.

The total area under irrigation in the Tamil Nadu part of the Cauvery basin is 25.4 lakh acres, requiring 501.5 TMCF of water, while in Karnataka it is 21.38 lakh acres, requiring 322.8 TMCF annually. Though apparently anomalous, this happens due to the very different soil regimes in the two states.

Karnataka's share in the total water milisation has doubled, from slightly over 22 percent in 1934 to about 45 per cent in 1990, while Tamil Nadu's figures have fallen correspondingly. Almost 95 per cent of the Cauvery waters are milised, making this one of the most milised rivers in the region. And this makes the issue so much more intractable.

In Tamil Nadu, the area under kuruvai, or the kharif crop, increased tremendously after the commissioning of the Mettur dam in the '30s. Traditionally, the agricultural season, (samba crop) lasts from August to January, which fully milised the northeasterly monsoons and stored water in the fields. The new kuruvai crop, in contrast, is grown between June and October and has to be harvested before the onset of the northeasterly monsoons. Further, in 1965, a locally developed hybrid variety of paddy, the ADT 27, converted huge amounts of land from a single- cropped area to a double-cropped one. The area under kuruvai almost doubled between 1966 and 1968.

The growth of kuruvai cultivation in Tamil Nadu created a severe conflict of interests with Karnataka. The peak irrigation demand there is between June and August, which clashes with the kumvai. Moreover, the evapo-transpiration of water during the kuruvai season is very high, adding to water losses. In Karnataka too, the area under irrigation has gone up astoundingly, from about 60,750 ha before the Krishnarajasagara Dam in the '30s, to nearly 453,600 ha presently, aided by the construction of a series of other reservoirs between 1965 and 1983.

Clearly, the crisis is human-made, and for a real and lasting solution, we have to shift focus from the issue of managing supply, which is a politician's ploy, to managing demand, which is an environmentalist's forte. Unsustainable agricultural practices, stemming out of a total lack of perspective planning, has sparked off this crisis. And there can be no end to demand if the agricultural pattern is tailored not to suit popular sentiments but resource accounting. To start with, there should be a consensual changeover to efficient usage between the people of the two states, represented by their farmer's associations.

Indeed, Tamil Nadu could meet an its municipal water requirements by reducing the area under paddy by just 2 per cent. The level of the available technology, if judiciously used, would ensure that the level of the output is not affected. M S Swarninathan and his colleagues have developed a variety of paddy that matures in 90 days, 30 days lesser than what kuruvai with ADT 27 takes. The kuruvai can then begin in July and not lead to the annual inter-state summer scramble. Lands in the upper reaches can be demarcated for kuruvai, while the tail-end regions could switch to less water intensive crops like cotton, gingelly, and groundnut. The financial loss to the farmers would be offset in a few years time. The task would have to begin with rethinking about government support prices for paddy. These, in fact, leave Tamil Nadu in a vulnerable situation, trying to produce a commodity for which it does not have the resources, thereby imperilling its food security.

And the water prices will have to be revised, to make the farmers pay for what they use as well as what they waste, Who else can do it better than the farmers themselves? it will not be possible for a central authority, even at the district level, to monitor this water use, unless the farmers do it themselves. The sooner these measures are taken, the better it is for the health of our polity, by scotching one more excuse for the already fast growing countrywide fissiparous tendencies.

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