Cauvery calamity

Promotion of water-guzzling crops like rice is leading to maximum utilisation of river waters in India. The Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is probably the first of such problems that lie ahead

By S Gopikrishna Warrier, Amit Mitra, Uday Shankar
Last Updated: Tuesday 06 September 2016

-- As the Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu lurches from one deadlock to another, water resources experts in India are even more disturbed at the prospect of a larger crisis. The "resource hysteria" generated by the Cauvery tangle may just be a precursor to similar "flashpoints" in India, given the importance of irrigation development for the country's food security.

Says Ramaswamy Iyer, former water resources secretary of India, who is now a fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, "The Cauvery dispute has become complicated because this river is being almost fully utilised." There is little unused water and hence both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu -- the two major beneficiaries of the Cauvery waters -- are determined to appropriate more water for themselves, he contends.

Other inter-state rivers like Narmada, Krishna and Godavari have not aroused much controversy because the dispute in those cases has been about unused river waters, explains Iyer. In the case of Cauvery, the projected demand of the basin states -- including small requirements of Kerala and Pondicherry -- is about 1,139 thousand million cubic feet (TMCF), far outstripping the 740 TMCF water available from the river.

But in the case of other river basins as well, a Cauvery scenario is not far off because many more parts of the country are "moving towards the limits of their water resource utilisation." According to a World Bank review of India's irrigation sector published in 1991, except in east and central India, the scope for further expansion of irrigation is limited.

In northwest India, "water development has nearly reached its physical limits" and extending the irrigated area is possible only by measures such as efficiency improvement. In western India, according to the report, the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra have only a moderate potential for irrigation development. Here, too, the bulk of the estimated potential is in the Narmada project and some other ongoing schemes. In the south, according to the World Bank report, the Central Water Commission estimate of 6.5 million ha of irrigation development potential remaining in 1985 is an exaggeration. But, interestingly, more than half of the existing potential in the region is in Andhra Pradesh. While Tamil Nadu has fully developed its water resources, there is at best a moderate scope of further development in Karnataka.

Thus, the two states at war with each other over the Cauvery waters -- Tamil Nadu and Karnataka -- have more or less used up all the water they have. But, on the other hand, the demands from agriculture and other new, thirsty and often profligate users like cities and industry have been going up sharply. In this scenario, no water-sharing arrangement can succeed unless it takes into account demand management and efficiency, says M A Chitale, chairperson of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage and another renowned irrigation expert.

But the pattern of irrigation development in the Cauvery basin shows clearly that little attention has been paid to either demand management or irrigation efficiency. Until the 1924 agreement between the then Madras and Mysore states, Tamil Nadu used most of the water from Cauvery in the absence of irrigation facilities in erstwhile Mysore state (See box). However, the construction of the Krishnarajasagara dam in Karnataka and the Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu in the 1930s set off a phase of irrigation development in the two states in which the demand for water spiralled (See box). The most far-reaching fallout of the Mettur dam was the change it introduced in the cropping season in the delta areas of Thanjavur district -- Tamil Nadu's rice bowl. Historically, the agricultural season in Tamil Nadu, known as the Sambha season, lasted from August to January, because the Thanjavur delta gets most of its rainfall between October and December under the influence of the northeast monsoon.

The Sambha season ensured optimum use of water, because, according to the rice cultivation practice of Sambha, seedlings were prepared by August and transplanted a month later so that the paddy plants would develop strong roots before the heavy northeast monsoon rains hit the area. Thus, most of the rain water could be stored in the fields and drainage of water into the sea was kept to a minimum.

But after the Mettur dam was commissioned, a kharif (winter) paddy crop, which came to be known in due course as Kuruvai, was introduced over a part of the old delta area. Since there were no large water-holding structures on the Cauvery before the construction of the Mettur dam, the cultivation of kharif paddy or Kuruvai was limited only to areas very close to the river. But the Mettur dam assured water to the fields whenever required and thus soon after the dam was commissioned, the land under Kuruvai increased three-fold.

Subsequently, too, heavy expansion of rice cultivation in Tamil Nadu has taken place in the Kuruvai season. According to J Jayaranjan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, in 1965, a locally developed hybrid paddy variety named ADT27 "created history in terms of converting land from single crop to double crop." The area under Kuruvai crop shot up from 109,350 ha in 1966 to 210,195 ha in 1968, he says.

But while Kuruvai paddy has increased in economic importance due to increased yields and employment, it has created complications as well. Kuruvai paddy is grown between June and October and must be harvested before the northeast monsoon sets in to avoid damage to the mature crop. But it also means that water cannot be stored in the field, as it could during the Sambha cultivation. Thus, the adoption of Kuruvai season has resulted in heavy quantities of water being washed away into the sea through the various drainage courses in the delta command area.

The growth of Kuruvai culture also set the stage directly for a conflict of interests between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Historically, the two states were able to meet their irrigation requirements from the available waters of Cauvery not only because of the smaller demand in Karnataka (See box) but also because the paddy seasons in the two states were different. While Mysore, in the upper reaches of the river, needed water for its paddy between June and August, the Sambha crop of Tamil Nadu needed it after October. But now, with the Kuruvai crop in Tamil Nadu, the demand for water between June and August has gone up heavily, precipitating a human-made scarcity. In addition, irrigation water demand during the Kuruvai paddy season is also high because of excessive evapo-transpiration in June and July, when the rainfall is low.

Meanwhile, irrigation in Karnataka from the Cauvery river shot up following the construction of the Krishnarajasagara dam. From about 60,750 ha in the pre-dam phase, it went up to about 121,500 ha after the construction of the dam. By 1971, Karnataka was irrigating about 178,200 ha from the Cauvery.

However, the big thrust to irrigation in Karnataka came after the construction in the early 1960s of a reservoir on Kabini, a tributary of the Cauvery. A series of reservoirs on other tributaries like the Swarnavathy (1965), Hemavathy (1968), Varuna canal (1979) and Yagachi (1983), followed. These irrigated about 453,600 ha in the state.

It is this astounding growth of irrigated area in Karnataka since the 1970s and the parallel growth in Tamil Nadu after the adoption of ADT27, which have created the present crisis. For two years after the interim award of the Cauvery tribunal (See box) in June 1991, there was no problem in the two states because of good rains in Karnataka. However, this year, the crisis flared again because the rains were somewhat delayed and Tamil Nadu alleged that Karnataka had not released the 205 TMCF of water as directed by the tribunal. Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha promptly went on an indefinite fast to get the "due share of water" for her state. In the ensuing brouhaha, there has been little attempt at examining the wasteful irrigation practices and the unsustainable extent of rice cultivation in the two states. As S Guhan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies puts it: "Better farm management, modernisation of irrigation systems, drainage improvement and conjunctive use of ground and surface water can help a great deal."

Several experts have pointed out in the past that while water exploitation has been increasing over the years, there has been little attempt at using it scientifically. As a Madras-based expert, who did not wish to be named, said: "The methods of irrigation are very old-fashioned and were designed when irrigation from the Cauvery was not developed in Karnataka and, hence, Tamil Nadu had easy access to the lion's share of the river water. That kind of abundance is history now."

The scarcity of water that faces the Cauvery basin seems to be largely cultured by the explosion of rice cultivation. Beginning with chief minister Jayalalitha, there have been loud cries about the food security of Tamil Nadu becoming imperiled if 205 TMCF of water is not released by Karnataka. According to S Ranganathan, president of the Cauvery Delta Farmers' Association, "At least 182,250 ha of Kuruvai crop is necessary for the food security of Tamil Nadu." Several experts, including some who were once critical of these developments, today echo this view because of the politicisation of the Cauvery issue.

There has been no attempt to explain why the food security of Tamil Nadu must depend so heavily on rice, which it does not have the resources to grow in such quantities. According to a published paper of R K Sivanappan, former head of the Water Technology Centre of the Coimbatore Agricultural University, Tamil Nadu could meet all its municipal water requirements by reducing the area under paddy cultivation by just 2 per cent from the present level of 2.7 million ha. He also said that even larger reductions would not affect the total production as there is technology to raise the yield in these areas by as much as 50 per cent.

In fact, agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan and his colleagues are reported to have conducted successful experiments with a variety of rice paddy that matures in 90 days, as against the 120 days required by the standard Kuruvai crop. Propagation of crops like this would mean farmers in the Thanjavur delta can begin their agricultural operation in July, reducing the inter-state scramble and squabble for water in June.

S Manavalan, former chief engineer of the Tamil Nadu public works department, goes beyond this. His contention is: "There is a need to wean farmers away from the Kuruvai rice cultivation. While the upper reaches of the Cauvery delta can be demarcated for Kuruvai, the lower reaches or the tail-end should switch to the cultivation of less water-intensive crops like cotton, gingili and groundnut. The loss in the productivity of rice will be offset in a few years' time."

Unfortunately, instead of addressing these problems rationally, the political leaders of the two states have only given chauvinistic hype to the Cauvery issue. A fact-finding committee set up by the Union government recommended in 1976 that Tamil Nadu should reduce its consumption from 489 TMCF to 393 TMCF, while Karnataka would get 239 TMCF. The arrangement was first accepted by Tamil Nadu, which was then under President's rule. However, the late M G Ramachandran's government, which assumed office soon after, refused to accept the decision.

Ever since, Tamil Nadu's farmers, who have taken to rice cultivation largely because of the government's support prices, have become more restive for want of adequate water for their crops. And, the political leaders of the two states have used the Cauvery issue for their own promotion. Former Karnataka water resources minister H N Nanje Gowda says that Jayalalitha went on a fast only to boost her sagging image in the state. However, what Nanje Gowda does not mention is that there is no dearth of such popularity parallels in Karnataka either, beginning with former chief minister S Bangarappa's ordinance against the interim award of the tribunal (See box).

Now, thanks to the political hype and the returns from rice, few farmers are willing to consider reducing their area under rice. As V Doraimanickam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Farmers' Society, says, "All the crop changes can be carried out only after the final award is given by the tribunal and it will still take time." Many others reject entirely the need to amend irrigation and agricultural practices, little realising that there can be no other solution to the crisis as there is just not enough water at current rates of consumption.

The present crisis, in fact, has many parallels with the energy crisis in Europe and north America in the mid-1970s. Then, the ever-increasing demand for energy and the steep hike in petroleum prices forced energy managers to look for more efficient ways of energy consumption. Explorations in this direction soon brought out an enormous potential in energy conservation and ended up in destroying the power of OPEC, the organisation that engendered the oil crisis.

The few available studies in India to conserve water indicate, if anything, an even greater potential for its conservation. The question is: Will the enlightened ones take up the issue in an atmosphere so charged with "Tamil" and "Kannadiga" nationalism? Not likely. Several erudite experts on the subject in both states refused to comment to Down To Earth "at this moment", for fear of hurting the cause of their respective states.

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