Decoding Cauvery water dispute

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While the north Indians are confused why the madrasis are fighting over madrasis, things seem to worsen over the Cauvery water dispute which ages backs to 125 years with its effects visible even today. Though most people may be unaware of the fact, apart from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu being the part of the dispute, even Puducherry and Kerala are also somewhere associated with the whole matter. The river Cauvery starts its course from Karnataka and then enters Tamil Nadu with its larger basin lying with Kerala and exits into the Bay of Bengal through Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu. Puducherry also cover a significant part of the river.

When did this begin?

In 1892 when India was under colonial rule there was an agreement between the Madras Presidency and the king of Mysore which was reworked with arbitration in 1924 for the sharing of Cauvery water. This agreement was valid for a period of 50 years initially subject to review. One of the important points to be noted about this agreement was that Tamil Nadu (then madras presidency) received more water than Karnataka. The reason being the rulers of Madras had already built check dams and reservoirs until the later part of 10th century and they used it for irrigation. Mysore on the other hand did not even build a major dam until 1924. So while the agreement was on the verge of getting arbitrated Tamil Nadu obviously had much more irrigated land to show as compared to Karnataka which gave Tamil Nadu advantage of much more share of water of Cauvery.


What happened after independence and how it became a legal dispute?

So in 1956 by the formation of states based on linguistic grounds, Madras Presidency and Mysore both became separate states. This was one of the factors which contributed to the dispute. Also in 1956 the Interstate River Water Distribution Act was also passed to deal with the problem associated with river disputes. Initially, the dispute was only between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu but later on Kerala and Puducherry also joined the pact. Many arbitration attempts were made by both sides even after 1974 when the 50-year-old agreement ended but still no adequate solution was found.

So finally on 1986 a farmer association from Tamil Nadu knocked the door of Supreme Court to finally settle this case. Although the farmers association had the support of the state, they were themselves not a state and so their petition was challenged under section 32 of the Interstate River Water Distribution Act of 1956. The supreme did not reject the petition as it was pending for seven years and was for a greater cause, the state govt was eventually made a party to the dispute.

The court observed that the central government through its constant efforts was not able to settle the matter between states arbitrarily and hence the Supreme Court under the mandatory nature of section 4 of Interstate River Water Distribution Act directed the government to make a tribunal for the settlement of the whole matter. So finally a tribunal was created in 1990. Though initially some figures were settled upon for the supply of water, these kept on fluctuating depending on the rainfall in a particular year.  The worst scenario was observed during 2002 when rainfall was very scarce and SC had to intervene. Finally in 2007, as per the final order of the tribunal, 419 tmc of water was given to Tamil Nadu and 270 tmc water to Karnataka. Kerala and Puducherry received 30 tmc ft and 7 tmc ft water respectively. However, both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu filed a review petition before the tribunal.

The confusion is how this figure came. According to an article in The Wire

“After years of calculations by experts and arguments by lawyers before the tribunal, it decided that at 50% dependability (of the monsoon), 740 TMC ft. of water would be available annually. This is where all the confusion is created and must be cleared. First of all, we need to know how and from where this 740 TMC ft. is generated. How do we arrive at that figure? In simple terms, 270 TMC ft. which Karnataka is allocated plus 192 TMC ft. which it has to ensure to Tamil Nadu, comes to 462 TMC ft. This is the quantum of water, which, according to the tribunal, is the yield from the river within Karnataka annually. So out of 462 TMC ft. Karnataka has to give 192 TMC ft to Tamil Nadu.

While Tamil Nadu gets this 192 TMC ft. from Karnataka, how it manages to use 419 TMC ft. is the next puzzle. The simple answer is 419 minus 192 – which is 227 TMC ft. – is what Tamil Nadu generates from its own catchment areas within the state. If Karnataka and Tamil Nadu’s yield comes to 689 TMC ft (462+227), Kerala contributes 51 TMC ft., of which it keeps 30 while 21 TMC ft is reserved for Puducherry (7) and environmental purposes (14).

The sum and substance of it all are that while Karnataka contributes 462 TMC ft. it is allowed to use 270 TMC ft., Tamil Nadu which contributes 227 TMC ft. gets 419 TMC ft. and Kerala which contributes 51 TMC ft. is allowed to use 30 TMC ft.”

By seeing the above figure it seems that Karnataka suffers a major injustice but this is mainly due to historical reason. Also, the type of crop grown in Tamil Nadu requires much more water.

The conclusion is that though this whole thing has been given a light of political agenda while going through the above facts it is clear that it’s more of a legal and policy issue. It can be observed that when the rainfall level is fine Karnataka has no problem to share the water with Tamil Nadu but the scenario changes when the rainfall level is less in a particular year, like 1991, 2002,2012 and also happening now in 2016.

This issue can reach a final solution according to the author through the development of alternative irrigation practices which when developed would help the farmers during the scarce rainfall years. Proper interaction and talks between state governments are the best method to tackle such problems rather than making it a political issue and doing violent protests as seen recently.


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