The water conflict issue between states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry is due to the River Cauvery, which is regarded as one of the best regulated rivers of India. Almost 90 percent of the flow is utilised for the irrigation of one million hectares of agricultural land as well as generating electricity which helps the states to generate revenue and provide wealth and prosperity to its entire basin area.
The River Cauvery has a number of waterfalls, rapids and cascades which provide cheap sources of hydroelectricity as well as narrow gorges where construction of dams and reservoirs is feasible. It is because of these benefits that dispute has been arising between the above mentioned states for sharing of its waters ("Brief notes on Cauvery," 2012).
The major part of the basin area of the river lies in Tamil Nadu although the main source of drawing water lies in Karnataka. Agriculture is the most predominant sector of the economy of Tamil Nadu and therefore, through a number of irrigation schemes, it has been utilising the river water for a long period of time, engaging 70 percent of its population ("Agriculture in Tamil Nadu," 2012).
Unlike major rivers in north part of the subcontinent i.e. Ganga, the Cauvery River does not originate from a permanent glacier. The major source of water for the river comes from the seasonal monsoon rains and several tributaries therefore during times of insufficient rain, the region develops a drought situation and vice versa of being flooded during heavy monsoons. The irrigation of the agricultural land in the basin area is heavily dependent on the water from the river therefore, during droughts, relations between the two states becomes intense.
While pre-independence disputes between Mysore (now largely Karnataka) and Madras (now largely Tamil Nadu and parts of Kerala) were largely settled through arbitrations and agreements by the British, the division of water became a serious issue after state-reorganisation. Starting in 1959 and lasting throughout the 60s, Tamil Nadu objected to Karnataka building two dams but the latter went ahead, as the fiver-rounds of talks to solve the dispute failed. In 1974, Karnataka asserted that the 1924 agreement entailed a discontinuation of the water supply to Tamil Nadu after 50 years and the dispute as we know it today assumed centre-stage. Since the river originates in Karnataka, it argued, the state was entitled to determine how best to use the river's water and was not bound by the agreements imposed on the maharaja of Mysore by the colonial government which, it added, were skewed heavily in favour of Tamil Nadu ("The Cauvery Water Dispute,"2007, Para. 5).
Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, had developed millions of acres of its agricultural land and as a result was now heavily dependent on the already existing pattern of the usage than lowering the percentage of the water. The change of water distribution pattern would significantly affect the livelihood of farmers in the state. Karnataka on the other side wants to tap most of the water flowing from its territory then release it to the neighbouring state. There has been a continuous blame game being played at both ends and charges building new dams and expanding the agricultural areas irrigated by the available water, thus affecting the water-supply downstream have formed a continuous scenario . As a result, there has been a dispute and tension between these two states over the division of water.
What has been done?
In 1976, after a series of discussions between the two states and the union government, a final agreement draft was prepared based on findings of the Cauvery Fact Finding Committee (CFFC). The draft was accepted by all states and the union government except Tamil Nadu as it demanded the restoration of the agreement of 1924. In the 1980s, several meetings were arranged between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to find a solution but there was no fruitful breakthrough. In 1986, a farmer's association in Tamil Nadu presented a petition to the Supreme Court demanding the constitution of a tribunal for adjudication for the Cauvery water dispute. In February 1990, the Supreme Court directed the two states to complete negotiations. The futile negotiations between the states urged the Supreme Court to direct the union government to constitute a tribunal to adjudicate the dispute and pass an award and allocate water among the four states.
The Karnataka government rejected the interim award and issued an ordinance seeking to annul the tribunal's award. In 1998, the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) was established, its purpose being to implement the interim order and the related subsequent orders. On February 5 2007, the three-member Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal proposed a 1,000 pages-long final award. The tribunal ordered that the waters of the river Cauvery be properly allocated within the states of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and U.T. of Pondicherry for their beneficial uses. The allocations were as follows: Tamil Nadu 419 thousand million cubic ft. (TMC) of water whereas its initial demand was 512 TMC; Karnataka 270 TMC whereas it had demanded 465 TMC; Kerala 30 TMC; and Pondicherry 7 TMC. (“The report of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, 2007”). The award was welcomed by all states except Karnataka which formed the opinion that it had not been allocated a desirable quantity of water leading it to file a revision petition. To date, a peaceful settlement has not been formed with each state making allegations and complaints about the others.
What can be done?
The issue is a highly emotive one for the states as the Cauvery is a lifeline for the citizens on both sides therefore favorable redistribution of water according to the need of each state could be the primary step for the solution of this issue. Another approach to settle this conflict could be the reformulation of national water policy guidelines which governs the sharing of waters of interstate rivers. National consensus should be reached on water sharing principles which facilitates the formulation and implementation of new water policy and guidelines.
Each state has taken a stand on what it considers its rights: Karnataka asserts an unqualified right to use Cauvery waters for the benefit of its farmers and Tamil Nadu insists on its right to historic flows and the permanence of the 1924 agreement. We have to get away from both of those untenable propositions. Tamil Nadu must realise: that historic flows cannot be restored; that it cannot hold a veto on upstream development; that it must learn to live with reduced flows; and that it can do so through a combination of better water management, avoidance of waste, local conservation of rain water, conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater, changes in cropping patterns, and so on.
Karnataka must recognise: that Tamil Nadu is a co-riparian with a right to share in the waters of the common river and not a poor relative asking for charity; that long-established irrigated agriculture and the way of life built around it should not be unduly disrupted; and that the abstraction of water by the upstream state should not be done in such a manner as to cause serious difficulties to the downstream state (“The Cauvery tangle," 2002). Any persisting issues outside of the tribunal's order should be sorted out through negotiations. Legal merits and demerits are not the solution to the problem. A give-and-take policy has to be followed.
As both states continue their struggle over the Cauvery River, it is likely that national intervention will be necessary in order to secure the future security of the farmers in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, seeing as how shared water is a national issue that goes beyond the Cauvery River and can happen in the future to various other rivers which share state or national boundaries. A national response to the water supply and distribution for the all the rivers falling within Indian national jurisdiction should be worked out to avoid any problems in future resulting from water crises i.e. drought or flood. Politically beneficial motives for the parties and the government of each state is another crucial factor that is preventing any major breakthrough over this issue. The idea of equity has to be driven into the minds of both the government and political parties and they need to make some sacrifices, as it is a question of maintaining law and order. The states involved have to compromise at some level which is favorably acceptable to them and find a reasonable settlement to this ongoing issue.
Author : Ajay Singh Chabba/RESET editorial , Govind Dahal