Cauvery dispute: SC leaves Karnataka tense and TN sulking for more water - Firstpost
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Cauvery dispute: SC leaves Karnataka tense and TN sulking for more water


Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article that appeared on 3 September

A helpless Supreme Court on Monday did a fine balancing act in deciding on the amount of water that Karnataka must release to Tamil Nadu. The quantum of water the court arrived at falls between what Karnataka was prepared to part with and what Tamil Nadu demanded.

As can be seen from the bandh being observed in Karnataka’s Mandya district on Tuesday and protests and road blockades elsewhere in the state, it’s foolhardy to expect the court to resolve the tricky problem even in the short term.

The court directed Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) for ten days, while Karnataka was ready for only 10,000 and Tamil Nadu insisted on 20,000. Cusec is the rate of water flow. A flow of 15,000 cusecs over a period of ten days amounts to a quantity of 13.6 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet).

File image of activists protesting over the Cauvery river dispute in Chennai. PTI

File image of activists protesting over the Cauvery river dispute in Chennai. PTI

Tamil Nadu contends that this quantity is still falling short by around 35 tmcft. Karnataka maintains that its reservoirs have only 51 tmcft of water, and releasing any more of it to Tamil Nadu will leave its own paddy crops dry and deprive Bengaluru and two other towns of drinking water.

The court’s water release arrangement is only for 10 days, after which it will hear the case again. In the meantime, the judges said that the Cauvery Supervisory Committee must look into Tamil Nadu’s demand for more water. And that is unlikely to resolve the issue either.

The supervisory committee, constituted in 2013 pending the formation of a permanent Water Management Board, is headed by the Union water resources secretary and consists of the chief secretaries of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, and officials of the Central Water Commission. Kerala has tributaries of the Cauvery, and Puducherry is at the end of the river.

In the past, the proceedings of this committee ended up as shouting matches if not in fisticuffs. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka can only be expected to repeat at the committee what they told the Supreme Court.

And as in the past, Kerala and Puducherry will come up with their own demands which will only serve as subplots that complicate the main story in a bad movie.

Kerala already has a ready issue on hand. The state has been proposing to build a dam across the Siruvani river, but on Saturday, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa shot off a letter to the prime minister asking him not to allow it. Siruvani is a tributary of Bhavani river, which is a tributary of the Cauvery.

But who must find how much water there really is in the Cauvery? And who must decide how it should be shared, if there isn’t enough water?

The Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal said in its 2007 verdict that the Centre must set up an authority to independently monitor and regulate water availability and releases. If this is still waiting to be implemented, it’s because the politics of parties take precedence over the economics of suffering farmers. In the face of claims and counter-claims, the parties in power at the Centre from 2007 till now had no wish to do anything that might incur the wrath of farmers — key votebanks — in one state or the other.

The trouble first arose in 1881 when Mysore wanted to build a dam across the Cauvery and Madras objected to it. The British arbitrated, and the result was an agreement in 1892, followed by another in 1924. But the dispute went on and on, and in 1990 came the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal which, after 17 years of fierce deliberations, came up with an award in 2007.

Politics thrives on human misery. Consider this: When water is scarce, even half-a-tmcft of it can cause a riot, in Karnataka if it’s released and in Tamil Nadu if it isn’t. Reservoir levels go low, and tempers run high, because millions of farmers in both states depend on the river. But even as the Cauvery basin goes dry for crops, it turns fertile for politics. Frenzied rhetoric makes the problem worse than it is.

No wonder that the Cauvery dispute has taken as many turns as the river takes twists on its course through the two states. Originating at Talakavery in Karnataka’s Kodagu district, the Cauvery traverses around 322 kilometres, enters Tamil Nadu near Hogenakkal in Dharmapuri district, zigzags for 483 kilometres more before joining the Bay of Bengal at Poompugar in Nagapattinam district of that state.

At the root of the dispute is Tamil Nadu’s claim that Karnataka’s dams on the river impound more water than they should and stop it from flowing down. Karnataka argues that Tamil Nadu has been not only usurping more water but even wasting it with “unscientific” agricultural methods, letting a good amount of it into the sea.

The backstory

In the Indian context, there are essentially three kinds of “water rights”. First comes the “riparian right”. It’s the people’s fundamental right to use the water flowing on the land on which they live.

Then there is the “prior-appropriation right”: Appropriate more water first and claim it as your right later. This means Territory A uses more water before Territory B gets a chance to do it and, when a dispute crops up later, lays claim to it as its legal share. This sounds suspiciously similar to a squatter’s right to land, but it isn’t really as bad or illegal. People who have used the water first have already invested in dams and are irrigating their lands, and they do earn some right over its continued use.

The third one, the “equality right” is what Territory B fights for, accusing Territory A of usurping more water by prior-appropriation. Territory B wants an “equitable” share for itself (similar to the prior-appropriation right, there is also the “prescriptive right”, acquired by long usage of water at a time when existing laws allowed it).

Karnataka’s contention is that Tamil Nadu had resorted to “prior-appropriation” of Cauvery water and that the British made it possible. The state says the British favoured the Madras Presidency as against Mysore, then ruled by a king.

The trouble first arose in 1881 when Mysore wanted to build a dam across the Cauvery and Madras objected to it. The British arbitrated, and the result was an agreement in 1892, followed by another in 1924. But the dispute went on and on, and in 1990 came the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal which, after 17 years of fierce deliberations, came up with an award in 2007.

At the root of the dispute is Tamil Nadu’s claim that Karnataka’s dams on the river impound more water than they should and stop it from flowing down

The tribunal allocated 270 tmcft of water to Karnataka, 419 to Tamil Nadu. Kerala and Puducherry were given 30 and seven tmcft respectively. These allocations were made on the basis that the Cauvery has a total of 740 tmcft of water “at 50 percent dependability”, which means that the river has this much of water in 50 out of 100 years.

The tribunal said that Karnataka should release 192 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu in every “water year” (from June to May), and that’s what becomes contentious when the rains fail. The tribunal also said that, during bad monsoons, the states must share the “distress” in the proportion of their normal allocations.

But in the absence of an effective mechanism to ensure a proportionate sharing of the “distress”, the dispute rages on.

Is there a permanent end to the dispute?

A permanent solution was what the Tribunal was thought to have found after 17 years of deliberations. It’s a question of implementing it — in distress years. When rains are copious, the states have little problem in sharing the water. Setting up a Cauvery Management Board or Authority, as suggested by the Tribunal, on the lines of the Bhakra Beas Management Board is perhaps the only way to ensure that the dispute doesn’t repeat itself like a stuck record whenever rainfall is deficient.

Equally important is to find ways to save water and increase inflows into the river.

A Rs-1,000-crore proposal that Tamil Nadu had in 1974 to modernise its irrigation system could save up to nearly 50 tmcft of water, but it has been hanging fire for lack of funds. And the demand of the state’s farmers to desilt Cauvery channels has had no takers either. Reason: Lack of funds.

On its part, Karnataka could tap at least part of the huge amount of rain water that falls over Western Ghats and simply flows into the ocean into a network of pipes and let it into the Cauvery, experts point out.

Will Narendra Modi be large-hearted enough to investigate and fund such projects in both the states?

The author tweets @sprasadindia

First Published On : Sep 6, 2016 10:48 IST

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