SC delivers verdict in Cauvery water issue: Dispute between Karnataka, Tamil Nadu dates back to 1892

The Supreme Court pronounced its verdict on the decades-old Cauvery water dispute on Friday between riparian states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Puducherry and Kerala.

The court has directed Karnataka to provide Tamil Nadu with 177 tmcft of Cauvery water. It also added that Karnataka will get 14.75 tmcft additional water.

The bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice AM Khanwilkar and Justice DY Chandrachud had on 20 September, 2017 reserved the verdict on the appeals filed by Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala against the 2007 award of the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT) on sharing of water. Security was beefed up in both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka ahead of the apex court's verdict for fear of clashes.

Dispute dates back to 1892

The 802-kilometre-long Cauvery river is the largest river basin in South India, originating in Talacauvery in Karnataka's Kodagu district.

The Cauvery dispute began in the year 1892, between the Madras Presidency (under the British Raj) and the Princely state of Mysore (as Karnataka was known then) when they had to come to terms with dividing the river water between the two states.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Since then, Cauvery river water has been a bone of contention between the two states. In the year 1910, both states started planning the construction of dams on the river. The issue was presided upon by the British who also decided which state would receive what share of the water. In 1924, an agreement was signed between the two states where the rules of regulation of the Krishnarajsagar dam were pointed out.

The two accords stated that existing irrigation should not be hindered by constructing new dams upstream (in Karnataka) and that irrigation should be impacted downstream. What it also said was that all works planned must be agreed to by the states located downstream (in this case, Tamil Nadu), according to Mint

According to the 1892 and the 1924 agreements the river water was distributed as follows: 75 percent with Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, 23 percent to Karnataka and the remaining with Kerala.

However, Karnataka did not implement these agreements. Protests kept simmering over the which state gets how much of the Cauvery water through the pre-Independence and post-Independence years.

Things became complicated after 1956 following the re-organisation of states, according to Hindustan Times. Prior to 1956, most matters were settled through arbitration and agreements. Through the 1960s, Tamil Nadu strongly objected to Karnataka buildings two dams on the Cauvery river but the latter went ahead anyway. Five rounds of talks to resolve the dispute also failed, according to Outlook.

By this time, Tamil Nadu had also built the Mettur dam. The state had become heavily dependent on the Cauvery river after they developed millions of agricultural land around the river. They argued that the livelihood of farmers would be affected if there was a change in the distribution of water. In 1972, the Centre agreed to appoint a committee who would collect statistics from each of the states that had the river basin — Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The fact-finding committee found that Tamil Nadu used 566 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet), Karanataka used 177 tmcft.

In 1974, Karnataka claimed the 1924 agreement allowed the state to discontinue water supply from the Cauvery to Tamil Nadu after 50 years. It argued that since the river originated in its territory, the state had the right to use its waters as it wished. Karnataka also said that British-era agreements favoured Tamil Nadu and were not bound by a British Raj deal brokered between the British empire and the Maharaja of Mysore.

How do these disputes not occur with rivers like Ganga?

Unlike rivers such as Ganga, Indus and Brahmaputra, which originate from glaciers, Cauvery is a rain-fed river supported by tributaries flowing into it, according to Outlook. During heavy monsoon, the region experiences excess water flow in the river. When there is a lack of rainfall, inducing a drought-like situation, both states start fighting for whatever little water the Cauvery offers at the time. This affects agriculture and farmers' livelihood as well.

Dispute lands at CWDT's doorstep in 1990

In 1976, the states arrived at an understanding that each state would continue using the water according to their previous usage, only now an additional 125 tmcft water would also be saved and shared.

Karnataka argued heavily that the river water should be divided according to international rules, i.e. in equal portions. They suggested that 94 percent could be divided equally between them and the rest could be distributed to Kerala and Puducherry. Tamil Nadu wants to stick to the 1892 and 1924 agreements, and Karnataka refuses to do so.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Several rounds of negotiations in the 1980s between the two states failed to bring about an understanding over the issue which resulted in the formation of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) in 1990. This was done 20 years after Tamil Nadu approached the Central government under the Inter State River Water Disputes Act, 1956.

In 1991, the tribunal gave its award after calculating the average inflows into Tamil Nadu over 10 years — between 1980 and 1990. They directed Karnataka to ensure that 205 tmcft reached Tamil Nadu every year. They also directed Karnataka not to increase irrigated land area from the existing measure.

However this decision was not well received by the people of the two states which simultaneously erupted into riots. The Karnataka government rejected the tribunal award and sought to get it annulled. However, the Supreme Court struck down the ordinance and asked for the tribunal award to be upheld. Karnataka refused to oblige.

Following this, the interim award was published in the Government of India gazette.

 The next few years saw enough rain for the states to not create an uproar. In 1993, Tamil Nadu's former chief minister Jayalalithaa went on a sudden fast at the MGR memorial in Chennai. She demanded Tamil Nadu's share of water as stipulated by the interim order.

In 1998, the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) was formed with the prime minister (PV Narasimha Rao) presiding as the chairperson and the chief ministers of the four states as members.

CWDT pronounced the final award in 2007 after nearly 17 years. The tribunal held valid the agreements of 1892 and 1924 executed between the erstwhile governments of Madras and Mysore. The tribunal allocated the river water as follow: 419 tmcft to Tamil Nadu; 270 tmcft to Karnataka; 30 tmcft to Kerala (as a tributary of Cauvery flows through it) and 7 tmcft to Pudducherry.

Karnataka protested the tribunal award and observed a state-wide bandh.

The tribunal also mandated that Karnataka should release 192 tmcft of water every year between June and May, according to India Today. However, the tribunal order was vague about what would happen if there was a lack of rainfall, only stating that the amount of water shared should be reduced proportionally. This became further cause for distress as Karnataka maintained it did not have enough water to share with Tamil Nadu.

In 2013, the Centre notified the final award of the CWDT. The government was mandated to constitute the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) with the gazette notification of the final award of the tribunal.

Supreme Court intervention

Activists carrying the unofficial Karnataka flag. PTI

Activists carrying the unofficial Karnataka flag. PTI

In 2016, the Tamil Nadu government moved the Supreme Court stating that the 2007 tribunal verdict was erroneous as it did not take into consideration its multiple cropping season. While state demanded 20,000 cusecs of water per day, Karnataka offered to release just 10,000 cusecs, according to Hindustan TimesThe apex court finally ordered Karnataka release 15,000 cusecs of water per day for 10 days, which it later reduced to 12,000 cusecs. This led to outbreak of protests in Bengaluru and across Mandya, Mysore and Haasan districts in Karnataka.

Before reserving its Friday judgment, the Supreme Court pulled up the Centre for not implementing the final CWDT award and for not forming the Cauvery Management Board, according to The New Indian Express.

Possible scenarios following Supreme Court's final verdict

According to this Firstpost report, the apex court verdict is likely to ignite public passions, with political posturing in both states.

"If they give a good report, which gives more water to Karnataka, we will welcome it. If it is partial to Tamil Nadu, we won't be happy,'' says Kurubur Shanthakumar, the president of the Karnataka Sugarcane Growers Association told Firstpost. He also does not welcome the formation of the Cauvery Management Board.

Farmers in Tamil Nadu are also apprehensive about the verdict after what Union minister, Pon Radhakrishnan said on Wednesday. The trust deficit is so huge that even though it is the Supreme Court that is delivering the verdict, Tamil Nadu farmers suspect the Centre's intentions.

One of the main reasons for this is the upcoming Karnataka Assembly election this year. Tamil Nadu feels the verdict will give the Congress government in Karnataka a chance to show that its heart beats for the Kannadigas by hardening its position over the Cauvery. Given that the Cauvery basin is the political arena where the Congress will lock horns with the JD(S), one can expect the ruling party to exploit the post-verdict situation to its advantage, writes TS Sudhir in this article. The BJP, which is hoping to come to power in Karnataka and has little political stake in Tamil Nadu, is likely to follow suit.

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Updated Date: Feb 16, 2018 10:59 AM

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