Outside Dravidian India, not much is comprehended of developments within the region. Among these developments is the long battle between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, over the River Cauvery. The extreme politicisation of the water-sharing dispute has shaped the relationship between the two states — at times, provoking enmity based on languages and cultural beliefs between their people. Little do they know, they’ve been drinking the same water all along.

This is not a personal journey, nor is this a story I was directly impacted by. However, it is one that carries the identity of the place that I come from, the people I am indirectly connected with, and a story that greatly shaped the current environment. As much I stepped away to see the scenario holistically, I was drawn nearer to people who are affected by it. The journalistic route I chose defined my priorities; I listened to stories — not to record, but to hear. This five-part project — River (S)tresses — will someday talk to the world about the place I come from.


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On 19 July 2018, the sluice gates of the Mettur Dam on the River Cauvery were opened. Krishnamoorthy, a farmer who lives in the deltaic region of Tamil Nadu, rejoiced as he sowed paddy in his land for the first time in 10 years. However, the late release of the water (the scheduled date was 12 June) made him miss the other planting cycles. This was the plight of lakhs of farmers who live along the river.

Still, it was an occasion of note, as stakeholders rejoiced in seeing the Cauvery — the site of such bitter acrimony — flow forth. For years, the river that had run nearly dry in some areas; the heavy monsoons of 2018 returned to it its majesty, while possibly ending the water conflict — at last temporarily.

Hydro politics over its rivers is not a new phenomenon in India, but the Cauvery water dispute is one-of-its-kind, in that it has continued for over two centuries now.

The Cauvery has been the backbone of, and played a crucial economic and social role for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Often called the Dakshina Ganga (Ganges of the South — a title also bequeathed to the River Godavari), the Cauvery runs for over 760 km and is the third-largest river in South Indian.

The Cauvery originates as a small stream in the Western Ghats in Karnataka before covering the massive delta region spanning 125 km north-south along the coast in Tamil Nadu, before draining into the Bay of Bengal. Unlike the rivers of the north that are ice fed, the Cauvery is a rain fed river that depends on the seasonal South West monsoon in the months of June-September every year for its water. The irregular monsoons every year results in the lack of water flow, leaving the two states fighting for their share of river water.


The Cauvery water sharing dispute can be traced back to the 11th century AD. However, the modern-day dispute has been recorded since 1807, triggered by questions over property rights over the river, conflict of uses and lack of readiness to share or compromise. The Colonial era agreements of 1892 and 1924 can be quoted as milestones of the dispute; Karnataka’s stance is that the downstream region (Tami Nadu) cannot claim the river water when there is insufficient rainfall and water scarcity upstream, while Tamil Nadu refers to the 1924 agreement as being fundamental, where the river supports the key projects and irrigational works in the state.

Through the years, several attempts have been made to resolve the dispute in the form of constituting tribunals, authorities, government intervention etc. These have garnered national attention and been the subject of political and public debate. Every attempt to put an end to the issue has given rise to a new set of difficulties and threats. In several instances, the issue has been used as a trump card for state elections and to gain public support, but the real problems have seldom been addressed.

But what are the real complications? And how can they be addressed in a dispute with historical roots?



Any Dravidian belonging to Karnataka or Tamil Nadu can understand how the political scenario controls and dictates the course of the dispute every time it arises, especially during the Assembly elections. News reports tend to highlight this political aspect, giving the people in power and their thoughts on the Cauvery ore significance than the river in itself.

Political and institutional factors determine whether the river dispute is ended or continues, and this has been the norm since Colonial times.

In the days of the British Raj, Karnataka was known as the Mysore Princely State, ruled by the Wodeyar dynasty; Tamil Nadu was called the Madras Presidency, and was ruled by the British. The Colonial rulers’ power was paramount, thus giving the Madras Presidency the upper hand in the agreement of 1924, and situating therein the ‘status quo’.


In the present, the plurality of political parties voicing different opinions has given an opportunity for competitive politics, giving rise to the formation of convenience-based alliances. The infamous 1991 Anti-Tamil riots in Karnataka presented the issue’s violent peak, beginning as a protest against a court order that granted Tamil Nadu a greater share of the Cauvery waters.

Language politics played a key role in further inflaming the issue.

In 1995, soon after India began experimenting with coalitions between regional and national parties, the Cauvery water dispute, hitherto a state-level issue, took on a higher profile.

Nothing concrete has been achieved, but the trend of political parties speaking “on behalf of the farmers” has ensured the dispute simmers.


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Full bibliography and references list here.

Next: Chapter I — The Sorrow of the Western Ghats

Anusha Sundar is a (photo)journalist with an eye for environmental, cultural and human-centric stories. Follow her work on Instagram