The Cauvery Water Dispute is not new, nor is the Award declared by the Tribunal. What has erupted in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over water distribution is
intriguing. It has been mainly concentrated in urban centres, linguistic jingoism overshadowing the water concerns and lack of matured leadership and absence of localised dialogue allowing vested interests to manipulate the situation
A Jayaram from Bengaluru & T S Venkatesan from Chennai
Though sporadic inter-State disputes are not new to us, the violence in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the name of Cauvery water dispute, erupted after a Supreme Court verdict, fuelled by fringes, raises fresh and grave concerns in many minds. The ASSOCHAM estimate of the losses ranging from 22-25 thousand crores and fire brigade departments saying 2.7 lakh water utilised to flames under control are itself shocking enough to doubt the intentions behind the violence. The 125-year-old Cauvery issue over the inter-State water sharing has been kept pending like a boiling cauldron by politicians to suit to their whims and fancies and particularly to keep their vote bank politics alive and to indulge in blame game rather than acting in the interest of the State or the stakeholders involved. The irony is it happens in Bharat where the federal structure is given due importance. Slew of arguments and emotions have flown than the Cauvery water herself due to the number of Tribunals, committees set up for finding solution to this much debated issue has far exceeded the number of dams constructed or water conservation measures taken in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. After the SC directive recently, the series of violence and protest erupted in both the States.
Timeline of Century-old conflict
1892: Madras Presidency and the princely state of Mysore sign an agreement to share Cauvery water
The Dispute: Origin and Evolution
Before dwelling into the issue, we can have a quick recap of the origin of the issue in a nutshell. The Cauvery river takes birth at Talakaveri in Coorg District of Karnataka. It is one of the holy rivers and the lifeline of Tamil Nadu. The 802 km long river is regarded as the Ganges of South India. It runs 320 km in Karnataka and 423 km in Tamil Nadu before reaching the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar. Parts of three Indian states—Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka—and the Union Territory of Pondicherry (now Puducherry) lie in the Cauvery basin. It is the main grid irrigation for the farmers of both states. Cauvery forms the rice bowls of both states. People in both states have an emotional and spiritual connect with River Cauvery.
Historically the dispute over sharing Cauvery waters dates back to the British era. The Cauvery basin covers a large expanse of land including major chunks in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and also smaller areas in Kerala and Puducherry. Initially, the dispute was between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu but later Kerala and Puducherry also entered the fray. The warring Mysore Presidency and the Princely State of Mysore entered into an agreement in 1924. Mysore was allowed to construct a dam Krishna Raja Sagar at Kannambadi Village to trap 44.8 thousand million cubic feet of water. It was valid for a period of 50 years and a review thereafter was part of the pact. And by 1934, the Mettur Dam in Tamil Nadu was built with a capacity of 90 tmc.
After Independence both states moved Supreme Court on several occasions but the issue could not be solved. A Fact Finding Committee set-up in 1970, submitted its report in 1972 and further studies were done by expert committee and the states reached an agreement in 1976. However, after a new government came to power in Tamil Nadu, it refused to give consent to terms of the agreement paving way for further dispute. As both sides stuck to their stand firmly, the Centre set up the Cauvery Water Tribunal in 1990. After hearing both sides for 16 years, said both agreements of 1892 and 1942 were valid. It gave its final award in 2007 allowing 419 tmc ft for Tamil Nadu, 270 tmc ft for Karnataka, 30 tmc ft for Kerala and 7tmc ft for Puducherry. Unsatisfied with the order, both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka moved to SC. The conflict catches up when the monsoon fails or in the years of distress as there is lesser water to share.
PM appeals for calm
The attacks on Tamilians in Karnataka and Kannadigas in Tamilians had pained the entire nation and PM Modi too echoed his unhappiness over the issue. PM Modi said, “The situation that has emerged in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, as a fallout of the issue of distribution of the waters of the Cauvery River, is distressful. I am personally pained at the developments. Violence cannot provide a solution to any problem. In a democracy, solutions are found through restraint and mutual dialogue. This dispute can only be solved within the legal ambit. Breaking the law is not a viable alternative. The violence and arson seen in the last two days is only causing loss to the poor, and to our nation’s property. Whenever the country has faced adverse circumstances, the people of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, just like people across the country, have always handled the situation with sensitivity. I appeal to the people of the two States, to display sensitivity, and also keep in mind their civic responsibilities. I trust you will keep national interest and nation building above all else, and give priority to restraint, harmony, and finding a solution, eschewing violence, destruction and arson.”
Karnataka wanted the pact be redrawn keeping in view with the population, acreage, a clear cut process in the event of a distress and contended that the award was in favour of Tamil Nadu. Whenever they were called for talks, each time Tamil Nadu CM or Karnakata CM and representatives took turns to skip or stage walk outs delaying and deferring any sane debates the conflict an eternal trouble. It has become less about water and more about vote bank politics cashing on emotional, linguistic and ethnic rubbing. In a federal form, the tribunal or court verdict on river water sharing is binding on all parties to the dispute.
Why blame Modi?
The Immediate Cause
The current round of litigation and lawlessness has been triggered after the Tamil Nadu Government approached the Supreme Court praying for adherence to the letter of the final award of the Cauvery Tribunal given on February 5, 2007. The Tribunal headed by former Supreme Court Judge NP Singh had allotted 419 thousand million cubic feet of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu, 270 tmc.ft to Karnataka, 30 tmc.ft to Kerala and seven tmc.ft to Puducherry. It had determined the total availability of water in the Cauvery basin at 740 tmc.ft in a normal year. The Tribunal has laid down that the quantum of water to be released by Karnataka at the Biligundulu (gauging station) on the border with Tamil Nadu should be 192 feet. Karnataka was unhappy with that award and has sought a review of the final award in the SCand is awaiting its verdict. The Tribunal has laid down the monthly releases of water to Tamil Nadu in a normal year from June to November.
Need A National Perspective on Water Management
Dr Madhav A Chitale is an eminent scientist and engineer associated with planning, investigation and construction of river valley projects. He was secretary to Government of Maharashtra (1981-1983), before moving over to the Central Government in 1984, as commissioner, River Basins. He also served as chairman, Central Water Commission, an apex body of India’s water sector and as secretary, Ministry of Water Resources from 1989. After retirement, he became secretary-general of International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage during 1993-1997. One of the originators of the Ganga Action Plan, Dr. Chitale has played a major role in getting India’s decision-makers and strategic planners to think of water as a resource whose quality and availability need to be safeguarded. . Prafulla Ketkar, Editor Organiser spoke to him on sidelines of India-EU Water Partnership Workshop on River Basin Management held at New Delhi on current water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Excerpt:
On the question of releases in a distress year as the current one, the Tribunal has said “In case the yield of Cauvery basin is less in a distress year, the allocated shares shall be proportionately reduced among the States of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and the union territory of Puducherry”. The distress sharing clause has been criticised as a vulnerable aspect of the final award leading to flare ups in the two States in years of failed rains. From all accounts 2016 is a distress year. Both the states received below normal rain during the monsoon. Karnataka refused to give Cauvery water forcing Tamil Nadu to tap the doors of the SC. With the SC directive to Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs daily till September 15 provoked pro- Kannada outfits to embark on large scale violence targeting Tamil Nadu based vehicles and properties owned by Tamilians. Karnataka’s contention is that there is no enough drinking water for their people and to release water for Tamil Nadu for a third summer crop is unacceptable.
State flag of Karnataka?
It might come as a surprise or shock to many people outside Karnataka that the protesters in Karnataka has been featured waving a ‘red and yellow flag’ (commonly known as Kannada flag) vigorously while shouting slogans against the Supreme Court Judgment. Does the Karnataka have an official State flag other than our national tri-colour? Not really.
In a way the September 12 order of the Supreme Court was in Karnataka’s favour, but the lumpen elements who indulged in violence could not understand what the Court stated. In the revised decision, Karnataka has now been told to release a reduced quantum of 12,000 cusecs a day till September 20.
Interestingly it was not the farmers who resorted to violence as they are the ones most affected by any reduced flow of Cauvery waters through the canals. But fringe groups in Bangaluru which never seem to have wielded the plough or entered a slushy wet land. In fact violence erupted even before the Supreme Court announced its order indicating that it was not really related to the Cauvery issue. Over a century old linguistic prejudices and jingoism among Kannadigas and Tamilians, much before the dispute over sharing of Cauvery water arose, people of the erstwhile Princely State of Mysore had resented the domination of Tamilians in the administration. In later decades it related to large scale influx of Tamilians to Bangalore and other places denying the local people of their jobs, openings in trade and industry and so on.
Tamil Nadu Version
Tamil Nadu says, Karnataka has built several dams in its territory despite objection from Tamil Nadu and violating the agreements. Also its spread of land for cultivation has increased manifold whereas in Tamil Nadu it has been shrinking. For Tamil Nadu, Cauvery is the main river, whereas in Karnataka it has Krishna, Tungabadra, Ghataprabha and Bhima.
Thanjavur, the erstwhile capital of Chola Kingdom, is called the rice bowl of the State. Tamil Nadu claims its irrigation dates back to AD 200 when the Grant Anaicut (a marvel even today) was built across river Cauvery by Chola King Karikaalan. Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagpattinam, Trichy and Cuddalore are the delta districts wherein agriculture is the predominant occupation. With the vagaries of monsoon and recalcitrant attitude of Karnataka has badly affected the livelihood of many. It is a systematic failure on the part of politicians and bureaucracy of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and has been conveniently coloured with linguistic emotions and ethnic divides. They have no real will to settle the issue or to mitigate farmer’s plight. As experts suggests, it is totally unacceptable, unethical to block or deny water a downstream. To avoid repeat of violence, bandhs that jeopardises livelihood of people, affect the economy, damage to public property, parties to the dispute should engage in meaningful dialogue. This year too, in Tamil Nadu the short term Kuruvai crop and long term Samba crop could not be cultivated as no water was released from Mettur dam for irrigation purposes. Tamil Nadu also witnessed untoward incidents like stone throwing on a hotel owned by Kannadigas, hurling petrol bombs, attacks on vehicles bearing Karnataka registration.
A group of farmers’ association, under the umbrella of All Farmers and Farm Labourers Associations has called for a picketing agitation in Delta districts on September 20. They also urged the Centre to immediately set up Cauvery Management Board and the Cauvery Water Regulatory Authority and also ensure release of Tamil Nadu’s due share of water by Karnataka as per the final award of the Tribunal. Trader outfits too jumped into the fray.
The saturnalia of violence in Bengaluru in particular on September 12 against the Supreme Court order rejecting Karnataka’s appeal to freeze an earlier order to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu, has diverted attention from the main issue.
One cannot miss the fact that the intransigence of the Tamil Nadu Government and particularly on the part of the Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa over the Cauvery issue has queered the pitch. Tamil Nadu has been demanding its share of the river waters “Shylock like” although 2016 is a distress year for Karnataka. When the Government and the people of Karnataka are crying that there will be severe shortage of drinking water in Bengaluru and other places, those in Tamil Nadu are worried over the Samba Crop. Karnataka has already advised its Cauvery Basin farmers to go grow less water intensive crops and not sugarcane and paddy in view of the low storage in the Cauvery reservoirs. But Tamil Nadu has not exhibited any such magnanimity to ease the pressure on Karnataka.
There is also a personal angle of pique on the part of Ms Jayalalithaa exacerbating the river water dispute. She bears a grouse against the Karnataka Government for its appeal in the Supreme Court in the disproportionate assets case against her questioning the acquittal ordered by the High Court of Karnataka. She is also eager to disown her Karnataka or Mysore city roots. Despite her family roots connecting to the Mysore region, she claims that she is a “pedigree Dravidian” if there is any such race at all!
Hooligans on street
The September 12 mayhem in Bengaluru was the handiwork of hoodlums some of whom belong to various pro-Kannada organisations. They have been thriving on anti-Tamil sentiments though they happily do business with the people who belong to other parts of the country. The most despicable incident was the burning down of 35 luxury buses belonging to a fleet owner from Tamil Nadu. No wonder the Americans have issued an advisory to its citizens to avoid visiting Bengaluru and other areas where the protests took place. It has shamed the Karnataka capital which in recent years is being called the IT Capital of the country. Once called a Garden City, Bengaluru is these days acquired the dubious description as a Garbage City. The political leaders in the State have made use of the leaders of the Kannada groups to further their ends. Though the Bengaluru Police have arrested over 500 persons for the violence, the ring leaders of the stone throwing and arson have been treated with velvet gloves and not touched. The police should have been on alert as the State had witnessed a bandh only three days earlier on September 9. The violence is reminiscent of the anti-Tamil riots in Bengaluru and in southern Karnataka in December 1991 when the Bangarappa government had sponsored a Statewide Bandh to protest against the publication of the interim award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal in the Government of India Gazette. Another parallel was when the Devaraj Urs government allowed a free hand to goons in December 1978 after Indira Gandhi was expelled from the Lok Sabha.
Game of Thrones
Both the States need to think of the larger interest of the Cauvery family keeping aside their politician ambitions is a right and only way to end the conflict and let the flow of water freely as ever. Politicians indulge in doublespeak lack political unity is main lacunae in the Tamil Nadu, in not only Cauvery issue but also in other conflicts. The then CM and AIADMK founder MGR had adopted the lunch diplomacy to win over the iron hearts to get water. The present CM Jayalalithaa has the history of taking credit for solo in all matters. In this issue too, she adamantly refused to convene all party meet to discuss the issue.
Recounting the long litigious history of Cauvery dispute, right from setting up of the Cauvery Waters Disputes Tribunal and its interim order, Jayalalithaa claimed that it was due to “efforts of her party”. Unlike other State leaders, Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan rose above the situation and condemned the attacks on the Kannada speaking people in Tamil Nadu. He said the onus on protecting the linguistic minorities in the State was on the CMs both states.
Looking back it can be said that Karnataka’s case with regard to the Cauvery has gone by default as it had in the past lagged far behind Tamil Nadu in irrigation development. But for some bold moves by Devaraj Urs when he was the Chief Minister and HD Deve Gowda when he was the Public Works Minister in the Janata government, Karnataka had not beyond building the KRS dam. On the other hand, Tamil Nadu went on increasing its irrigated areas under the Cauvery based on legal concepts like natural flow, prescriptive rights and prior appropriation. That was how Tamil Nadu got favourable verdicts from the Tribunal. The lethargy of the past is now telling on Karnataka. An example is the construction of the Varuna or the Right Bank Canal of the KRS Dam built in 1979, over five decades after the main dam was built. Also is the fact that the canal system was completed and Mandya district was irrigated only in 1931 when Sir Mirza Ismail was the Dewan.
Everyone in Karnataka is praying for the sky to open up and bring copious rains in the catchment areas of the Cauvery as an interim solution to the 120 odd years dispute with Tamil Nadu, besides rendering the arsonists and stone pelters unemployed. Nature’s bounty had come to the aid of the two States at least once in the recent past.
No doubt the popular perception and slogan in Karnataka which is the upper riparian State is that Cauvery water is our waters and we will part with only that much of it we can spare after meeting our needs. It is based on what is called the Harmon doctrine of territorial sovereignty under which a riparian state can do what it pleases with its waters without regard to the needs of the states downstream. It is named after a 19th century American attorney general who took that stand with regard to the Rio Grande River dispute between the US and Mexico.
(With R Guruprasad from Bengaluru)