Participating in an event organised by the Coimbatore Malayali Samajan in 1994, the then Union water resources minister V C Shukla was asked by the media how the central government would find a solution to the Cauvery river water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Shukla apparently looked up at the sky and said: “We are looking for divine intervention.”
Twenty-four years have passed since, and the dispute over the Cauvery river water continues to this day.
The quarrel dates back to 1881 when the Mysore kingdom planned to revive irrigation projects on the Cauvery and the Madras Presidency opposed it. But opposition parties in Tamil Nadu, led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and others, would like you to believe that this is a Modi-made problem – of course, only if you were to forget the history of this dispute.
Maybe the Narendra Modi government is at fault for approaching the Supreme Court past the 29 March 2018 deadline given by it to come up with a scheme. But is it fair to hold the Prime Minister responsible for a dispute that is over 125 years old?
The only mistake, perhaps, on the part of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is that they were at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Passions are being whipped up in Tamil Nadu on the issue, but there are a few unanswered questions. Water from the Cauvery is let out for irrigation on 12 June from the Mettur Dam to downstream Cauvery delta every year. Union Water Resources Secretary U P Singh says Karnataka releases water from June to January every year. Currently, the storage level in Mettur Dam is at 11 per cent of its capacity, but higher than the level during the same period a year ago. The storage level in Karnataka’s Krishna Raja Sagara Dam is only 9 per cent of its capacity. Both the states have received deficient rainfall from 2012 to 2017, barring 2015 when Tamil Nadu received over 50 per cent surplus rains. (See the graph below.)
When the situation is such, how can the Centre expect Karnataka to agree to the setting up of a water management board that could be detrimental to its interests?
Agricultural fields on the Tamil Nadu side in the Cauvery basin will require water only for the Kurvai crop that is sown in June. When water is required only in the second week of June, why are political parties upping the ante in Tamil Nadu? Why should politicians raise the temperature when the Supreme Court has advised restraint?
The primary reason for the raising of heat and dust on the Cauvery issue is that Tamil Nadu lacks a charismatic leader. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has lost its star, Jayalalithaa, and DMK’s popular leader, M Karunanidhi, has been more or less confined within four walls due to ill-health. This has put DMK working president M K Stalin under pressure to prove his leadership skills to his restless cadre and win over the imagination of the state’s people.
The DMK is also being challenged by fringe parties like T T V Dinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam and actor Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Neidhi Maiam. Besides, actor Rajinikanth is waiting to launch a party of his own. These developments have forced the DMK to launch the initiative in protesting on the dispute, primarily by blaming the Centre. Bashing the central government usually pays in Tami Nadu. This is why DMK and its partners have adopted the bogey of blaming the Modi government.
The BJP government’s move to seek time from the Supreme Court till the Karnataka Assembly election gets over isn’t unreasonable or unprecedented. On 1 May 2013, the Election Commission had ordered the Union Water Resources Ministry to defer constituting the Cauvery Management Board and Cauvery Water Regulation Committee until the polls were wrapped up in Karnataka.
Instead of allowing themselves to be carried away by passions on the dispute, the people in Tamil Nadu should look back at the history of the dispute. There are other truths that are not being revealed to them. It will be pertinent here to examine the role of parties like the DMK, Congress, AIADMK, and others on the Cauvery issue.
When the Mysore kingdom and the Madras Presidency were involved in a dispute on irrigation projects on river Cauvery, the then central government under the British held an arbitration through Sir H D Griffin. An agreement was signed in 1924 that allowed Mysore to build a dam to store 11 thousand million cubic (TMC) feet of water. The agreement expired in 1974.
DMK Gets Snubbed By Indira, Succumbs To Jagjivan Ram’s Pressure
Even before the agreement could expire, the Tamil Nadu government, then under Karunanidhi, approached the central government led by Indira Gandhi, seeking the setting up of a tribunal under the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. Karunanidhi wrote to Gandhi in December 1970 demanding a tribunal as the state was finding disputes arising often on sharing waters. Gandhi wrote back saying that nothing would be done until after the Lok Sabha election was held in March 1971. Karunanidhi sent two reminders after the parliamentary elections. But, in between, he told the state assembly that his government had no objection to Karnataka constructing the Hemavathi dam.
On not receiving a response from Gandhi, Tamil Nadu moved the Supreme Court for the setting up of a tribunal. In a separate petition, the state also sought a restraint on Karnataka from constructing irrigation projects, but the apex court dismissed the second petition. Meanwhile, the Centre set up a fact-finding committee to find a solution to the dispute. In June 1972, an all-party meeting decided that Tamil Nadu would withdraw the petition in the Supreme Court seeking a tribunal “to facilitate a settlement between the two states as early as possible”.
Talks ensued, but after October 1973, Tamil Nadu found itself cornered by central government officials who were more eager to ask how much water was the state willing to give up. Tamil Nadu officials involved in the negotiations felt that the officials at the talks were more interested in reducing the allocation of water to Tamil Nadu, the largest user.
During a meeting of chief ministers to discuss “Possible Savings in the Use of Cauvery Waters” during 8-9 November 1974, Karunanidhi, after consulting with his engineers, said Tamil Nadu would give up 60-80 TMC feet of water. But Jagjivan Ram, the then water resources minister, extracted a statement from Karunanidhi, giving up 100 TMC of water. Horrified Tamil Nadu engineers at the discussions termed this a “condemnation of posterity”. For the first time, it resulted in officials of both the states turning hostile towards one another.
A draft agreement was drawn up and a meeting of all concerned states was convened during 15-16 February 1975. The meeting left the states even more polarised. Karunanidhi then called for an all-party meeting and decided to ask the Centre to set up a tribunal. DMK members of Parliament met Gandhi and the then president Fakruddin Ali Ahmed only to be snubbed again. Karnataka, on the other hand, was not interested in an agreement if its plan to construct irrigation projects was stalled.
The issue prolonged until 1990, when a group of farmers, led by S Rangarajan from Thanjavur, moved the Supreme Court. When the apex court took up the farmers’ petition in 1990, it ordered the setting up of a tribunal under Justice Chittatosh Mukherjee. In June 1991, the tribunal passed an interim order awarding 205 TMC feet of water to Tamil Nadu.
To DMK’s credit, it must be admitted that when in power, Karunanidhi had gotten water released unofficially a couple of times in emergency situations. He also tried to reach some sort of an agreement with then Karnataka chief minister J H Patel in 1997, but nothing worked out.
At The Centre And In Karnataka, Congress Didn’t Do Much To Help Tamil Nadu
Congress prime ministers, whether it is Gandhi, P V Narasimha Rao, or Manmohan Singh, or chief ministers starting from Veerendra Patil to Devraj Urs, who had favoured mutual discussions over tribunals, to Siddaramaiah – all have failed in helping settle the dispute.
When the Cauvery Water Tribunal gave its interim award in 1991, then Karnataka chief ministers – S Bangarappa and Veerappa Moily – did not implement it. (The Congress had two chief ministers between October 1990 and December 1994. Bangarappa resorted to promulgating an ordinance and declared that the award would not be binding on the state.) In a protest against Karnataka, Jayalalithaa went on an indefinite fast in 1993 demanding implementation of the tribunal award. The then prime minister Rao sent Shukla as his emissary to assure that the tribunal’s interim award would be implemented.
Monsoon failure in 1995 led to the dispute flaring up again, and Tamil Nadu sought 30 TMC of water. The tribunal recommended the release of 11 TMC. The Congress again let down Tamil Nadu, with the central government headed by Rao pleading with Karnataka to release 6 TMC of water! Karnataka wasn’t ready to release this amount of water and it needed quite an effort from Rao to force the Deve Gowda government to release 6 TMC of water.
Matters came to a head again in 2002 when rains failed and relations between both the states got strained. Karnataka refused to release water to Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa, who returned to power by then, approached the Supreme Court and when the S M Krishna government resumed releasing water for a few days, tempers flared up in Karnataka. Krishna had to embark on a peace walk from Bangalore to Mandya to cool the energies.
The situation turned normal afterwards and it continued until 2007 when the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal announced its final award that was rejected by equally bitter Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments.
In 2013, the Manmohan Singh government notified the final award of the Cauvery Waters Dispute Tribunal, but it did not set up the Cauvery Water Board as mandated by the Supreme Court. In June 2013, the Congress government in Karnataka under Siddaramaiah refused to release water to Tamil Nadu.
Again, in 2013, it was under the Congress government that Tamil Nadu was denied Cauvery water despite a Supreme Court order. When the Supreme Court refused to stay its order, riots broke out in Karnataka with people and vehicles from Tamil Nadu being attacked. Siddaramaiah’s government even tried the trick of denying water by passing a resolution in the state assembly. The resolution said water in Karnataka storage should be used for drinking water purposes only. Subsequently, the assembly met again and resolved to release water for farmers in Tamil Nadu.
The Manmohan Singh government notified the temporary scheme for implementation of the Cauvery award. It set up a supervisory committee headed by the Water Resources Secretary with the chief secretaries of states receiving Cauvery water as members. But it failed to set up a permanent Cauvery Management Board.
When the Supreme Court came up with its final ruling in 2018, awarding 15 TMC of additional water to Karnataka to meet its drinking water needs, the Congress government in the state, led by Siddaramaiah, continued to oppose the setting up of a tribunal. The Congress leadership hasn’t made its stand clear, though its Tamil Nadu chief, S Thirunavukkarasar, takes part in protest meetings organised by the DMK.
AIADMK: Always In Confrontation
The AIADMK has been confrontational on the matter most of the time. In 1993, Jayalalithaa resorted to an indefinite fast to wrest assurance from the then prime minister. During 1997-98, when her party was part of the 13-month Atal Behari Vajpayee government, she threatened to withdraw her support to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government citing unjust treatment to Tamil Nadu. (The actual demand, however, from Jayalalithaa was to dismiss the DMK government that was in power then in Tamil Nadu.)
In 2002, when prime minister Vajpayee convened a meeting of the Cauvery River Authority, Jayalalithaa staged a walk-out in protest against the delay in evolving a distress formula. It was a time when Tamil Nadu could have negotiated to find a solution but Jayalalithaa decided to take a confrontational attitude by going to the Supreme Court.
In 2012, she refused to accept a ruling again by the authority, headed by Manmohan Singh, and decided to move the Supreme Court. By quirk of fate or coincidence, the dispute seemed to erupt whenever Jayalalithaa and AIADMK were in power. The party has always adopted a strategy to confront than look for, at least, a peaceful temporary solution.
The approach of theDMK and AIADMK to the dispute has been a study in contrast until the death of Jayalalithaa. She was probably under compulsion to tell the people of the state that though her roots lie in Mysuru, the welfare of Tamil Nadu people was primary for her.
Janata Dal Plays Politics, BJP’s Role Has Been Mixed
The Janata Dal refused to help Tamil Nadu in 1995 when it sought 30 TMC feet of water. The tribunal ordered release of 11 TMC, but then chief minister Deve Gowda, who went on to become prime minister in 1996, wasn’t ready to oblige, pointing out to a poor monsoon. He then climbed down after Rao’s appeal. Gowda isn’t happy on the Supreme Court’s final ruling and the tribunal’s final order either. Gowda’s son, H D Kumaraswamy, called for a state-sponsored bandh on 12 February 2007 against the tribunal’s final order.
On BJP’s part, then prime minister Vajpayee convened a meeting of the disputing states in 1997 and decided that every year an ad hoc decision would be taken by the tribunal based on the recommendations of a monitoring committee on sharing the river water. He set up the Cauvery River Water Authority headed by the prime minister, but Jayalalithaa termed it “a toothless tiger”. When the BJP was in power in Karnataka, its chief minister, Jagdish Shettar, refused to release 9,000 cusecs of water on 19 September 2012 on orders of the Cauvery River Authority under prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Other Issues Being Swept Under The Carpet
During 2015, Tamil Nadu received record rainfall, but in a year’s time, groundwater level dropped across the state except in the Nilgiris. What happened to those copious inflows into its rivers, reservoirs, and tanks?
Illegal mining of river sand has affected the groundwater level in the state and dried up wells across the Cauvery delta. The water table has gone below 100m in many places due to rampant mining by the real estate industry. This has affected farming more than the state getting lower amount of water during years of distress.
Tamil Nadu has constructed only a few storage projects since 1967 when the DMK was voted to power. According to the Central Water Commission, Karnataka has constructed 26 reservoirs on the Cauvery since 1967, while Tamil Nadu has built only 13. The point here is that when Andhra Pradesh can construct 25 check dams over 45km on Palar, which flows into Tamil Nadu, why couldn’t the state, which is at the mercy of Karnataka for water to meet its farm needs, come up with more check dams or small reservoirs? There has been a colossal failure on the part of AIADMK and DMK governments of not doing anything to save water.
Though DMK working president M K Stalin may have upped the ante against the Prime Minister, what he needs to understand is that Modi doesn’t have a magic wand to find instant solutions to issues that were not just complicated but unresolved for nearly five decades by his party and its alliance partner, the Congress.
Tamil Nadu will have to find a solution to get water for agriculture through various means and not just depending on Karnataka alone to release Cauvery water!
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