To Understand The Cauvery Water Dispute Of Today, Start From The 19th Century

Swarajya Staff

Feb 16, 2018, 08:46 AM | Updated 08:46 AM IST

A protest on the Cauvery dispute turns violent in Bangalore (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
A protest on the Cauvery dispute turns violent in Bangalore (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
  • By understanding the history behind the Cauvery Water Dispute and the way its Tribunal was formed could give us guidance in these troubled times.
  • The crux of the dispute

    The Cauvery is a system of rivers consisting of the Cauvery itself and its various tributaries such as the Hemavati, Kabini, Bhavani, Amaravati and others. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are the primary states in the Cauvery basin. However, a small part of the basin is in Kerala and, at the fag end of its course, the Cauvery delta includes Karaikal which is a part of the union territory of Puducherry.

    The crux of the Cauvery dispute is a conflict of interests between a lower riparian state (Tamil Nadu) which has a long tradition of irrigated agriculture by substantial utilisation of Cauvery waters, and an upstream state (Karnataka) which started late in irrigation development. However, Karnataka made rapid strides in irrigation facilities along with advantage of being an upper riparian which provides it with greater ability to control the flow of the river. Kerala (an upstream state with a modest demand for Cauvery waters) and Puducherry (the lowest riparian with a small demand) have subsequently become parties to this dispute.

    How old is the Cauvery dispute? Who are the contending parties?

    The Cauvery water dispute has a long history and it goes back to the 19th century. The principal parties then were the Madras Presidency in British India and the princely state of Mysore. The dispute arose over objections raised by Madras to the new irrigation projects which the Mysore government wanted to take up. The primary opposition was based on the ‘Doctrine of Prior Appropriation’ i.e., farmers from Madras were the first to use the waters of the Cauvery from the era of the Cholas, who had built an excellent irrigation system in the Tanjore-Trichy Delta, and had, therefore, acquired elementary rights over the Cauvery waters by prescription.

    After prolonged wrangling and subsequent discussions, an agreement was signed in 1892 by the erstwhile Mysore State and the then Madras Presidency. The major clauses of the 1892 agreement are summarised here.

    . . .which was followed by another one in 1924

    When the reputed statesman-engineer, Dr M. Visvesvaraya, became the Dewan of Mysore, he planned to build the’ Krishnaraja Sagar Dam in Mysore district on the Cauvery. Madras was agitated over the size and the storing capacity of the K.R. Sagar reservoir and refused to give its consent to Mysore under clause III of the 1892 agreement. Under clause IV, the dispute was referred to arbitration for the final decision.

    Sir H. D. Griffith, the arbitrator, gave an award in 1914 which was favourable to Mysore and the same had also been ratified by the British Government of India. The Madras government appealed to the Secretary of State for India. Eventually, the British Government prevailed upon Mysore for an amicable settlement with Madras and the agreement of 18 February 1924 was signed.

    Under the 1924 agreement, Mysore undertook not to build fresh irrigation projects either on the Cauvery river or its tributaries, without the prior consent of Madras. Madras also agreed not to refuse consent except to protect its prescriptive rights. The major clauses of the 1924 agreement are summarised here.

    The 1924 agreement also provided for the review of certain clauses after 50 years i.e., in 1974, but the review did not take place nor was the agreement terminated or renewed.

    Cauvery dispute in its present form

    A few years before 1974, the dispute over Cauvery flared up once again.

    Mysore’s argument was that, according to clause XIV of the 1924 agreement, if the Tamil Nadu government built reservoirs on the Bhavani, the Amaravathi or the Noyal— the tributaries of the Cauvery in Tamil Nadu— Mysore would be entitled to construct offset storage reservoirs on the tributaries of the Cauvery within its jurisdiction. Tamil Nadu had already constructed reservoirs on both the Amaravathi and the Bhavani.

    The Hemavathi reservoir’s potential, which the then Governor of Mysore— Mr Dharma Vira— ordered to be raised, was estimated to be 34 TMCF (thousand million cubic feet). Some leaders of Mysore also made a case for four more projects of the Kambadakadi, the Yagachi, the Lakshmana Thirtha and the Sagab Doddakere which together was supposed to create a potential of 10 TMCF. When added to 34 TMCF of the Hemavathi, it would have been 44 TMCF. They argued that if every TMCF of water upto 45 TMCF was not impounded before 1974, the control of Mysore on the water would be permanently lost

    The impact of state reorganisation on the disputes

    Firstly, Mysore was no longer a native state under the British but stood on equal footing with Tamil Nadu (Madras).

    Secondly, the reorganisation of states brought about enormous changes in the territories of both the States.

    Thirdly, Coorg— which was not a party to the 1924 agreement— became a part of Mysore besides being the birthplace of the Cauvery.

    Fourthly, Kerala— which was not a party to the 1924 agreement— became a party to the dispute.

    Whether the 1892 and 1924 agreements continued in force and bound Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as successors states to the old Madras Presidency and Mysore state was also a point of contentions between the states.

    Establishment of Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal

    In July 1986, Tamil Nadu made a formal proposal to the Central Government under the Interstate Water Disputes Act (ISWD Act) 1956 to set up a tribunal and resolve the dispute. However, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Central government dithered on setting up a tribunal and continued to favour a policy of negotiated settlement. Finally, during a hearing on a petition by few farmers’ association of Tamil Nadu to the Supreme Court (SC) of India, seeking an assurance of irrigation water from the Cauvery, the Apex Court instructed the central government to establish a tribunal within 30 days. In agreement with the SC Order, the government of India established the Cauvery Water Tribunal on 2 June 1990.

    Interim order by Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal in 1991

    In 1991, an interim order was passed by the Tribunal in response to a plea by Tamil Nadu that since the adjudication process would be time-consuming, there was a need for some assured availability of water for irrigation in the Cauvery basin in the state. The Interim order directed that Karnataka should ensure an annual release of 205 TMCF of Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu (of which six TMCF should go to Puducherry). The Tribunal also laid down a detailed monthly schedule of releases.

    Cauvery riots of 1991

    In response to the 1991 interim order, Kannada chauvinist groups carried out acts of violence in Karnataka allegedly with the tacit support of the then ruling Congress dispensation, led by the highly corrupt and unpopular Bangarappa. Targeted violence terrified the Tamil populace of Karnataka forcing thousands of Tamilians to flee in a matter of weeks. Frenzied mobs attacked hapless Tamils (mostly poor migrants) with rocks, sticks, iron rods and cycle chains. A simmering animosity towards Tamil-speaking people in Karnataka was fuelled by the fringe elements in the Kannada movement, resulting in ruthless attack on Tamils.

    Apart from the eruption of yesterday’s violent incidents, there has been no major acts of violence over the dispute in both states.

    The final order of the Cauvery Tribunal

    In its final order, the Tribunal proceeded on the basis of an annual availability of 740 TMCF in the Cauvery on a “50 percent dependability” basis and made an allocation as follows

    Tamil Nadu 419 TMCF

    Karnataka 270 TMCF

    Kerala 30 TMCF

    Puducherry TMCF

    Out of 14 TMCF left, 10 was meant for “environmental protection” and four was factored in for the “the inevitable escapages into the sea.”

    Karnataka was ordered to release 192 TMCF from Billigundulu out of which 10 TMCF was meant for environmental purposes. This translates as 182 TMCF for Tamil Nadu, which, together with the 25 TMCF that becomes available between Billigundulu and Mettur, adds up to an availability of 207 TMCF.

    For years of low rainfall, the Tribunal envisaged a proportionate adjustment of the allocations. The Tribunal also recommended the establishment of a Cauvery Management Board to monitor the monthly schedules and act as a “regulatory authority”.

    What factors drive the tough position taken by both states

    The present position of both the states is, to a large extent, rooted in their refusal to give up burdens of the past that they carry. Tamil Nadu revels in nostalgic imagery of an agro-civilisation that flourished on the intricately complex irrigation network build by the Chola empire, and the historic headstart it enjoyed on the use of Cauvery water. An emotional feeling driven by a sense of vulnerability, that it is in the mercy of Karnataka for irrigation needs, drives its often hawkish position in negotiation.

    Karnataka, on the other hand, feels that 1924 agreement was an unjust one forced on a weak Mysore state. It has steadfastly refused to accept the basic principle of riparian law and continues to hold a tacit position that points to the primacy of upper riparian state. It has often defied the orders of the Tribunal, central government and sometimes even the Supreme Court. Karnataka is also of the view that the explosive growth of Bengaluru into a metropolis and its ever growing water needs have not been factored in by the authorities

    The way forward

    One of India’s foremost water policy experts, the late Ramaswamy R. Iyer suggested the following:

    As for Karnataka, what is important is not the allocation of 270 tmcft to it but the fact that it has to release 192 TMCFto Tamil Nadu. In most years, the flow from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu will be higher than that figure. It is only in a year of low rainfall that difficulties may be experienced. In other words, even the release of 192 tmcft (which was earlier described as of operational significance) really means nothing in a normal year: the crucial point – and this is what has been causing all the trouble – is the sharing of water in a distress year. Here the Tribunal has offered no formula but has stated the principle of proportionate adjustment and has left the detailed management of this to the proposed Cauvery Management Board and its committees.

    What needs to be done urgently is to arrive at an understanding on how water will be shared in distress years. (It is only in the context of determining the proportionate adjustment in a difficult year that the allocation numbers have a role to play.) This should be the first task of the Cauvery Management Board as soon as it is constituted. If the Tribunal can be faulted on any count, it is on its failure to work out a detailed, technical, operational formula for water-sharing in distress years. However, even that may be a blessing in disguise. Instead of being frozen as a part of a judicial determination and becoming rigid and unalterable, distress-sharing will now be a practical matter to be worked out by the Cauvery Management Board with which the state governments will have a working relationship.

    Each state projects a figure of what it thinks it needs, and the sum of those figures far exceeds the availability of water in the river; hence the conflict. However, do the states really need all that water? The projections of future needs are based on current patterns of use, with some modest adjustments for improvements but radical changes are needed. It is a well-established fact that the current pattern of water use – in all uses, and particularly in agriculture – is highly uneconomical and even wasteful. Many scholars, committees and commissions have said this. If water is better managed in all the states, there would be no conflict. That is the real answer to this problem. So long as that wisdom does not dawn on us, there can be no hope of avoiding or resolving conflicts.

    This piece has been written based on Swarajya archives and research papers written by the late Ramaswamy R. Iyer.

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