The Cauvery River water dispute has popped up once again. It happens whenever there is water scarcity to meet the demands of both the upper and lower riparian states Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In the last two decades and more, the Supreme Court and the Cauvery River Authority have intervened on several occasions. It happened in 1991, in 2002, and again in 2012. It is has happened again now.
The latest provocation for the unrest follows the Supreme Court directive directing Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs water over the next 10 days to meet the demands of the Tamil Nadu farmers for growing the summer Kuruvai crops this year. According to the award of the Cauvery Tribunal in 2007, Karnataka should release 192 TMC feet of water to Tamil Nadu. But that is in a good year and the problems start when the rains fail.
The water sharing has always been a headache to the upper and the lower riparian settlements along a river anywhere. Almost all the major rivers of the country are inter-state rivers and their waters are shared by two or more states. For instance, there is the face-off between Punjab and Haryana over sharing of Satluj-Yamuna water. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka are fighting over the Krishna and Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Pondicherry over the Cauvery. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh too have disputes about Krishna and Godavari water sharing.
Problems escalate in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu during drought years. Water being an emotional issue, it also stokes linguistic chuvanism, parochialism, and egoism besides politics. Whenever there is less water, it results in road blocks, resignations, all party meetings, a trip to Delhi to impress upon the Centre and political opportunism.
The battle for the Cauvery water dates back to the colonial days. The Cauvery River, which originates from the Western Ghats, covers about 800 km. Of this 320 km is in Karnataka, 416 km in Tami Nadu, and 64 km forms the common boundary. The dispute was resolved when the Mysore Princely State and the Madras Presidency reached an agreement in 1924 effective for 50 years. When it ran out there were fresh problems and the Cauvery tribunal was set up in 1990. After hearing both sides the tribunal in its final award in 2007 gave 419 tmc ft for Tamil Nadu and 270 tmc ft for Karnataka. Kerala was awarded 30 tmc ft and Pondicherry 7 tmc ft. Both governments challenged it in Supreme Court.
One of the reasons for growing conflict is the rise in population. The demand has also increased with water intensive agriculture. While In 1991, about 50 lakh people were dependent on Cauvery for drinking water needs but it has gone up to more than three crores today.
Secondly, while the Centre, states and tribunals are rallying to find a solution, politicians from both states have used the water issue to stoke passions for their political ends. With suicides, protests and Karnataka–bashing, it has become a politically charged issue.
The Congress and the BJP have a significant presence in Karnataka but are marginal players in Tamil Nadu. This is why the leadership of these two parties tilts towards Karnataka. At the state level, water has become a political issue to the powerful Vokkalinga community in Karnataka.
While they raised no objection to the 1924 agreement, the opposition started in the Vokkalinga belt including Mandya targeting the non-Vokkalinga governments after 1974. In 2002, during the Vajpayee regime, Karnataka Chief minister S.M. Krishna undertook a 100 km padayatra from Bengaluru to Mandya, his home constituency.
In the present crisis, the ruling Congress is on the back foot. The party's original game-plan was to blame the BJP for its inability to rein in Tamil Nadu government. Some sections opposed the release of water but wiser counsel prevailed and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was advised not to take on the Supreme Court. So he released the water which has raised a revolt in the Cauvery belt.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and the DMK chief Karunanidhi play their politics over Cauvery, as they had been doing all along. The DMK and the AIADMK, the two powerful regional parties fight their battles separately and against each other as well as the Centre. Jayalalitha sat on an 80-hour long strike in 1993 and she ended it only after the then Prime Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao assured some solution. She has continued her anti-Karnataka stand all through, though she hails from that state.
Secondly, though the tribunals have pronounced their awards they have not indicated a formula as to how the water should be shared in a distress. As per the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’s final order in 2007, Tamil Nadu should have received 94 tmc during June-August this year, but the actual yield at Mettur is only 33 tmc.
Thirdly, the Centre’s failure to constitute the Cauvery Water Management Board as suggested by the Cauvery River Water Dispute Tribunal on the lines of the Krishna and the Godavari, is another problem. Though the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa has been writing letters to the Prime Ministers nothing has happened.
The crisis needs better water management. The solution lies in what Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has suggested: a permanent tribunal for resolving interstate water disputes. The Centre should immediately constitute the Cauvery management Board. Secondly, Tamil Nadu should build more water storage while Karnataka should release maximum water during a water shortage. Thirdly, the farmers should be advised to opt for alternate crops. Above all, the two states should keep aside their politics and think of the people first.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)