The Cauvery water-sharing dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has exhibited the dark forces of regional and parochial politics once again. On Friday, DMK leaders were detained while staging protests in support of a shutdown called in Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery row. Opposition parties in the state had issued a call for a state-wide shutdown following reports that Tamils in Karnataka were attacked. However, state opposition parties also sought a greater share of the Cauvery water and a final solution to the decades-long dispute. Earlier this week, it was southern Karnataka that was embroiled in violent protests.
The current spate of unrest in both states stems from the recent Supreme Court order directing Karnataka government to release 15000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu earlier this month. But the apex court modified its verdict on Monday asking the Siddaramiah government in Karnataka to release 12000 cusecs and not 15000 cusecs, as ordered earlier. Besides a complete shutdown in parts of southern Karnataka, buses with Tamil Nadu license plates were torched and a curfew was imposed in parts of Bengaluru. Both Chief Ministers have also exchanged angry letters alleging violence against people of their respective states. This is yet another chapter in the decades-old Cauvery water dispute, which has descended from an unresolved water-sharing dispute to a full-blown clash of regional identities—Kannadigas versus Tamils. When southern Karnataka receives its full quota of monsoon rain, there is no real flare-up. A flashpoint arises when rains are inadequate in the catchment areas of the river, leaving four key Cauvery basin reservoirs below capacity.
This year, the main catchment area of the Cauvery received 33 percent below normal rain. The four major reservoirs in the Cauvery basin have received only 114.66 thousand million cubic (tmc) ft of water. Under normal circumstances, these reservoirs would carry 215.70 tmc ft of water. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry depend on water from the Cauvery basin. But this is a region that has witnessed intensifying demands for water and crippling shortages. The major tussle has been between Tamil Nadu, which grows water intensive crops like paddy in the adjoining Thanjavur region, and Karnataka, which is suffering from debilitating water shortages created by unplanned urbanisation.
The inability of both states to conduct an honest and mature conversation on the amount of water they should share during distress years has prevented a final solution. One can trace back the dispute to colonial times, which has festered from one year to the next. In 1991, the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal was formed. Soon after its formation, the tribunal passed an interim order that prescribed a water-sharing formula between both states. However, since its very first order, the tribunal has been unable to prescribe an acceptable formula during years of distress. In 1997, chief ministers from both states sat together to discuss the issue with little success.
“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 Union Territory of Pondicherry,” said the 2007 order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. The tribunal also asked the Supervisory Committee and its panel of experts to assess ground realities in the two riparian states before arriving at a water release schedule in distress years. But without a permanent regulatory authority to oversee the implementation of its order, there is little that the tribunal’s order can resolve.
On the directions of the apex court, the Centre finally notified the tribunal’s final order in 2013, after which it set up a Supervisory Committee comprising officials from the Union government, the Central Water Commission and representatives of both states. Its final order in 2013 was interpreted by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa as a political victory after the court decided to allocate a higher share to Tamil Nadu. Karnataka, meanwhile, listed its various grievances against the order. Nothing much has changed since then. As long there is enough water in the basin, the status quo continues to exist.
In times of distress, however, old wounds are reopened and the two states re-engage in the violent politics of regional identity. Has the hope for a political solution between the two states faded away into oblivion? Only a meaningful dialogue process between the two states can resolve the dispute. However, some believe that there is little hope for such dialogue since the dispute has become an emotive electoral issue. The political class from either state believes that they only gain from grandstanding on the issue. Moreover, such disputes are not surprising given the scarcity of water.
As a result of rising population, the per capita availability of water is shrinking every year. Although some states receive more water than others, there are others that may lay claim because historically they have had better access to it. One can expect more disputes of this nature in the future.