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Water sharing dispute

The Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has once again flared up after another monsoon-deficit year in southern Karnataka. A state-wide bandh has been called by farmers' unions and pro-Kannada groups to protest against the release of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. This has brought Karnataka to a complete standstill. The Congress-led Karnataka government has agreed to play ball and said it will not oppose the strike. But the effects of the state-wide bandh have been felt acutely by its citizens. Transport services have stayed off the roads. Many schools and government offices remained closed, besides other commercial establishments. 

To the uninitiated, the Supreme Court’s direction to Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of Cauvery River water to Tamil Nadu every day for 10 days triggered protests among farmers and pro-Kannada organisations, which urged the state to first protect the interests of its own people. This is yet another chapter in the four-decades-old Cauvery water dispute. When southern Karnataka receives its full quota of monsoon rain, there is no flare up. A flashpoint arises when rains are inadequate in the catchment areas of the river, leaving four key Cauvery basin reservoirs below capacity. Although many parts of Karnataka received rainfall in excess of the normal, the main catchment area of the Cauvery received 33 percent below normal rain. 

In other words, 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. As a result of this shortfall, the Tamil Nadu government, in an attempt to protect the interests of farmers in the Thanjavur region, went to the apex court. The complaint stated that Karnataka has failed to comply with the water release plan for a normal monsoon season detailed in the 2007 order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. 

While the court directed the Tamil Nadu government to approach the Supervisory Committee set up by the Centre, it also asked Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water per day for 10 days to its neighbouring state. Meanwhile, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said that the state will present its case again to impress upon the apex court on the acute shortage of drinking water in the state—one of the key reasons behind the current unrest. One of the fundamental reasons behind this never-ending dispute is the inability of both states to arrive at any consensus on the amount of water they should share during distress years. This is further exacerbated by the fact that there is no independent and permanent mechanism to ensure reasonable levels of sharing.

“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. Moreover, the tribunal 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. It took the Centre six years to notify the tribunal’s final order, after which it set up a Supervisory Committee comprising officials from the Centre, the Central Water Commission and representatives of both states. 

In an interesting editorial for The Hindu, a leader has argued: “It is understandable that the political leadership of any State would not want to be seen as betraying the interests of its farmers. Yet, the desire to protect one’s own interests should not shut out empathy for one’s neighbour. Ideally, any distress-sharing formula should come from a technical body. It would have helped if the Centre, which dilly-dallied for six years before notifying the final award under a judicial direction, had set up the Cauvery Management Board and Regulatory Authority. 

In the longer term, experts will have to devise a sustainable agricultural solution for the Cauvery basin, as the river does not seem to have the potential to meet the farming requirements of both sides. In a world of depleting water resources, fewer crop seasons and lower acreages, a resort to less water-intensive crops (instead of different forms of paddy sowed in the region), and better water management hold the key.”

 Given the scarcity of water, such disputes are not surprising. As a result of rising population growth, the per capita water availability in India 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.
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