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Why the Cauvery Dispute Will Continue to Simmer

Even though nearly a decade has passed since the Cauvery (Kaveri) Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) gave a final verdict on the sharing of the waters of the River Cauvery, the two main conflicting parties – the Karnataka and the Tamil Nadu – are still in dispute. The recent verdict by the Supreme Court (India’s apex court), directing Karnataka to release more water than the amount it informed the court it could, generated a fresh bout of protest, arson and violence in Karnataka. This occurred mainly in Bengaluru (erstwhile Bangalore), Mysore and Mandya. The dispute between the two states, which has lasted more than 150 years, refuses to cease. Karnataka claims it is not in a position to release the stipulated amount of water until at least December, as its reservoirs do not have sufficient amounts of water; even as Tamil Nadu contends that the former’s plea to modify the court’s order should not be heard until it has complied with the directives of the court and the CWDT. Both parties continue to approach the judiciary with their conflicting grievances, undermining the CWDT and its dispute resolution mechanisms as well as the federal principles that India follows constitutionally.

On September 5th, when the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs per day during the period of September 6th -16th, the latter observed a “bandh” (general strike). Thereafter, on September 12th, citing the deteriorating law and order situation in Karnataka, and following widespread agitations and road blockades, the court reduced the quantum to 12,000 cusecs per day till September 20th Karnataka had informed the court that it is in a position to release only 10,000 cusecs. The ruling led to violence and unrest in many parts of Karnataka, resulting in the deaths of two people and the destruction of public property (mainly Tamil Nadu-registered trucks and buses). Eventually, a curfew was imposed in some areas of Bengaluru, which was, and is still, at the centre of the conflict between the two states. Violent incidents were also reported in parts of Tamil Nadu too. Although the Cauvery Supervisory Committee set up by the court directed Karnataka to release 3,000 cusecs of water during September 21st-30th, the court fixed the amount at 6,000 cusecs per day during September 21st-27th. On September 20th, the court also instructed the central government to constitute the Cauvery Water Management Board within four weeks under the mandate of CWDT. Whilst many legal wrangles remain, a big hindrance to dispute resolution - including the CWDT’s mandate, lawful distribution of water, Supreme Court’s intervention and so on – is the numerous ground realities that plague both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.  

Farmers’ Growing Water Demands

Whilst the main contention of the Karnataka government against the release of more water to Tamil Nadu has been drinking water requirements of its inhabitants, Tamil Nadu has been championing the cause of its farmers’ rights to the waters of Cauvery. One of the primary reasons for the CWDT to grant greater water rights to Tamil Nadu is its huge agricultural sector and its heavy dependence on water from its neighbouring states.

Since Tamil Nadu is served mostly by the “unreliable” northeast monsoon from October to December, it was historically attuned to future water needs that prompted the rulers in those areas, which now are in Tamil Nadu, to construct check dams and reservoirs for irrigation. The CWDT notes that agriculture began in the delta regions of Tamil Nadu more than 2,000 years ago and that a Chola king constructed the Grand Anicut (irrigation system in Thanjavur district) in the first century AD. On the other hand, rulers of Mysore, Karnataka did not feel the need for building major reservoirs until 1934, when Krishna Raja Sagara Dam was built. In any case, Karnataka received adequate rainfall through the southwest monsoon. Hence, the earlier agreements signed in 1892 and 1924 were based on the fact that there was limited demand for water in Karnataka.   

Thanjavur, a district of Tamil Nadu lying in the Cauvery delta region, is known as the paddy granary or the rice bowl of the South. Besides Thanjavur, most other irrigated areas in the delta region are also growing paddy. Although historically, the agricultural season in Tamil Nadu spanned from August to January (Samba season), this changed when Mettur dam was commissioned in the 1930s – leading to cultivation of kharif/winter (Kuruvai) paddy crop. Slowly, the land under Kuruvai increased “three-fold”. According to some estimates, “the area under Kuruvai crop shot up from 109,350 ha in 1966 to 210,195 ha in 1968”. Furthermore, during the 1980s and 90s, there was almost a 25 percent increase in agricultural land in Karnataka; and this too catered largely to paddy cultivation. Thus, development of irrigation systems became a priority for Karnataka. A series of new reservoirs were constructed on the tributaries of Cauvery (such as Kabini, Swarnavathy, Hemavathy, Varuna canal and Yagachi) in order to expand the irrigated areas (453,600 ha).  These projects were undertaken without Tamil Nadu’s consent and essentially created discord between the neighbouring states as Tamil Nadu believed that this would lead to water diversion and it would not receive its rightful share of water.   

Paddy, being a water-intensive crop and, added to that, the introduction of new varieties like ADT27 (converting land from single crop to double crop) in Tamil Nadu and more water-intensive crops such as sugarcane in Karnataka, led to greater-than-ever demand for water in both states. One of the major bones of contention has been that whilst Tamil Nadu farmers could afford to grow three paddy crops a year, Karnataka are forced to be satisfied with just one. This year too, the state government has directed the farmers to cultivate only one crop. Therefore, the festering conflict between farming communities of both states is incontrovertibly at the centre stage of the dispute. Unfortunately, both parties, whilst laying claim to River Cauvery, have done very little to modify their irrigation and agricultural practices. On a brighter note, however, farmers from both states have agreed to discuss the issue and resolve it amicably, unlike their political counterparts.

The Thirsty Mega Metropolis of India

Even if the two states decide, mutually or exclusively, to amend their agricultural practices and do so, water sharing would continue to be an irritant between them. Other factors such as urban water management have played an equally crucial role in intensifying the dispute. Much of the problem lies with the capital city of Bengaluru, which is also famously known as the Silicon Valley of India – a reason why most violent incidents took place in the city. Bengaluru depends to a large extent on the waters of River Cauvery, especially for drinking water. Being the third most populous city in India (with more than 8.5 million residents), it consumes 50 percent of Cauvery water reserved for domestic use in Karnataka and yet faces water shortage annually. Sadly though, Bengaluru is also infamous for water wastage, with 49 percent being “unaccounted for water” (water lost in distribution). After Kolkata, Bengaluru’s water loss or wastage stands at second highest among the metropolitan cities of the country.

Moreover, the city’s water demands are rising day after day with more population and more villages being added to the metropolitan area. One study points out, “In nine years, the city’s demand (currently 1,575 MLD-million litres per day) is estimated to rise by 71 percent, while the supply (currently 1,350 MLD) will rise only by a third, thereby tripling the demand-supply gap.” Bengaluru’s dependence on Cauvery has increased manifold due also to massive ground water depletion (to 500 metres from 28 metres in the last 20 years), loss of water bodies (from 267 lakes in the 1960s to 68 in 2015), as well as pollution of groundwater and other water bodies.

The other culprit in this saga is Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu and another sprawling metropolitan city of the country that is still growing. The December 2016 floods exposed the state of water bodies in the city that have either become a garbage dump or encroached upon. Although groundwater levels are relatively better in Chennai (due to rainwater harvesting schemes) and the fact that it employs desalination, its dependence on Cauvery is also significant, albeit not as critical as that of Bengaluru. A significant proportion of the city’s drinking water requirements are met by Veeranam Lake (180 kilometres from Chennai), fed by waters of River Cauvery released from the Mettur Dam. This dependence is not expected to reduce in the coming years; rather it is bound to rise due to the same reasons that have caused a large gap between demand and supply of water in Bengaluru.

The Unpredictable Monsoons

Whilst all these factors played their part in the dispute, what has hampered the tribunal from being effective in terms of preventing disputes is the lack of rainfall or delayed monsoon. Indeed, the southwest monsoon is the primary source of water in the Cauvery basin. In the past few years, rainfall patterns have been erratic with some years witnessing far less rains than the long period average. The distribution of rainfall has also been very unpredictable. A weak monsoon this year (28 percent deficient in the Cauvery basin) meant that the catchment areas in Karnataka did not receive much rain due to which its dams are in distress, which has supplemented its hardened stand on the matter of releasing more water to Tamil Nadu.

Whenever Karnataka has received its full quota of southwest monsoon rain or excess rain, there has never been any dispute over river water sharing. The CWDT’s directives work perfectly well during a normal monsoon year. This year, whilst some parts of Karnataka received rainfall 40 percent in excess of the normal, the catchment area in Kodagu district (where the river originates) received rainfall 33 percent below normal. Due to this anomaly in the distribution of rainfall across the state, the major reservoirs on Cauvery in Karnataka are far from full (47 percent below the normal). Since the CWDT has left it to the Supervisory Committee to decide the quantum and timeline of release of water to Tamil Nadu during distress years, the lack of clarity has exacerbated the dispute. In view of the fact that this committee is expected to modify the quantum and timeline according to not only proportionality or percentage share allocation but also the entire basin flows (including the contribution of northeast monsoon), decision-making becomes complicated.

Karnataka argues that Tamil Nadu could fulfil its agricultural and drinking water requirements through northeast monsoon rains that are yet to begin; and that it confronts the risk of water scarcity soon due to deficient southwest monsoon and to top it, release of more water to the latter than it could. Additionally, most often the state fails to release the CWDT-set amount of water in July-August due to delayed monsoon. According to the CWDT, the allocations are 10 thousand million cubic feet (Tmcft) in June, 34 Tmcft in July, 50 Tmcft in August and 40 Tmcft in September. If the monsoon picks up momentum, they could still release the annually stipulated amount later, which it has done so in the past. This year, the southwest monsoon started retreating a fortnight behind schedule. With the curtains brought down on the southwest monsoon and the state’s rainfall deficiency standing at 19 percent and no signs of improvement until October-end, Karnataka would still be hesitant to release water at a later stage. The only hope for both states is an above-normal northeast monsoon.

The unpredictability associated with southwest monsoon is now frequently being quoted as a climate tipping point. The disruptions in the monsoon have been more frequent and intense in recent years and this, according to many scientists, points towards crossing the critical threshold, or being on the verge of it. Even though there are other factors which may have contributed to this “tipping”, climate change presents a grim picture of what could be expected in the future when it comes to water availability in the Cauvery basin and more importantly, its distribution between the conflicting parties.

Self-correction for Dispute Resolution

India, being a quasi-federal system, seeks close coordination between the centre and the state as well as between states. Despite the fact that several efforts were made in the past to shift “water” from the State List of legislative subjects to the Concurrent List (wherein the Union/Centre can also legislate upon), this has not happened until now. These efforts were made mainly in the light of inter-state water disputes. The ongoing Cauvery dispute and the emergence of more cases of inter-state water disputes in the country (such as between Odisha and Chhattisgarh over the waters of River Mahanadi) has brought the issue into the limelight. India’s Minister of State for Water Resources, Sanjeev Kumar Balyan suggests that instead of constituting a tribunal for each dispute, it would be better to adopt certain “basic principles on water sharing and water management” that “have to be agreed upon by all states.” Under the provisions of the Indian Constitution, the CWDT was also set up and now the Cauvery Water Management Board would be constituted by the central government.

More importantly, resource conflicts to a large extent depend on resource management and governance. In the Cauvery dispute case too, despite the existence of legal, constitutional and institutional mechanisms, the dispute has been festering for decades due to poor water governance in the Cauvery Basin region. While physical scarcity is being aggravated by environmental and climatic changes, the states need to address issues such as intra-state availability, access and allocation. The dispute could be resolved or at least minimized by adopting a series of logical measures. These include, for instance, desalination, sewage/waste water treatment, and rejuvenation of lakes among others for drinking water purposes; and drip irrigation and shift to less water intensive crops like finger millet (ragi) that was once a staple crop in this region for farming communities. In effect, the solution lies in the problem itself; and the solutions are plentiful – what remains to be exercised is political and bureaucratic will. If self-corrective measures are not taken now, the dispute will continue to simmer, no matter how many tribunals and committees are established.

[Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.]

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India