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The Kaveri Water Dispute: A solution Is possible

By S.G.Vombatkere

06 December, 2012

The dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing Kaveri (Cauvery) waters is not about to be resolved soon. It originates in the 19th Century when India was ruled by Britain, with Madras Presidency having a definite edge over the princely State of Mysore. The dispute has only intensified with post Independence economic pressures of population growth and changes in agriculture. Though there are four states dependent on Kaveri water, the major dispute is between upper riparian Karnataka and lower riparian Tamil Nadu.

The Kaveri water dispute sharpens in years of reduced monsoon rainfall, and from a technical or agricultural problem, snowballs into a political showdown, with state Chief Ministers exerting political pressure on the centre. It is interesting that in 2002, when there was a shortage of water, Karnataka had a Congress government, the BJP ruled at the Centre, and the decision went against Karnataka (or in favour of Tamil Nadu). Now in 2012, another year of shortfall, Karnataka has a BJP government and the Congress rules at the Centre, and by most guesses, the final outcome will be no different.

The basic fact is that Kaveri just does not have enough water to meet the demands of the riparian states even in years of plentiful rainfall [Note 1]. In years of low rainfall, the political balloon goes up and farmers of both states resort to intense agitations usually accompanied by violence, and, as shown above, the Karnataka CM has to bow to the dictates of the Supreme Court. But that is no solution, because the problem remains. It is very strange that the Supreme Court does not ask how the problem can be solved, but prescribes the “medicine” of admonishing both litigant states to resolve the problem that has no solution beyond sharing the shortfall to the discontent of both states.

It is time that politicians, bureaucrats, farmers, legal eagles, judicial minds and the man-in-the-street understand that this is bound to happen with supply-side thinking. (This is also happening with electric power). Demand management through re-thinking agriculture policy and agronomy is the only way out of recurring crises that affect society at large because violence involves loss of life and property besides economic loss following bandh, rasta roko, etc. To amplify a bit, both states to the Kaveri dispute need to tailor their agricultural economy not merely to available water, but to the almost certain future scenario of severely reduced rainfall due to creeping climate change.

At the risk of criticism, it can be argued that sugar does little good to anybody except the sugar barons. Sugarcane, a water-demanding crop, ends up as sugar which is a nice but nutritionally unnecessary commodity, and alcohol which may be required industrially but is undesirable both nutritionally and socially. Growing less sugarcane and more food crops that are less demanding of water is a positive step towards management of water demand. Growing millets, varieties of rice that require less water, and growing rice using the system of rice intensification can reduce water demand. Naturally, this has to be linked to the MSP that government will provide to the farmer, who must not be allowed to or made to suffer in any case. All this calls for understanding the problem and understanding that present policy will only make the crises recur every time there is low rainfall. Agriculture policy in anticipation of a future of much more frequent monsoon failures is the way to go, not arguing cases in the Supreme Court with predictable results every time.

To quote Albert Einstein, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. Without changing our pattern of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems we created with our current patterns of thought”.

Note 1. In 1990, a three-man Cauvery Water Tribunal headed by Justice Chittatosh Mukherjee, recorded the demands of the riparian states: Karnataka 13 BCM, Kerala 2.83 BCM, Pondicherry 0.3 BCM. But Tamil Nadu demanded 16 BCM (including for Pondicherry) and insisted that according to the 1892 and 1924 agreements, Karnataka should get only 5 BCM and Kerala 0.1 BCM. Since no final agreement could be arrived at, CWT arrived at an “interim award”, according to which Karnataka had to release 5.8 BCM to Tamil Nadu on a weekly-monthly flow schedule. (The figure is at “only” 5.8 BCM because the Tamil Nadu area of the Kaveri basin receives rainfall that goes towards its own total demand). Karnataka considers the interim award as unfair, while Tamil Nadu insists that Karnataka adheres to it.

S.G.Vombatkere served 35 years in the Indian army and retired with the rank of major general from the post of Additional DG in charge of Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi. He is presently engaged in voluntary work and is a member of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
E mail: sg9kere@live.com




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