Water Wars: The Kaveri Battle
12 October, 2012
The demand for water of India's rivers has grown as a part of post-Independence India's economic growth. Consequently, inter-state and intra-state disputes over water have arisen, but none have been finally resolved by political or judicial means available under the Constitution of India. One of the oldest disputes concerns the water of the Kaveri (also spelt “Cauvery”) river which flows from Karnataka into Tamil Nadu. Its waters have been the subject of dispute since the 19th Century. As on date, with a failed monsoon, a political-judicial battle is raging between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka regarding sharing of scarce water.
In 2002, during a failed monsoon, when the BJP-led NDA government ruled at the Centre, Karnataka's Congress government had Mr.S.M.Krishna as chief minister. That year the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to abide by the decision of the Cauvery Water Tribunal to release water to Tamil Nadu. With huge, violent protests in Karnataka opposing release of water, the chief minister refused to comply. Under threat of president's rule being imposed, he capitulated and water was released to Tamil Nadu. But he paid a political price of losing some of his immense personal popularity, demitting office not long afterwards.
There is a sense of deja vu in the on-going inter-state row regarding sharing Kaveri water, but with a difference: the Congress-led UPA is at the Centre and Karnataka's state government is BJP. Again, Karnataka is passing through huge, violent protests, again there are corresponding protests in Tamil Nadu, again Tamil Nadu is filing contempt proceedings against Karnataka in the Supreme Court and demanding president's rule in Karnataka. Tamil Nadu's plea to the Supreme Court said that by stopping water, Karnataka had put its neighbour's farmers to great suffering. If the elected government in Karnataka does not release water, it is likely that water will be released if and when president's rule is imposed. Tamil Nadu looks set to get its way again. It is interesting to note that in 2002, as again now, Tamil Nadu's chief minister was Ms.J.Jayalalithaa of AIADMK.
The reason why Karnataka refused to release water in 2002, and is again now refusing to do so is that its farmers need the water. The dispute is essentially over water needed by farmers on both sides of the inter-state border. This is true of any river that flows through adjacent states. In 2002 and again now, the chief ministers of both states were and are doing what they believe is best for their own farmers. It is clear of party politics.
Even in times of normal monsoon, the sum of water demands of the four riparian states (30.13 BCM) placed before the water tribunal exceeds the water available in the Kaveri river basin (21.4 BCM) by a large factor. Clearly the problem, especially in times of scarcity as at present, lies in unrealistic water demand, which in turn is caused by inappropriate agriculture and water use policy and planning on both sides. Any water-sharing solution offered by a third party (an impartial technocratic body) will be seen to be unfair by both sides, especially when water is scarce as it was in 2002 and again now. Large scale protests are inevitable, and these do nothing to ease the problem between the states for water-sharing.
Tamil Nadu's petition to the Supreme Court states, “...protests or bandhs had been 'instigated and orchestrated by interested partisan and parochial interests in the Cauvery Basin districts of Karnataka'". But it is well known that such is the case also in Tamil Nadu, because individual politicians, political parties, farmers' interest groups (and in the shadows, even the industrial lobby) in both states are involved in making demands for water. Both states employ expensive lawyers to argue their cases in the Supreme Court. Perhaps the Supreme Court can do little more than consider demands in the background of the pre-Independence water agreements between the states (1892 and 1924), because the draft agreement prepared by the Cauvery Fact Finding Committee which was agreed to by all the states including Tamil Nadu in 1976 and announced in Parliament, was rejected by Tamil Nadu's AIADMK chief minister Mr.M.G.Ramachandran in 1977. [Note 1]. The apex court has been asking the Prime Minister to take a decision after consulting the states, especially Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and considering the ground data acquired by the Monitoring Committee.
The Supreme Court is well aware of the repercussions of jailing the Karnataka chief minister for contempt of court or of imposing president's rule in Karnataka. It will surely try to have an out-of-court solution worked out that is sufficiently unfair to both sides to be accepted by both sides. Anyhow, the current crisis is bound to blow over as it did in 1995 and 2002, with political repercussions especially in Karnataka.
Only time will tell how the present delicate situation will pan out, but one can make some statements with a degree of certainty: One, there will be similar crises every time the monsoon provides less water. Two, the rainfall in peninsular India (including the Kaveri basin) is likely to reduce due to a combination of deforestation and climate change, and such crises may be more frequent. Three, the interlinking of rivers (ILR) project and the dozens of dam-canal construction projects all over the country will multiply the disputes over water sharing all over the country. Four, the water disputes will strain the Constitution of India to its limits, and the apex judiciary will spend a lot of time on water disputes.
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). :email@example.com
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