The long history of Cauvery, rivers and interstate disputes

Nivedita Khandekar
Nivedita KhandekarSep 15, 2016 | 19:08

The long history of Cauvery, rivers and interstate disputes

"It has been impossible to arrive at a settlement satisfactory to both parties. Each party set out claims which, on examination, were found inadmissible in whole or in part. The claims of Tamil Nadu, if allowed, would probably have resulted in making the Karnataka Project impossible: those of Karnataka, in seriously impairing the interests of Tamil Nadu. Throughout the proceedings, there has been a regrettable lack of the spirit of compromise. The resolution we have arrived at recognises the paramount importance of existing Tamil Nadu interests, has for its primary object the safeguarding of those interests and does, we believe, safeguard them effectually. At the same time, it gives to Karnataka the opportunity of utilising for its own benefit their fair share of the surplus waters of the Cauvery."


The solution to the burning Cauvery issue has been arrived at? No, this is not a solution offered by the Tribunal to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu warring for Cauvery's waters. It is, in fact, a paragraph - just that Mysore has been replaced with Karnataka and Madras with Tamil Nadu to drive home the point - from the 1914 Award giving decisions on various issues.

It is almost a sense of déjà vu for many citizens, especially the elders, across the two states. Time and again, the water war between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu erupts again and again yet, more than a 100 years later, no solution has been arrived at.

The dispute had started in 1910. The Mysore government had proposed a 41.5-tmc (thousand million cubic feet) capacity reservoir at Kannambadi, a project which was objected to by Madras, which, in turn, had its own 80-tmc storage Cauvery Mettur project.

When the then Government of India's intervention was sought, Sir HD Griffin, the arbitrator, and M Nethersole, the inspector general of irrigation in India, who was the assessor, entered the proceedings in July 1913 and gave the Award in May 1914.


A background paper about "Article 262 and interstate disputes relating to water" as documented by the Union ministry of law and justice, mentions that Mysore was permitted to go in for a reservoir with lesser capacity (just 11 tmc). It purportedly accepted the condition but the foundation etc. for the dam was being built keeping in mind the original design.

For Bangalore, it was yet another case of déjà vu, a throwback to 1991 when far worse than current violence had rocked the city and the state, over the same issue.

"Monsoon failure invariably heightens the conflict between the major riparian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In the past several distress years, anxiety and stress between both states have resulted in violence, the worst form of which was witnessed in December 1991, when thousands of Tamil population and their properties were the target of attack in Karnataka," write water activists KJ Joy and S Janakarajan in their 2011 study "Inter-State Water Dispute Among the Riparian States: The case of Cauvery River from Peninsular India".

Circa 2016. The Supreme Court directed Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water every day for 10 days; it has resulted in an agitation by farmers and violence towards Tamilians in Bangalore and other places.


Karnataka wants a rejig of the British-era agreement and wants to triple its share while Tamil Nadu maintains it needs more water to sustain extensive farming.

Two days of riots, arson, curfew et al, later, the states are returning to normal. A solution is possible only if the two states, political leaders and, of course, the people realise they do not have ownership rights over flowing water but just have user rights, that too equality of rights.

Not just Cauvery and Karnataka-Tamil Nadu

India has 14 major rivers, all of which are inter-state rivers, and 44 medium rivers, of which nine are inter-state rivers. (A river that has a catchment area of 20,000 sqkm or more is a major river while that having 200-20,000 sqkm area is a medium river.)

A policeman disperses protesters in Bangalore. (Photo credit: PTI) 

Many of these have a major crisis in terms of population under subsistence farming dependent on these rivers. And hence, there is no dearth of water conflicts.

Some major inter-state disputes have been pending since more than two decades even as new conflicts sprout in no time. A water resources ministry reply to a question in July 2014 in the Rajya Sabha listed the status of various interstate water disputes which have been referred to Tribunals for conflict resolution: Ravi and Beas Water Tribunal (Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan) - status: sub judice; Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry) - status: sub judice; Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal II - status: sub judice; Vansadhara Water Disputes Tribunal (Andhra Pradesh, Odisha) - status: decision awaited and Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal - status: decision awaited.

Apart from these tribunals, the Centre had already constituted a three-member supervisory committee on the Mullaperiyar Dam for implementing the Supreme Court order of May 7, 2014, and Babhali Barrage for implementation of the apex court's order of February 28, 2013. Third, similar action was in the pipeline for Son river of Bihar.

In 2013, in the case study "Delhi-Haryana War for Water" which I undertook for "Conflicts Around Domestic Water and Sanitation in India: Cases, Issues and Prospects", I had mentioned in detail how the 1994 Yamuna accord was due for change.

The current water-sharing arrangement between Yamuna's riparian states does not leave a single drop of water for the river. The result is for all to see - the worst polluted stretch of Yamuna is Delhi's portion from Wazirabad barrage till Okhla-Kalindi Kunj barrage.

The parasite that Delhi has become when it comes to water, every time there is a problem with water supply, it quickly approaches the Supreme Court which, in turn, obliges it.

Suggesting that there is a need for first allotting a share of the river, I had in that research paper suggested massive rainwater harvesting for states, especially Delhi that allows its 700-odd mm of annual rainfall to literally go down the drain. Only by harvesting all its rain can Delhi face the increasing demand for water.

With the kind of rapid urbanisation happening around, water mining has gone unabated leading to the underground table going down further every year. Sharing of river waters will need to be re-adjusted to new ground rules and ground realities, thanks to the vagaries of climate change. The disputes, as listed above, will go on and on unless there is a paradigm shift in approach.

Solution, not political, but strictly within the ambit of legal framework

A major problem vis-à-vis rivers across India has been lack of comprehensive data. There has been no integrated model which will consider the hydrology, meteorology, ecology, economy of the whole basin for a given river. Technological advances have made it easier to map changes, using geospatial tools.

A piecemeal approach needs to give way to an integrated approach while delivering the Awards of various tribunals. The Indus Water Treaty 1960 - between perennially warring neighbours India and Pakistan - has been hailed by experts as a model treaty as it has an inbuilt dispute redressal system.

It is imperative that inter-state disputes too take the same route, keeping in mind the changed realities of the current decade, climate change related forecast and of course the ticking time bomb called population.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already forecast erratic precipitation for whole of South Asia. The number of extreme weather events has been predicted to go up exponentially and every passing year, there are chances of lesser number of rainy days but with more than normal intensity. Across India, we have seen several examples of such extreme weather events.

At the same time, policymakers from the parties involved need to bear in mind that any extreme step to achieve solutions in their own favour would be just that - riot, arson and in extreme cases, killing. Taking to streets is not and can never be a lasting solution, it can rather jeopardise long term outcomes.

Not just Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, any and every future dispute on sharing waters needs to be fought, if not possible to discuss, legally and within the ambit of constitutional provisions only.

Else, what resulted on the streets of Bangalore has a stark possibility, an opportunity exploited by vote-bank greedy politicians, as depicted perfectly in a cartoon by The Time of India's Sandeep Adhwaryu.

Last updated: February 16, 2018 | 16:41
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