Analysis: The Politics That Keeps Cauvery Water Dispute On The Boil

All those years when the monsoon fails to fill the reservoirs in Karnataka it has wide ramifications for the people of the state and those living in the Cauvery delta basin in adjoining Tamil Nadu. On September 13, Karnataka informed the centre that the decision of the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC), asking the state to release water at the rate of 5,000 cusecs daily, cannot be practically implemented.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah wrote a letter to the Union Jal Shakti Minister reiterating that the state can't release water without endangering the interest of farmers for irrigation and sustenance of humans and livestock dependent on the Cauvery for drinking water. The latest controversy over Cauvery water sharing erupted after the CWRC on September 12 ordered Karnataka to release 5,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu for 15 more days starting September 13, against the demand for 12,500 cusecs of water by Tamil Nadu's DMK government.

Earlier, the Tamil Nadu government had approached the Supreme Court requesting it to direct Karnataka to release 24,000 cusecs of water daily from its reservoirs. Karnataka too filed an affidavit opposing Tamil Nadu's plea stating that their assumption is based on normal rain this year, which is not the case.

"Karnataka repeatedly says Tamil Nadu gets north-east monsoon, and has groundwater. All these are not at all relevant for the purpose of deciding, because the obligation of Karnataka is to release 177 tnc (thousand million cubic feet) during the normal water year. Going by any yardstick, we have not got our stipulated water during the current year," says G Umapathy, Senior Advocate, representing Tamil Nadu.

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What is Cauvery Water Dispute?

The river Cauvery is a major source of sustenance and livelihood for the people of both states helping them meet their drinking water and irrigation needs.

The centre formed the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) on June 2, 1990 to adjudicate on the disputes between Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry with respect to their water-sharing capacities. The CWDT's concluding judgment of February 2007 allotted 30 tmc of water to Kerala, 270 tmc to Karnataka, 419 tmc to Tamil Nadu and 7 tmc to Puducherry. The plan was notified by the centre in 2013 on the direction of the Supreme Court.

However, the then Congress-led government didn't abide by the tribunal's decision. In March 2013, Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court seeking directions to the Water Ministry for setting up a Cauvery Management Board (CMB). Tamil Nadu again moved the Supreme Court in May 2013 seeking Rs 2,480 crore in damages from Karnataka for not following the orders of the CWDT. The year it doesn't rain copiously, the dispute flared up over water as Karnataka, the upstream state, citing less-than-normal rain stops sharing water with its co-riparian Tamil Nadu.

"Karnataka in normal water year must ensure 177.25 tmc of flow annually at the inter-state border - Biligundlu; during the surplus year, the surplus generated in Karnataka goes for Karnataka's benefit; and during the distressed year, the distress must be shared in a proportionate or pro rata basis. At present, disputes have arisen on the sharing of distress since the south-west monsoon in this water year has failed in Karnataka and north-east monsoon, which benefits Tamil Nadu, has not begun yet," says Mohan V Katarki, senior advocate representing Karnataka.

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"The proportionate sharing of distress is easier said than done. There is no formula. Karnataka wants equitable solutions based on ground realities and assessment of needs as assessed by the statutory body namely Cauvery Water Management Authority. But Tamil Nadu has a different formula of taking only the shortfall in Karnataka's reservoirs as yardstick without accounting for the resources in its territory and in the territory between Karnataka's reservoirs and border," says Mr Katarki.

Tamil Nadu's counsel had a different take. "Karnataka has been crying that we irrigate more. In fact, we have only planted 5 lakh acres. Even that is going to suffer for want of water. Out of five, two lakh acres is 'Kuruvai' or short-term crop and the balance is 'Samba' or long-term crop. If Karnataka doesn't release water for 10-15 days, the paddy will wither away. The north-east monsoon is always erratic and undependable.  Sometimes we get good rain and sometimes we get floods. Floods will further destroy the crops," adds Mr Umapathy.

Besides the courts, the battle for water has been on at the ground level as well without any solution in sight. In fact, the effectiveness of the CWRC and CMB has been questioned, with the impacted party claiming bias.

Politics Over Cauvery

It has suited politicians of both the states to make it an emotional issue and reap electoral benefits from it than to solve the problem logically in the interest of the people. Political parties in both the states - AIADMK and DMK in Tamil Nadu; and Congress, BJP and JD(S) in Karnataka - who have been in power at one time or the other have not made any attempt to amicably solve the issue in the interest of the people. On the contrary, in the guise of protecting the interests of their respective state, politicians have fanned violence and unrest, in which many innocent lives have been lost.

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The traditional rivalry between the states needs to be seen in a new light after the formation of the INDIA alliance where both warring parties in government - Congress in Karnataka and DMK in Tamil Nadu - will fight elections under the same banner in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. This has given their rivals a chance to accuse them of compromising their state and people's interest for their parochial electoral benefits.

The Opposition BJP and JD(S) leaders in Karnataka have alleged that the CWRC order will push Karnataka farmers into a debt trap. Earlier, Union Minister and BJP leader Rajeev Chandrasekhar charged Mr Siddaramaiah and Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar of acting under pressure from the "arrogant DMK" and releasing Cauvery water without consulting the court and other parties.

In Tamil Nadu, Tamil Maanila Congress claimed that the state lacked a bold Chief Minister: "How can people vote for the INDIA alliance here when the Congress government in Karnataka is not releasing water for Tamil Nadu?". Both DMK and Congress are allies in the opposition bloc INDIA.

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Karnataka has been batting for the Mekedatu multi-purpose project (for irrigation and power) within its territory. However, Tamil Nadu feels it is just a ploy to divert water flow to the state. "An outstanding solution to the distress is the construction of Mekedatu Reservoir at the border by Karnataka which will help in generating electricity, meeting Bangalore's drinking water supply and in helping Tamil Nadu to the extent of 13 tmc during a distress year. Unfortunately, Tamil Nadu is objecting to this win-win solution," adds lawyer Katarki.

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been embroiled in a prolonged dispute, but a resolution remains elusive. In a world where international disputes are resolved amicably, it's hard to believe and rationalise that there is no attempt to resolve the Cauvery dispute either by the executive or the judiciary. The self-serving stakeholders are neither serving their states nor the nation.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.