The Cauvery Feud: Betrayal And Rash Decisions

My fingers have grown weary typing article after article on the Cauvery over the last 25 years. But I take up the task again because everything I have been pleading for to find a definitive answer to the problem has been brought to the fore once more by the horrendous spectacle of buses with Tamil Nadu number-plates burning in Bengaluru's parking lots and Kannadigas being attacked in Tamil Nadu.

The origins of the dispute over the sharing of Cauvery waters date back to the Madras-Mysore agreements of 1896 and 1924, the latter having expired in 1974. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi found that two long years after the expiry of the last accord (it is now 42 long years since the expiry of the 1924 accord!), she availed of the then on-going Emergency to task the Governors of the two states to hammer out an equitable solution. They quickly arrived at an agreement that would have given Tamil Nadu some 400, 000 million cubic feet (tmc) of Cauvery waters annually.

Instead of seizing this golden offer, the Tamil Nadu government that was elected after the Emergency was lifted denounced the Governors' accord. One might have expected the Karnataka government to have done so, but it passes understanding that it was Tamil Nadu that looked the gift horse in the mouth and decided that they could negotiate a better deal with a democratically-elected Karnataka government.

That, of course, did not happen. So in 1990, with a Dravidian party backing VP Singh's government in New Delhi, the Cauvery disagreement was referred to a Tribunal that came out in 1991 with an interim award that gave to Tamil Nadu 205 tmc per year- that is about half of what Governor Mohan Lal Sukhadia had secured 15 years earlier on Tamil Nadu's behalf. But it was now Karnataka's turn to loudly protest the interim award. Tamil habitations in Karnataka, particularly the capital city of Bengaluru, were attacked and set on fire. To appease the Kannadigas, the central government initially refused to gazette the award, thereby conniving in its non-implementation. When eventually the award was given gazette recognition in December 1991, Karnataka stalled matters by insisting that they would not act on an interim award and seek a final award.

Back to the Tribunal - that, for no fault of the Tribunal, took not a few months as promised to polish up its interim award into a final award, but a staggering 16 years to do so! Meanwhile, the Cauvery football was kicked from the Tribunal to the Supreme Court, which, after patiently listening to both sides, reserved in April 1997 its orders till the next hearing.

At this, instead of waiting a few weeks till the Day of Judgement, the central government decided, with the agreement of both states, to withdraw the case from the Supreme Court to try and resolve matters through a newly-constituted Cauvery River Authority which had the Prime Minister, Vajpayee, in the chair, and the Chief Ministers of the states concerned (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry) as members. This was a disastrous decision as the Authority rarely met (just thrice in four years), and when it did meet, the discussions were heated and inconclusive. There was no constructive outcome. There could not have been - for the CRA was no more than a debating society; it never evolved into a decision-making or decision-enforcing body.

Anticipating this, I wrote two pieces in my column for a national newspaper. Jayalaithaa, then in Opposition, concluded that these articles were an excellent stick with which to beat the incumbent DMK state government. Pinching the two articles whole and without changing even a comma, she issued them as her statements. I was not in the least upset. Quite the contrary, I was thrilled that she should elevate my line into her party line. Cutting the cackle, my argument was that we should just brush aside these Tribunals and their awards, interim and final, as also the orders of the authority-less Authority, and return to the Supreme Court to ask them to issue the judgement that they were on the verge of doing as the Deve Gowda government fell in April 1997.

With the prospect of her being able to swing it this way, I could barely wait for her to win - as she did in 2001. Meanwhile, with her enthusiastic backing, I was returned for a second time to the Lok Sabha in the 1999 elections from my Tamil Nadu constituency, Mayiladuturai, that falls wholly in the Cauvery delta even as most of the delta area falls in the constituency. Hence my involvement in the nitty-gritty of the dispute. I was therefore deeply disappointed that no sooner had she become Chief Minister than she abandoned the line she had earlier espoused and went back to seeking a solution outside the framework of the Supreme Court. As happens whenever she is even slightly thwarted, she was furious that I took to the floor of the House in 2002, the year after she returned to power, to point out that her present stand went against the grain of the stand she had publicly taken a few years earlier. That marked the beginning of our parting of ways.

14 years and several elections have passed since that spat. The Dravidian parties have alternated in office in Tamil Nadu. So also have governments in Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry (now Puducherry) changed hands more than once. The only constant is that the Cauvery issue remains unresolved, flaring into violence whenever the monsoon falls below normal. That the problem is not perennial but episodic is only because Nature is more often than not kind to the beneficiaries. Thus, in 12 of the last 16 years since the start of this millennium, rainfall has been so bountiful that, award or no award, both major contesting states and the other two states concerned have received all the water they need. The crisis has arisen in just four of the 16 years: 2002-03, 2003-04, 2012-13 and now in 2016.

What are the lessons to be learned from this experience? One, no purpose is served by resorting to quasi-judicial proceedings in tribunals or administrative bodies like the toothless Cauvery River Authority. Second, that the worst time for the states concerned to negotiate is in the midst of a crisis when tempers are tense all along the length and breadth of the Cauvery basin. Yet, it is only in the midst of crises that the states talk among themselves and arrive at no consensus, while feeling it politically best to let sleeping dogs lie when matters are muted. Third, no enduring solution is possible by approaching the Supreme Court to pass an order to meet an immediate need, as has happened most recently. The Supreme Court has ordered Karnataka to urgently release a specified amount of water to save the current crop in the Cauvery delta, but that is no answer to the long-term dispute. The dispute continues.

The only option left is to go back to the Supreme Court and request the court to resume proceedings where they were left hanging in April 1997. A judicial order alone can be enforced - as has happened with the latest order. Karnataka has released to Tamil Nadu the quantity of Cauvery water as ordered by the Supreme Court notwithstanding the fury in the upper reaches of the Cauvery basin, particularly in the Mandya district and the capital city. This proves that it is only a final determination by the Supreme Court on water-sharing, both on an annual basis and of monthly releases, especially in the summer months when the need is greatest, that will lend finality to the dispute.

And then we can all get on with the real solution that lies in the Cauvery Modernization Plan that the World Bank agreed to finance decades ago so that we get more crop for the drop. However, that plan was subject to agreement on water-sharing between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Therefore, a huge bonanza awaits all parties to the dispute if only matters are restored to the jurisdiction of the highest court in the land. Why not at least try?

(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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