The final blow

The final blow

Notification of Cauvery award

As river water disputes go, the Cauvery river water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has been the longest, the most bitterly fought and protracted one in the country.

Despite historical injustices that Karnataka has suffered, which have been well-chronicled, the state had lost the battle of perception a long time ago. And now, with the Centre notifying the ‘final award’ of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, which is substantially favourable to Tamil Nadu, Karnataka has virtually lost the war as well.

Purely academically, any independent, fair-minded and perspective analyst who bothers to peruse the long history of the Cauvery river dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the last 130 years or so will readily agree that Karnataka has repeatedly taken blows and it has been more sinned against than sinning. But unfortunately, the general perception in the country is that of a ‘quarrelsome’ state which refuses to share water and live peacefully with its ‘long-suffering’ neighbour.
Being a lower riparian state, Tamil Nadu has always drawn public sympathy by accusing Karnataka of not releasing adequate water to save its ‘standing crops’ and ‘harassing’ its farmers. It was easy to convince those unaware of the history of the dispute that being an upper riparian state, Karnataka was unreasonable in simply hoarding water when the crops withered downstream. “Why is Karnataka being so adamant?” was a common-enough refrain in New Delhi and elsewhere. The question being simple, but the answer much more complicated requiring patience to understand it (which very few will have), it was clear Tamil Nadu had won a tactical battle and Karnataka’s only hope was that it will get a judicial verdict which would be far more kinder to it.

Therefore, when the tribunal was set up in 1990, Karnataka had hoped that a body of three judicial minds would carefully examine how one-sided ‘agreements’ were thrust upon the then Maharaja of Mysore --a subordinate to the British Crown -- by the Presidency of Madras. For instance, when Mysore sought to construct the Kannambadi dam to impound 44 tmc of water (now Krishnasagar -- KRS), the matter was refered to Sir Griffin, then judge of Allahabad high court for arbitration. Sir Griffin passed a judicial award allowing Karnataka to build the dam, but the Secretary of State of India in London intervened on behalf of the Presidency of Madras to stay the  award. It was permitted only after the Maharaja signed the 1924 Agreement allowing Madras to build a dam at Mettur to store 93 tmc of water!

After the formation of the tribunal, it was also hoped that it would look at how Karnataka was continually prevented from building dams and irrigation canals to use the water flowing in its territory. That it would take into consideration Karnataka’s substantial contribution to the yield of 392 tmc as against 222 tmc by Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry put together, and its drought-prone areas in the basin being 21,870 sq km as compared to 12,790 sq km of the latter and so on. But, in the end, the tribunal—which was riven by dissentions and human frailties—took 16 long years to come up with a flawed ‘award’ which is being questioned by all parties to the dispute before the Supreme Court.

Under pressure

But Tamil Nadu is celebrating the fact that the Centre, under pressure from the Supreme Court, has notified the final award of the tribunal and it has also indicated that it will be accepting the tribunal’s recommendation to set up a Cauvery Management Board (CMB) and a Cauvery Water Regulation Committee on the lines of Bhakra Beas Management Board for implementation of the order.

Karnataka has opposed the creation of the board and has appealed to the prime minister against it. But it is highly unlikely that Centre will heed to its demand. So when the board, which will consist of irrigation experts and officials from all four states, besides officials of the Union water resources ministry, comes into existence, it will take control of the supervision and monitoring of the release of water from all the reservoirs in the Cauvery basin and the irrigation activities in the basin areas.

The CMB will supervise the weekly and monthly releases as stipulated by the tribunal and Karnataka is expected to ensure 192 tmc of water to Tamil Nadu every year at the inter-state border point of Biligundlu. Though the tribunal has allowed Karnataka to grow crops in 18.85 lakh acres as against 24.71 lakh acres in Tamil Nadu, the problem will arise in the drought years as the tribunal has substantially reduced the intra-basin availability of water in Karnataka to meet the ‘prescriptive rights’ of the Tamil Nadu farmers.

While the crop cultivation in Karnataka is bound to suffer, the most unkindest ‘judgment’ of the tribunal is to allocate only 8.75 tmc of water for drinking purposes in towns and cities of Karnataka in the basin, including Bangalore city, though the need is for 52 tmc for the projected population of 2025. With a burgeoning population, Bangalore’s current requirement itself is around 24 tmc, but the tribunal in its wisdom has allocated 1.89 tmc, holding that “two-thirds of the city falls outside the Cauvery basin.”

The tribunal should have recognised that access to drinking water always gets a priority worldwide and in fact, this right is recognised under Article 21 of the Constitution. It does not depend on the hydrological boundaries of the basin. As a matter of fact, Delhi which is part of the Yumuma basin, gets a good part of its requirement from the Ravi Beas basin which is about 400 km away. There is also the fine example of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra agreeing to part with 15 tmc of their allocated water in the Krishna river to meet the drinking water requirement of water-starved Madras city under the Telugu-Ganga project in 1978.
The special leave petition that Karnataka has filed before the Supreme Court makes a detailed presentation of the extreme hardship that the people will suffer with the implementation of the tribunal’s award, and the apex court bench is the last ray of hope for the state.

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