Cauvery: sensible management key

Cauvery: sensible management key

There are water-use and physical-ecologi-cal changes that have negatively affected water availability.

The demand for water of India’s rivers has grown along with economic gro-wth, but without sensible management of water resources. 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.

The genuine concern and agitation among ordinary rural and urban people over falling water availability in the current drought year in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu appears to have be-en manipulated by shadowy political forces into mindless street violence based on language and domicile in both the states.

In 2002, during a failed monsoon, when the BJP-led NDA go-vernment ruled at the Centre, Karnataka’s Congress government was headed by S M Krishna. The Supreme Court (SC) ordered it to abide by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’s decision to release water to TN. With huge, violent protests in Karna-taka opposing release of water, the CM refused to comply. Under threat of President’s rule being imposed, he capitulated and water was released to TN. But Krishna paid a political price, losing much of his immense personal popularity and demitting office not long afterwards.

In 2012, there was another flare-up. But this time, the Congress-led UPA was at the Centre and Karnataka had a BJP government. The state saw huge, violent protests, with corresponding protests in TN. TN’s petition to the SC stated, “...protests or bandhs had been instigated and orchestrated by interested partisan and parochial interests in the Cauvery basin districts of Karnataka.”

TN filed contempt proceedings against Karnataka in SC and demanded President's rule in Karnataka. Again Karnataka was constrained to release water against the wishes of its people, and TN got its way.

Now in 2016, when Karnataka has a Congress government, the BJP-led NDA government is at the Centre. Once more, TN has got its way, and Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah has been const-rained to release 15,000 cusecs (reduced by SC to 12,000 cusecs), and on Tuesday another 6,000 cusecs for a specified number of days. Again, Karnataka’s CM faces the heat from his people.

Commonalities in the above cases are: SC castigated Karnataka for not sharing water in times of scarcity, forcing Karnataka to release water; the governments at the Centre and Karnataka were different; Jayalalithaa was the TN CM all three times; and language-and-domicile based violence in Karnataka caused reciprocal violence in TN.

Thus, politically, nothing much has changed, but there are water-use and physical-ecological changes that have negatively affected water availability. All indications are that these will only get worse unless both states understand that business-as-usual will only make life worse, even critical, for the millions of people in South India for whom Cauvery is the lifeline.

In 1990, the CWDT headed by Justice Chittatosh Mukherjee recorded the demands of the riparian states: Karnataka sought 13 BCM (billion cubic metres), Kerala 2.83 BCM, Pondicherry 0.3 BCM. TN demanded 16 BCM (including for Pondicherry) and insisted that according to the 1892 and 1924 agreem-ents, Karnataka should get only 5 BCM and Kerala 0.1 BCM.

Since no final agreement could be arrived at, the Tribunal arrived at an “interim award” according to which Karnataka had to release 5.8 BCM to TN as per a schedule. Karnataka considers the interim award unfair while TN insists that Karnataka adhere to it.

Normal monsoon
Even in times of normal monsoon, the sum of water demands of the four riparian states (31.8 BCM) far exceeds the 21.4 BCM of water available in the Cauvery river basin. Clearly the problem, especially in times of scarcity, lies in unrealistic water demand, which is caused by poor water management (inappropriate agriculture and water-use policy and planning) on both sides.

More recently, with rapid industrial and urban expansion, the industrial and domestic water demands are rising, especially in TN, making water scarce for farming, although the state demands water for farmers.

Also, water returned by urban areas and industries to the environment is heavily polluted with toxic and biological wastes. Ground water withdrawal has exceeded the recharge from surface flows over decades and, together with unchecked sand-mining, the ground water has dropped to hundreds of metres.

Though reduced water availability is an assured scenario of the future especially in peninsular India due to a combination of poor water management and the effects of climate change, the political class appears to be blind to these realities.

While not much can be done now to reduce the pace of climate change, the imperatives of mitigating its effects and adapting to lowered water availability in coming years can only be addressed by honest consultative politics of sensible water management by both the states.

This will stop the political-judicial battles and eliminate the necessity of running to the Supreme Court, whose writ is not understood by the thirsty people in distant lands. Leaders in both states must muster enough political courage to eli-minate the triggers of language-domicile violence which cause enormous economic loss and bad blood between neighbours.

(The writer, a retired Major General, is with People’s Union for Civil Liberties)

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