Ahead of polls, TN cashes in on river linking project

A fantasy of surplus water: Ahead of polls, Tamil Nadu cashes in on river linking project

Karnataka readies for legal war against TN plan to divert surplus Cauvery water

Water being released to River Cauvery from KRS, in Srirangapatna, Mandya District. Representative image/Credit: DH File Image/Savitha B R

The year is 1890. Representatives of the Princely State of Mysore, ruled by the Wadiyars, and officials of the British government of Madras Presidency sit down at a conference in Ooty to discuss sharing of the Cauvery water. 

A conflict over the Cauvery river water had already emerged, with Mysore wanting to make use of surplus water flowing into the sea for irrigation and the Madras Presidency fearing that such a move would curtail water flowing into its territory. Two years later, the contending parties arrive at an agreement — no new irrigation works would be taken up by Mysore without prior consultation with the Madras Presidency. 

Read | River linking project: Karnataka fears Tamil Nadu may eye surplus Cauvery water

More than a century later, the Cauvery continues to be a bone of contention between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. 

In a fresh tribulation for Karnataka, the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu recently inaugurated the Cauvery-Vaigai-Gundar river linking project which envisages diverting surplus water from the Cauvery, including the flood water, to parched areas in southern districts of Tamil Nadu like Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram and Virudhunagar. 

Legal battle

Fearing that its share of excess water will be encroached by the neighbouring state, Karnataka is now all set to wage a legal battle against
the project. 

On Friday, Law Minister Basavaraj Bommai said Tamil Nadu’s project was against the interests of Karnataka, pointing out that the issue of utilisation of surplus water was still pending before the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal and there was no legal decision in this regard. The proposed project is also against the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, he said. 

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Tamil Nadu’s inauguration of the project comes ahead of the assembly elections scheduled to be held on April 6. Karnataka’s appeal to the Centre against the project comes even as the BJP is working hard to clinch electoral victory in Tamil Nadu. 

The present contention of both governments pertains to water that flows into the sea, over and beyond their allocated share. In 2018, the Supreme Court directed Karnataka to supply 177.25 tmcftft (thousand million cubic feet) water annually to Tamil Nadu, as against the 192 tmcft earlier allocated by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. 

Accordingly, of the total 740 tmcft water estimated in the Cauvery basin, Karnataka’s share is 284.75 tmcft, that of Tamil Nadu is 404.25 tmcft, Kerala (30 tmcft), Puducherry (7 tmcft). Of the rest, 10 tmcft has been set aside for environmental protection, while 4 tmcft is considered “inevitable escapage” into the sea. 

What has TN set out to do? 

Tamil Nadu’s project is part of the larger Peninsular Rivers’ Development Component of the Centre, which proposes linking Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna- Pennar-Cauvery-Vaigai and Gundar rivers, through inter-basin water transfer link canals. 

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami laid the foundation stone for the first phase of the Cauvery-Vaigai-Gundar linking project on February 21. 

The linking will begin from the Kattalai Barrage, located about 138 km downstream of Mettur Dam. The link canal will be 261.45-km long and will carry about 6,000 cusecs of water.

The project will be implemented in three phases, with the first phase alone costing Rs 6,941 crore. Linking of Cauvery, Vaigai and Gundar has been a long-standing demand of farmers in parched districts in south Tamil Nadu.

“Once the project is implemented, not only will lakes get filled but it will also recharge groundwater, ensuring fertility of land in barren areas. This project will change the face of southern districts that battle drought almost every year,” G S Dhanapathy, state secretary, Farmers Forum of India, Pudukkottai, told DH.

Tamil Nadu PWD Secretary K Manivasan claimed that the state did not need Karnataka’s consent for implementing the project. “We want to utilise excess water and flood water to recharge groundwater and provide drinking water. We are not increasing the area of cultivation. We are well within our rights to implement this project,” he said.

A Veerappan, Retired Chief Engineer of Tamil Nadu Public Works Department (PWD), says Karnataka cannot oppose the project but raises several questions over the implementation of the ambitious scheme.

“The project certainly has several deficiencies and demerits. The water will travel in the open canal and the entire route comes under the drought-prone areas. Constructing an open canal would only lead to illegal pumping of water,” he said.

Veerappan pointed out that even the Telugu Ganga project, which aimed to provide water to Chennai from the Krishna river, had its problems. 

Tamil Nadu receives just about 600 cusecs of water in the Kandaleru-Poondi canal at zero point, while the Andhra Pradesh Government releases about 2000 cusecs at Kandaleru Reservoir. “A lot of water is being pumped out illegally in the Krishna canal. The same would happen here in Tamil Nadu,” he added.

Karnataka’s concerns 

However, Karnataka fears that the project is an indirect attempt by the neighbouring state to establish its rights over excess water. The state government has written to the Centre stating that the only obligation of Karnataka as per the 2018 Supreme Court order was to ensure the release of 177.25 tmcft annually in a normal water year to Tamil Nadu. “Therefore, Karnataka is entitled to all the surplus water available in its territory,” it has said. 

Moreover, Karnataka too has plans for utilising the excess water for projects such as Mekedatu, Kabini Phase 2 and other lift irrigation projects. According to the government, the annual surplus water is 83 tmcft on an average, which can be used to cater to these projects.

“Tamil Nadu can use the excess water generated in its catchment area. However, their proposal makes a generic mention that they want to make use of excess water from the Cauvery. Our fear is that the state will eventually lay claim to the surplus water in entirety,” an official in the Water Resources Department said. 

Further, if the Centre’s river-linking project is implemented in full, both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka will get extra water channeled through the Pennar river. “Tamil Nadu can then link Vaigai and Gundar from the available extra water. Without implementation of the Centre’s river-linking project, the neighbouring state is proposing to use the existing surplus water, which is not legally permissible,” the official added. 

Missed opportunity 

Meanwhile, even as Karnataka’s farmers and political leaders have opposed Tamil Nadu’s project, there is also resentment about government apathy.

K C Basavaraju, leader of ‘Cauvery Kutumba’, an association of farmers from both states seeking solution to the river conflict, said successive governments, whether it is the Congress, JD(S) or the BJP, had failed Kannadigas when it came to Cauvery.

Also Read | Tamil Nadu acting as if surplus Cauvery water belongs to them: Karnataka

“In 2018, even though the apex Court increased Karnataka’s water allocation, the state actually did not gain much. The Tribunal’s verdict had permitted hydro power projects as long as the downstream release of water was consistent with its order. This would have been an opportunity for Karnataka to develop the Mekedatu project. However, Karnataka filed a special leave petition against the Tribunal’s verdict, encouraged by Tamil Nadu, which did the same. The Supreme Court verdict of 2018 is silent on the hydro projects. Tamil Nadu is likely to use this to create impediments for Karnataka. Successive governments have been promising Mekedatu but have failed in taking it forward,” he explained, adding that Karnataka was crying over spilt milk, all owing to official apathy.

‘Both parties are ill-informed’ 

Politics aside, ecologists rubbish the arguments of both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as ill-informed. Water activist S Vishwanath pointed out, “The dispute is political, arising from lack of clarity on using the surplus water. Chauvinistic arguments prevail while we are no longer looking at the river ecosystem, the livelihoods provisioning and health of the river. We are only looking at it as a unit to be traded between two states.”

Vishwanath says the whole premise of the argument, that water reaching the sea was going waste, was ridiculous.

“When river water reaches the delta, it prevents salinity and protects the integrity of the biological ecosystem. Fresh water entering the sea brings with it nutrients, supporting biodiversity of the sea itself. This also helps the monsoon ecosystem to kick in, as fresh water is easier to evaporate than salt water,” he added, lamenting political considerations overriding ecological concerns. 

As of now, Karnataka has no choice but to wait for the Centre’s response to its objections, while it simultaneously prepares for a legal battle. 

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