The Cauvery dispute has defied resolution due to the Centre’s unwillingness to take a stand on the issue even as drought stalks the basin States

“[A] river is more than an amenity, it is a treasure. It offers a necessity of life that must be rationed among those who have power over it.”

These words, stated by the Supreme Court of United States in 1931 in the context of the Delaware river dispute between the State of New Jersey and the State of New York, have a universal relevance; more so in respect of rivers where water utilisation exceeds availability. It is this feature that has characterised the Cauvery river dispute, primarily between two basin-States — Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

With the crucial southwest monsoon playing truant this time in many parts of the country including Karnataka, the dispute becomes more complex. It is to address this complex situation that the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) is meeting in New Delhi on Wednesday.

The authority is holding its meeting after a gap of nearly 10 years. For the first time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will preside over a meeting of the Authority that comprises Chief Ministers of all basin-States — Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala — besides the Union Territory of Puducherry.

The CRA, a body created by the Union government in August 1998 with the Prime Minister as chairperson, is to ensure implementation of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’s interim order of June 1991. As per the order, 205 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) would be made available at the Mettur dam of Tamil Nadu in a water year (June to May) over a monthly timetable. In February 2007, the Tribunal gave its final order, which is yet to be notified in the Gazette.

Complex situation

To illustrate a point on the complexity of the present situation, even for holding a meeting of the CRA which should happen as and when necessary as per the rules governing the CRA, Tamil Nadu not only sent communication through its Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to the Prime Minister twice in recent months but also moved the Supreme Court, seeking direction to the Union government.

Some details of the current situation may be different from what was prevalent 10 years ago but what has not changed is that there is no distress sharing formula in place. In fact, from the time the Authority first decided to work out an acceptable and equitable procedure for sharing of distress in October 2001, consensus on this has been elusive.

Even though all parties to the dispute could not be brought around on the issue of distress sharing, a significant development did take place. A formula, evolved by the Central Water Commission as far back as in 1993 and found acceptable to all basin States barring Karnataka, was fine-tuned and recommended for consideration.

An official group of experts including representatives of all the parties concerned held three sittings during June-August 2003. As no consensus could be arrived at, the chairman of the group, who was a commissioner of the Union Water Resources Ministry, gave his opinion in August 2003 that the monthly flows to be ensured at the Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu during a distress year could be fixed on a pro rata basis, which essentially pertained to the ratio between the average flows recorded at Mettur during 1974-1975 to 2002-2003 and the flows realised at Mettur in a given period. Six years later, when the Cauvery Monitoring Committee, a panel meant for assisting the CRA to take decisions, held its deliberation in December 2009, it decided that when “noticeable distress condition occur[s] in future”, it would refer the matter to the Authority.


This year, the distress is noticeable. The districts of Kodagu, Hassan, Mandya and Mysore, all part of the Cauvery basin, have recorded at least 30 to 35 per cent less rainfall than normal. As many as 154 taluks are drought hit, including 45 in the Cauvery basin.

During June and August, Tamil Nadu realised a meagre 10.6 tmc ft, about one-tenth of its share as per the interim order. The Mettur dam, regarded as the lifeline of the Cauvery delta, opened for irrigation three months (September 17) behind the scheduled date of June 12. In the process, the farmers lost the short-term Kuruvai crop. They can raise only one crop this year — the long-term Samba.

Still, Tamil Nadu is acutely aware that under the given circumstances, Karnataka is in no position to meet the interim order’s stipulations, despite its complaint in May that Karnataka was depleting storage of its reservoirs for summer crop. The State has shown a perceptible change in its stand this time. Moving away from its traditional position of citing the 1991 interim order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal as the only reference point in claiming the State’s share of water, the Tamil Nadu government, more than once, publicly referred to the CWC’s distress-sharing formula and sought the release of water at least as per the formula. Its officials say the State should have received 68 tmc ft till now whereas the cumulative realisation since June 1 is not even 20 tmc ft, which includes higher flows, as a result of Karnataka’s undertaking in the Supreme Court on September 10 of releasing 10,000 cubic feet per second (cusecs) till the CRA’s meeting.

Broadly, the present episode of the Cauvery dispute brings out two developments — one disturbing and the other, positive.

Ten years ago when the dispute evoked a high-decibel debate between the two principal players, the Union government made efforts to have the problem sorted out through the institutional mechanism of the CRA. Even as he was preparing to leave for the United States in 2003, the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, agreed to hold a meeting of the CRA. However, including the three meetings in those volatile months of 2002-2003, the CRA has met only six times since its inception.

In the present crisis, not a semblance of interest in the Cauvery matter has been publicly displayed by Dr. Singh. Only after the Supreme Court early this month wondered whether the Prime Minister’s Office was aware of its orders on holding a meeting of the CRA came the announcement that the meeting would take place on September 19. Before that, despite Ms Jayalalithaa’s letter to Dr. Singh in May asking for a meeting of the Authority and repeating the request three months later, the Prime Minister was apparently unmoved.

Casual attitude

The casual attitude of the Central government towards this important inter-State river issue can be gauged from the fact that there has been no move to appoint a chairperson of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal even though five months have lapsed since the resignation of Justice (retd) N.P. Singh. Sadly but not surprisingly, the national leadership of the ruling Congress party, which feels it has higher political stakes in Karnataka than in Tamil Nadu, has so far refrained from articulating its position on the overall Cauvery matter.

On the positive side, compared to 2002, both States have been experiencing relatively peaceful times — no State-wide hartals or counter bandhs; no farmer suicide against the release of water to Tamil Nadu. Even as the two governments are engaged in defending the rights of their States through judicial and executive forums, they have done well for not having given any room for chauvinistic elements to take advantage of the situation.

Also, this may be due to the realisation among farmers on either side of the significance of farm practices that involve less use of water. The concepts of micro irrigation, precision farming and system of rice intensification are widely talked about. It is too early for anyone to assess the impact of these concepts on the farmers but what is discernible is that the agricultural community in both States is serious about utilising available water judiciously and intelligently.

Even to sustain modern practices, farmers of any basin State should not feel left out or wronged. To correct this perception, in the given case of Cauvery, much responsibility rests with the Central government, which can ill afford playing the role of a silent spectator to a dispute, which, if allowed to grow unchecked, has the potential of creating undesirable and even dangerous ramifications.

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