Parvathi Menon

A mixed bag of some losses and gains, and several issues that remain ambiguous.

THE REFLECTIVE response, at least at the official level, that the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) has met with in Karnataka is perhaps a measure of what the package offers a mixed bag of some losses, some gains, and several issues that remain ambiguous in their import but could work in Karnataka's favour once the fine print of the award is studied. It is by no means an entirely satisfactory package, and the State may yet file a review petition on several specific issues. This award, however, marks a departure in one crucial respect from earlier agreements and awards in the long history of negotiations between the riparian States over water sharing. It appears to have shed the colonial legacy of injustice to Karnataka that past agreements have carried the imprint of. It would seem that the present award is being seen for what it is a technical package, but one that has not fully met Karnataka's expectations.

If the 1991 Interim Award is taken as a benchmark, how does the State fare in the present award?

According to the award, the State will receive 270 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of water out of 726 tmcft (10 tmcft is reserved in the award for "environmental protection" and another four tmcft for water that flows into the sea). The State will therefore receive roughly 37per cent of the total water availability in the river in good years, as against Tamil Nadu, which receives 57.71 per cent. Kerala gets 4.13 per cent and Puducherry gets around one per cent of the total water. In addition, the State must release 192 tmcft of water at Billigundlu on the border, whereas according to the terms of the Interim Award, 205 tmcft was the realisation at Mettur further downstream. The quantum of water generated between the two measuring stations was calculated by the Tribunal in 1991 at 25 tmcft the exact quantum of this flow was always disputed between the two States leaving Karnataka to release around 180 tmcft at the Central Water Commission gauging station at Billigundlu.

Karnataka will argue that it must now release around 10-12 tmcft more than what was stipulated in the Interim Award. However, by making the CWC station at Billigundlu the point of delivery there will be no scope for disagreement between the two States on the exact quantum of releases. Also to be noted is that in the last 16 years it is only in four years, that is, from between 2001-2002 and 2004-2005, that Karnataka released less than 192 tmcft of water, and these were years of severe drought.

On the positive side, the final Award places no cap on the extent of irrigated area in Karnataka. The Interim Award had capped the command area of Karnataka at 11.2 lakh acres, a restriction that Karnataka felt was a major injustice. Indeed, in the 16 years of the Tribunal's sittings this cap was never modified, even though there were major agro-economic changes in the basin and a growing popular demand for the extension of irrigation facilities. The final Award bases the figure of 270 tmcft as the State's requirement of water for a range of purposes including irrigation. It was presumably guided by the assessors report, which put the extent of irrigated land in Karnataka's Cauvery basin at 18 lakh acres. Now the State can extend its irrigated area depending upon the additional availability of water in the basin after releasing Tamil Nadu's share.

There are, of course, legitimate apprehensions on how far the command area can be increased under the terms of the final award. For example, nearly two lakh acres of land irrigated through various lift irrigation schemes in the Kabini basin might face shortages, high level sources in the Water Resources Department have said. Further, the allocation to Kerala will affect the flows into the Karnataka reservoirs, particularly Kabini, which may face a reduction of at least 21 tmcft.

Somewhat ambiguous is the distress sharing formula in the final award. It says that in years of distress the allocated shares will be proportionately reduced. In other words, distress too will be shared proportionately. This does not envisage a situation where in the same year there could be distress in the basin owing to the failure of the southwest monsoon, and normality in the delta because of a normal northeast monsoon. How will the total quantum of water in the river be computed in a year of drought?

Clause 13 of the award contains yet another advantage for Karnataka as it allows for the setting up of hydro-electric projects, which the Interim Award did not permit. Karnataka, with support from the National Hydro-Power Corporation, has been seeking for over a decade to put up a run-of-the-water power plant at Mekedatu close to the inter-State border. Such a project can now be commissioned provided it does not affect water releases to Tamil Nadu.

In 1991, the Interim Award met with an explosion of violence in the basin districts and Bangalore that found its target in Tamil-speaking populations. The final award has been accepted with reservations that will be addressed through the mechanisms of redress that the Tribunal provides.