Cauvery Crisis:

The Need for A New Approach


The Cauvery agitation this time in Karnataka has been refreshingly different from previous outbursts of mass anger over the issue. Unlike what happened in 1991, the agitation this time has not degenerated into an anti-Tamil riot but remained directed primarily against all the three concerned governments, the central government, the Jayalaitha government of Tamil Nadu and even the Karnataka government headed by SM Krishna. The role of the Supreme Court and the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) has also come to be subjected to a powerful public scrutiny and debate. It is also significant that the agitation has not remained confined to activists of various political parties, but cut across political boundaries to acquire an unprecedented mass character.

Acute Crisis, Unprecedented Protests

The centre of the agitation, this time, has been not so much Bangalore as Mysore and Mandya. Not a single day has been passing without any demonstration, at K.R.Circle in Mysore, by some section or the other since 4 September 2002. Right from the workers of BELand Vikrant Tyres to doctors and engineers, from platform vendors to Brahamana Sangha, people from all walks of life have taken to the streets in support of the agitating farmers and it has been spontaneous. Be it Deve Gowda or S.M.Krishna, the leaders have had to jump in to capture the mass sentiments and retain their grip on the mass politics in their strongholds of Mandya and Mysore districts. Both these leaders undertook padyatras on the issue but both had to abandon their ‘yatras’ mid way fearing the fury of farmers.

The situation in Tamil Nadu has been no less explosive. Apart from the delta farmers and different political parties and the state government, people associated with the Tamil film world have also been quite vocal in protests. While many film stars gathered at Niyeveli to demand cessation of supply of power from the Niyeveli plant to Karnataka, superstar Rajni Kant observed a day’s hunger strike in Chennai and called for an amicable solution between the two states.

It is not for nothing that the people are up in arms in both states. Tamil Nadu has lost its kuruvai crop. Farmers are looking forward to the Mettur dam to be opened for Samba cultivation. On the other hand, the South West mansoon has failed in Karnataka. Farmers are in an acute state of agony to save their standing crops as no other monsoon is expected. So, they want the available water in the reservoirs to be used for saving the standing crops. The suffering of the farmers of both states is genuine. The problem arose primarily because of lack of sufficient rainfall. The reservoirs in Karnataka have received water measuring only 50% of what it received in the corresponding period last year. The problem has been aggravated by the complete lack of warning issued by the two state governments to the farmers and the latter have therefore been in no position to make any kind of cropping adjustment.

It was against this background that the Supreme Court order directing Karnataka to release 1.25 tmcft of water every day to Mettur dam triggered the spate of agitations in the delta region. The Cauvery River Authority meeting on September 8 reduced the quantum to 0.8 tmcft every day. But, under pressure of agitating farmers, water was not released even as per the CRA’s decision. The state government did start releasing water from September 14 but it had to be stopped on September 18 when a farmer from H.D.Kote taluk drowned in Kabini river protesting the release of water. Perhaps, this is the first time people heard of such an incident in Karnataka whereas such things have been fairly common in Tamil Nadu although not on the Cauvery issue.

Instead of addressing it as a question of lack of sufficient water in the first place, if it is treated as a mere question of non-implementation of verdicts given by various judicial bodies, we will end up nowhere and the real issue cannot be addressed squarely.

Historical Background of A Lingering Dispute

The history of the Cauvery dispute dates back to 1892 when the first agreement was signed. An award was given by Sir.H.D.Griffin in 1914 which was rejected by the then Madras Presidency. In his own words, “The resolution we have arrived at, recognises the paramount importance of the existing Madras interests, has for its primary object the safeguarding of those interests and does, we believe, safeguard them effectually”.

This was, more or less, the basis of the agreement arrived at in 1924 between the then Madras Presidency under British rule and the princely state of Mysore. The agreement lapsed after 50 years, i.e., in 1974. Another draft agreement was prepared in 1976 but was not adopted in spite of its announcement on the floors of Parliament because Tamil Nadu backed out of the agreement and then Karnataka followed suit. Then, Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal under Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, was formed in 1990 following intervention from the Supreme Court. The tribunal gave its interim award in 1991 to release 205 tmcft of water every year from Karnataka reservoirs and the final award is awaited. The interim award was greeted with unprecedented riots and attacks against Tamils in Bangalore. Perhaps, the issue has reached its climax now again because the storage levels in the reservoir are the lowest in the last eleven years.

Evidently, the dispute has acquired new dimensions with the carving out of Karnataka in 1956 as a part of linguistic reorganization of states. The formation of the new state of Karnataka led to new political alignments in the state and there arose new aspirations and ambitions among the people. The area under irigation in the Cauvery basin region in Karnataka increased from around 4.42 lakh acres in 1971 to the tune of 6 lakh acres and above.

There is a widespread feeling in Karnataka that the 1924 agreement had meted out a historical injustice to the state under which the interests of the state had been subordinated to the interests of the then Madras Presidency under British rule. In the changed situation after the formation of the new state, Karnataka therefore wanted to undo the ‘historical injustice’ meted out to the state in the British period and rewrite the ‘previous agreement between unequal partners’ on a new basis of strength and parity. There is a strong feeling in the state that as a late starter it has to do a lot of catching up on the agricultural front, especially in the sphere of irrigation, and therefore it should enjoy guaranteed and undiminished rights over the waters of Cauvery.

Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, has grown ever more dependent on the Cauvery for its water requirements. The state has nearly doubled its irrigation potential from the pre-Mettur command area of 14.4 lakh acres to 25.8 lakh acres in the subsequent plan periods. As a lower riparian state, Tamil Nadu feels threatened because any decline in the flow of Cauvery waters to the state can prove disastrous for its framework of irrigated agriculture. Indeed, the inflow into the state has been diminishing, because of upstream development, on the one hand, and because of less inflow to the reservoirs in the upper riparian state, on the other. Tamil Nadu therefore insists on a clear recognition of past agreements and on the principle of prescriptive rights arising from prior use.

From Water Sharing to Distress Sharing

There are certain doctrines that govern laws of sharing river waters all over the world viz., (1) Doctrine of Riparian Rights (2) Doctrine of Prior Appropriation (3) Doctrine of Territorial Sovereignty (Harmon Doctrine) (4) Doctrine of Community of Interest, and (5) Doctrine of Equitable Apportionment.

The Doctrine of Riparian Rights is basically a doctrine governing the sharing of river water of two different countries. According to the Doctrine of Community of Interest, a river passing through several States is one unit and should be treated, as such, for securing the maximum utilization of its waters. This doctrine, if properly applied, can secure integrated development. Its smooth implementation however requires a high degree of mutual agreement. The Kosi project (India and Nepal) is often cited as an example that depends upon such an approach.

The Doctrine of Territorial Sovereignty (Harmon Doctrine) is the one adopted in case of rivers flowing from USA to Mexico. It was evolved by Attorney General Harmon, of the US in 1896, to justify the action of the United States in reducing the flow of the river Rio Grande into Mexico. Perhaps, this is the doctrine preferred by Karnataka even if it is not spelt out in so many words. Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, insists on the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation so as to protect its historical interests. It is this doctrine that protects the rights of lower riparian states when there is an expansion of irrigation in the upper riparian states. And the doctrine that apparently finds favour with the tribunal is that of Equitable Apportionment.

In theory, the Doctrine of Equitable Apportionment seems to be the best doctrine to govern the sharing of river waters flowing through different states in a single country. But since the concept does not lend itself to precise formulations and it cannot be translated into a fixed code that can be applied to all situations and at all times, it leaves the lower riparian regions in a state of uncertainty about the actual quantum flow of water. This is why we see lingering disputes every month and year, particularly in the lean periods of the monsoon. But, this is the theory that makes the river common to all states in the river basin and advocates equitable distribution of both benefits and distress.

This is the theory accepted in India for sharing river waters and the need of the hour is to remove the vagueness that surrounds it by evolving an effective formula of sharing on a scientific basis. Treating this issue either as a matter of bargaining as seen in the case of the verdicts given by the Supreme Court or the CRA, or as an absolute prerogative of Karnataka which denies Tamil Nadu farmers their due share farmers, or as a matter of protecting the rights that have accrued to Tamil Nadu through ‘prior appropriation’ – any of these three approaches will inevitably lead to prolonged never-ending disputes. The moot point is to evolve a dynamic, scientific distress-sharing formula that can make allowance for even the worst monsoon situations.

Both the positions are untenable in the changed context and there is a need for a fresh approach. Karnataka should realize that Tamil Nadu is a co-riparian state and releasing water to Tamil Nadu from the common river is not out of some charity. On its part, Tamil Nadu should also recognize the growth needs of Karnataka and realise that there can be no return to the 1924 position. It should also lay greater stress on a more economic usage of water, conjunctive use of ground water and surface water and conservation of water, etc.

The new approach should revolve around a scientific and dynamic distress sharing formula. It should also pay adequate attention to the following aspects: (i) Exploring new, alternative methods of irrigation that can better cater to the needs of farming communities at local level by providing irrigation facilities to a cluster of fields involving say 50-100 farmers, (ii) Experimenting with alternative cropping patterns based on crop varieties that need less water, (iii) Setting up an independent River Water Authority and entrusting it with the responsibility of forewarning the farmers about the potential water availability, (iv) Formulating an appropriate National Water Policy that can effectively deal with such crisis situations, (v) Exploring the possibility of networking of rivers at least at the level of South India.

Water Crisis — Part of A Larger Agrarian Crisis

The present confrontation over Cauvery waters has to be seen in the context of the deepening agrarian crisis. With the farmers already suffering from lack of minimum support price for their produce and skyrocketing prices of inputs, including electricity and water thanks to privatization, the failure of monsoons has come as the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. Behind the general plight of the farmers and its intensification in the wake of the Cauvery crisis lies the criminal policies and callous role of the three concerned governments, from the Vajpayee government at the Centre to the SM Krishna government of Karnataka and the Jayalalitha regime in Tamil Nadu. It is the new economic and agricultural policies of these governments which have really endangered the livelihood of millions of farmers and agrarian labourers. Yet it is the same governments and the parties which are also desperately trying to misappropriate and mislead the genuine resentment of the farmers by whipping up narrow sectarian passions.

As is always the case, the small and marginal peasants and agrarian labourers are forced to bear the biggest brunt of the Cauvery crisis. But in most discussions on the subject, the least attention is paid to their plight. Any acceptable solution to the Cauvery crisis must include measures like special employment generation programmes for the rural poor and provision of adequate food and other necessities for the crisis-ridden population.

Clearly, the need of the hour is not to allow vested interests to play mischief with the Cauvery crisis by pitting the farmers and general public of one state against their counterparts in the other state and instead put up a united fight for an amicable solution that revolves around reduction of misery and equitable sharing of distress. We must remember that the Cauvery is not a piece of private property but a common property of the people of all its basin states, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondychery. Also, the struggle needs to be carried forward against the architects of not just the Cauvery water crisis but the larger agrarian crisis that is transforming agriculture into a killer occupation where peasants can only sow distress and harvest death.