Debating India


Distress and politics

T.S. Subramanian & Parvathi Menon

Friday 16 July 2004, by MENON*Parvathi, SUBRAMANIAN*T.S.

in Chennai & Bangalore

The dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of Cauvery waters, which needs to be resolved within the mechanism already in place, continues to hold farmers in the basin hostage owing to, among other things, political one-upmanship.

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with (from left) Union Ministers T.R. Baalu and P. Chidambaram and DMK leader Durai Murgan who led an all-party delegation from Tamil Nadu, on June 8.

IT caused the first cracks in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. The dispute over the sharing of Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, with its long history of bitterness and unresolved claims, could not be papered over by any amount of coalition bonhomie. As June 12, the day water from the Mettur dam is traditionally released, neared, pressure was exerted on the Central government by both States: by Tamil Nadu for the release of water from the Karnataka reservoirs for the commencement of sowing operations for its kuruvai crop, and by Karnataka against any measure that would force it to reduce its own utilisation.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was petitioned by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to convene the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) "forthwith" and to finalise the distress-sharing formula. Members of Parliament from the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) in Tamil Nadu urged him to talk to the Karnataka government to "create conditions congenial to begin farming operations here" and to implement the Interim Order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, which stipulates the release of 10.16 tmcft of water in June to Tamil Nadu. This was followed by a representation by a delegation of MPs from Karnataka that gave Manmohan Singh the State’s reaction: "We have no water to spare, and we must protect the interests of the Karnataka farmer."

The Congress(I) and the Janata Dal(S), coalition partners in Karnataka, put on hold their quarrels over the allocation of ministerial portfolios to speak in one voice against any release of water to Tamil Nadu. So did the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the single largest party in the State Legislature. "On the Cauvery, we all stand together," said B.S. Yediyurappa, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly. Significantly, there was no dilution of the hard-line rhetoric, nor any desire on Chief Minister Dharam Singh beginning his tenure on a note of political goodwill. Even as a delegation from Tamil Nadu was politely received in Karnataka, there was no yielding from the stated position.

In Tamil Nadu too, the issue lent to a not unfamiliar game of political one-upmanship. The issue hit centre stage in the first week of June after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) stole a march over the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and its general secretary Jayalalithaa by leading an all-party delegation to meet Manmohan Singh and Dharam Singh. DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi wrote separate letters to them, urging them to release the water to Tamil Nadu. While the AIADMK joined the delegation to meet the Prime Minister, the party sent a separate official delegation to meet the Karnataka Chief Minister.

As late as June 14, the Karnataka government held on to the position, despite "exhaustive consideration" of Tamil Nadu’s request, that it would not release any water to Tamil Nadu. By now water levels were going up steadily in Karnataka’s reservoirs. On June 14, the inflow into the Krishnarajasagar dam was 11,004 cusecs, the highest this year. The water level was 86 feet as against 68 feet last year. The inflow into the Kabini and Hemavathy reservoirs was also steadily rising owing to heavy rainfall in the catchment areas.

For the delta farmers in Tamil Nadu, the prospects of yet another year - the fourth in a row - of no kuruvai cultivation loomed large. (If that indeed happens, it will be the seventh paddy crop in succession that they will be losing.) Pressure groups from the State upped the demand for Karnataka to release water immediately and for the two States to finalise urgently a "distress-sharing" formula. They also called for an urgent meeting of the CRA and the Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CMC) to discuss this issue. Apart from Jayalalithaa and MPs from the DPA, the "Cauvery Family", a body formed recently comprising farmers’ representatives from the two States, in its meeting held in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, on June 11, underlined the need to evolve a deficit-sharing formula. On June 24, the Tamil Nadu secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), N. Vardarajan, appealed to the Centre to convene the CRA and ensure that Tamil Nadu received enough water. R. Nallakannu, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), said the Karnataka government’s decision that only when there was increased inflow into its reservoirs would it release more water to Tamil Nadu had greatly disappointed farmers in Tamil Nadu. Nallakanu urged the Centre to impress upon the Karnataka government to release enough water for kuruvai cultivation in Tamil Nadu.

The Karnataka government said in response that there was no need to call a meeting of the bodies, as there was no distress in the basin. Even so, it refused to release water. A meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) convened by Manmohan Singh in New Delhi endorsed his decision to ask Karnataka to release water to Tamil Nadu. Manmohan Singh spoke to Dharam Singh and former Prime Minister and former Karnataka Chief Minister H.D. Deve Gowda.

Nature, and some political expediency, finally resolved the issue. Karnataka started releasing water on June 17, at the rate of 12,000 cusecs a day, from the Kabini, but only, as the Chief Minister took pains to tell his constituency, because the water had reached the danger mark and that impounding it further could cause flooding of the nearby areas. Reinforcing this, M. Mallikarjuna Kharge, Karnataka’s Minister for Water Resources, said that the release of water would be stopped when the rain stopped.

For the Cauvery delta farmers in Tamil Nadu, to go in for cultivation of kuruvai now will be a risk because the water level in the Mettur dam is not sufficient. Kuruvai is cultivated from June to September on about 5.5 lakh acres (2.2 lakh hectares): in 4.25 lakh acres in the Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, in about 75,000 acres in Tiruchi district, and in another 75,000 acres in Pudukottai and South Arcot districts. Kuruvai needs 135 tmcft of water for its completion, aided by releases from the Mettur dam and local rainfall. The height of the dam is 120 feet (36 metres) and its capacity is about 93 tmcft of water. As on June 24, the water level in Mettur stood only at 50 feet, or the storage was about 17.84 tmcft. "It will be very risky to take up the cultivation of kuruvai unless there is at least 45 tmcft of water before July 6 in Mettur dam," S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, told Frontline. Tamil Nadu farmers allege that Karnataka has been treating the Cauvery as a mere "drainage system", releasing surplus waters only when its reservoirs cannot impound them.

Hopes in the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu soared from June 18. Tamil Nadu farmers rejoiced when the overflowing waters of the Kabini reservoir reached the Mettur dam on June 19 and 20. The level in the Mettur dam stood at a mere 40.66 feet. However, the joy was short-lived with the rain in the Cauvery catchment areas stopping, and the overflow from the Kabini dwindling. Between June 20 and 24 Mettur received about 5 tmcft of water (6 tmcft, in Karnataka’s estimate). As on June 26, with the water level at just about 18.3 tmcft in Mettur, it appears unlikely that the Cauvery delta farmes can raise kuruvai. Therefore the sluices of the Mettur dam were not opened.

AT the core of a solution to the dispute, according to the noted irrigation and water expert Ramaswamy R. Iyer, lies in the approach that must hold good in times of both plenty and distress. This is based on the premise, he argues, that there are no ownership rights over water, but only user rights. Nor is there any hierarchy or primacy of rights among States. There is only an equality of rights, which does not of course mean a right to equal entitlement. A water-sharing agreement, therefore, has to hold good in years of plenty as well as in years of water shortage, and must be based upon a mutually agreed ratio in which water is allocated among the basin States. An upper riparian State, in a year of water shortage, cannot argue that its needs must be met before it releases water to the lower riparian State/s, however acute the scarcity for irrigation or drinking water is.

The Interim Order gave a schedule of water-sharing, but this was based on the assumption of normal rainfall and water flow in the river. It was also a sharing agreement based on absolute volumes and not on proportionate sharing. For distress years, the guidelines it prescribed were left open to interpretation. In the 13 years since the Interim Order was passed, many changes have taken place in the agro-economic status and rainfall pattern in the Cauvery basin. The past three years witnessed acute rainfall shortages in the basin. The genuine problem of sharing in years of shortage has been further subjected to the pulls and pressures of competitive politics. To argue for the release of Cauvery water in Karnataka used to be viewed as politically incorrect; today it is seen almost as an act of betrayal of the State’s interest.

It is this unstated ownership right, expressed as a right to prior use owing to its position as the upper riparian State, that Karnataka has been accused of asserting over the past few years. This approach has stalled any meaningful negotiations, even in bodies like the CRA and the CMC, which were set up to tide over interim problems of sharing before the final award of the Tribunal was given. During the last few years of drought, the State could not abide by the terms of the Interim Order, which stipulates that 205 tmcft of water must be released to Tamil Nadu in a rainfall year. But with both States equally suffering the impact of drought, a proportionate sharing of distress could never be worked out, and much of the blame for this has been laid at the door of Karnataka, which always held the position that it would release water only after its own needs were fully met. It appears that the Tribunal’s Final Award alone can bring some finality to this intractable dispute.

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 14, Jul. 03 - 16, 2004.

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