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Breaking the Cauvery deadlock

By S. Janakarajan

So far, negotiations have been carried out by bureaucrats and politicians. It is high time farmers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu got together to find a lasting solution.

THE CAUVERY is one of the most disputed rivers in contemporary India. Whenever the monsoon fails, the conflict between two major riparian States explodes, at times even taking a violent turn. In any inter-State water dispute, it is invariably the lower riparian State which is at the receiving end — both literally and metaphorically. In the case of the Cauvery, Tamil Nadu has had to bear the brunt of floods, and drought, and pollution. But none of these burdens negates the fact that the State's food production depends massively on the availability of water in the Mettur dam, and that the livelihood of millions of people in the lower part of the basin area are contingent on the flow of water in the river.

Tamil Nadu has had a much earlier and more rapid history of development of irrigation command than Karnataka. In Tamil Nadu, to the initial pre-Mettur command area of 14.4 lakh acres was added 11.4 lakh acres during the successive plan periods. Therefore, the total command area of 25.8 lakh acres in the State was developed over a long period of time. The irrigation development in the Karnataka part of the basin was only 4.42 lakh acres in 1971. It was only after 1971 that new schemes were drawn up to bring more areas under irrigation. The underlying point is that millions of Tamil Nadu's farmers and landless agricultural labourers have had access to Cauvery water for centuries. Any denial of access now will result in a serious cultural setback in the region, besides opening up the ground for peasants' unrest.

Appreciation of the doctrine of `prior appropriation' in international water law is quite central in this context. According to this, the first user who puts the water to beneficial use acquires a prior right to the extent of such use. On the contrary, if the upper riparian State is allowed to expand irrigation development quite late in the day, without considering the irrigation network already developed by the lower riparian State, not only does it create tensions (as in December 1991, when thousands of Tamils and their properties were the target of attacks in Karnataka), it might also lead to a situation at some future point of time in which the lower riparian State would hardly get any access to water. That is why it is vital to protect the `historical interests' of the lower riparian State.

Until 1931 when the KRS was commissioned, the utilisation of water from the Cauvery for agriculture entirely depended upon the river course or run-off of the river or through water diverted through the anicuts. In other words, water kept flowing downwards and flooded the delta region. This has affected the downstream region and its people in two ways. One, this kind of a long history of flooding and water logging has led to the condition of soil salinity, and two, the land in this delta region has become unsuitable for any crop other than paddy. Annual crops such as sugarcane and banana are cultivated in some parts where water logging is not an acute problem (Thanjavur district). In the eastern parts of the delta (the present Nagappattinam district), however, the twin problems of water logging and salinity pose a severe constraint for any shift in the crop pattern.

The most important factor, however, is the heavy concentration of clay soil in the delta, which allows practically very little water for percolation. Further, the data published by the Tamil Nadu Groundwater Board indicates that in 1992 groundwater development in Nagappattinam district was 100 per cent. Block-wise information in this district indicates that in six out of eight blocks groundwater is over-exploited; and, the remaining two blocks were categorised as dark blocks where the groundwater development is in the range of 85 to 100 per cent. It is obvious that in the last 10 years the situation has worsened. Therefore, farmers are constrained to depend heavily upon canal water for their agriculture, the magnitude of which is quite high. Under normal circumstances, the requirement is at least 1.5 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of water a day for the kuruvai crop. "That is why, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal prescribed in its interim award, a receipt of 42.7 tmcft for July and 54.7 tmcft for August at Mettur." But the cumulative deficit in the receipt of water from June 1 to July 31 has been 43.88 tmcft.

Can we allow the present stalemate to continue? In this context, it is imperative to recall what happened in December 1991. The conflicting and provocative acts and statements which emanated from both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu claimed several lives and resulted in the loss of property worth several crores of rupees. More than one lakh Tamils had to flee Karnataka, leaving behind their belongings. We cannot afford to let that happen again. But the sequence of events that have taken place in the past one month is somewhat worrying: The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister strongly criticised Karnataka for not releasing water for the kuruvai crop. Tamil Nadu had initially refused to participate in the Cauvery River Authority headed by the Prime Minister and filed a suit in the Supreme Court against the Karnataka Government stating that the latter had been violating the interim award. The Tamil Nadu Government wanted the Supreme Court to give a direction for the constitution of a technical committee to take over the regulation of the reservoirs in Karnataka with a view to implement the interim award in case the Karnataka Government failed to comply with the order. Delta farmers in five districts observed a one-day token fast on July 16, in front of the offices of the respective Collectors demanding the immediate release of water for the kuruvai crop. A writ petition on behalf of the 20 lakh Cauvery delta farmers and agricultural labourers was filed in the Supreme Court with a view to directing the Karnataka Government to release water as per the interim orders of the Cauvery Tribunal. The Supreme Court in an interim order on July 29 directed the Cauvery Monitoring Committee to consider Tamil Nadu's plea for water and make recommendations thereafter to the Cauvery River Authority.

The Tamil Nadu Government is certainly justified in seeking a permanent legal remedy with a view to protecting the historical interests of the delta farmers. There cannot be any doubt that the sharing of the water should not only be `just' but also `fair'. At the same time, it is necessary to take a pragmatic view of the matter. Is it possible to resolve this issue through the intervention of the Supreme Court? Assuming that Tamil Nadu gets a favourable verdict, the immediate question that strikes one is how to implement the Court's order? There is already an interim relief awarded by the Cauvery Tribunal, which is hardly respected. Indeed, this has created more anxiety than relief.

Guhan's suggestion in this regard is more meaningful: of the assessed annual yield above Mettur, a fixed share could be evolved taking into consideration various agro-climatic factors and the past utilisation pattern of water. This formula could help both the States share surplus water in the good years and the deficit during the bad years. But how to put this into practice? What will be the response of the farmers? Or do the farmers have any alternative solution? This is what one needs to ascertain through a series of multi-stakeholders' meetings of farmers from both the States. So far, negotiations have been carried out by bureaucrats and politicians. It is high time farmers of both the States got together to find a lasting solution.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the Institute.)

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