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Century-old Cauvery dispute remains in limbo

The efforts to resolve the century-old dispute over sharing of Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu across the table appear to be jinxed with the failure of talks between the chief ministers of the two states at Madras on Sunday, January 5.

The issue is back to square one with Tamil Nadu deciding to seek a remedy through the tribunal and Karnataka having already decided to boycott the tribunal.

This is the third abortive attempt to find a negotiated settlement for the vexatious issue at a political level in the post Independence period.

Earlier attempts in 1974 and 1989 also failed to break the deadlock.

Hopes that Karnataka Chief Minister J H Patel and his Tamil Nadu counterpart M Karunanidhi would strike an agreement in the context of changed political scenario were belied as they could not find any meeting ground despite five rounds of intense negotiations initiated at the instance of a Supreme Court directive.

The issue came close to solution during the five rounds of talks though it broke down on Sunday reportedly over differences on the percentage of sharing.

A solution to the dispute was in sight way back in 1974 when a draft agreement was almost ready when the late Jagjeevan Ram was the federal irrigation minister. The agreement, which also provided for setting up of a Cauvery Valley Authority, fell through for want of ratification as the subsequent government in Tamil Nadu rejected it on the ground that it was evolved during the president rule in the state.

The 802-km-long river, which takes birth at Talacauvery in Kodagu district in Karnataka and traverse mainly through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has been the bone of contention between the two states for well over a century now.

The issue reached a crucial phase in 1990 when a three-member tribunal was set up by the federal government headed by V P Singh after Tamil Nadu reported failure of talks.

The tribunal gave its interim award after Tamil Nadu approached it but the same was questioned by Karnataka. Both the Congress government and the subsequent Janata Dal government headed by H D Deve Gowda in Karnataka, however, released water on "humanitarian grounds".

With the change of the federal government after the Lok Sabha elections, Justice Chittatosh Mukkherjee resigned as chairman of the tribunal. Earlier the Supreme Court, while dealing with a petition filed by Tamil Nadu directed the two states to settle the issue through talks exhibiting a sense of statesmanship.

The Cauvery dispute was first referred to an arbitrator in 1910. The then Madras government had objected to the Kannambadi reservoir being built to its envisaged capacity of 41.5 TMCFT. Sir H D Griffins was appointed as arbitrator and he began his proceedings in July 1913 and gave his award the next year.

The Madras government had then raised objections under 1892 agreement on the ground that under the agreement no irrigation project could be taken up without its consent. Though the objection was overruled, it was later suspended following an appeal by Madras to the secretary of state for India.

Then negotiations began between the two parties and the now contentious agreement was signed in February 1924. A dispute again arose within five years over interpretation of a clause and the issue again went for arbitration. However both the parties settled the dispute outside the court.

The 1924 agreement has been the bone of contention still between the two states. While Tamil Nadu contended that the 50-year agreement provided only for extension in 1974 and was still valid, Karantaka wanted a Denovo approach on the ground that the agreement was between two unequal partners as it involved the then princely state of Mysore and the erstwhile Madras Presidency.

The dispute was again taken to the Supreme Court when Karnataka began construction of dams across Hemavati and Harangi. It was then Tamil Nadu demanded a tribunal for the first time and suspension of work on these reservoirs.

Following Tamil Nadu's protests, Karnataka had to fund the projects under the non-plan head and this caused a heavy strain on its exchequer.

Several meetings between the two states in the Eighties to find an amicable solution to the problem proved futile as there was no meeting ground between the two.

In February 1990, the Supreme Court, while hearing a petition on the issue, directed the two states to complete negotiations before April 24. As subsequent meetings between chief ministers of the two states did not yield any result, the federal government told the Supreme Court to decide on the dispute. The Supreme Court told the federal government to constitute a tribunal and it was done in June 1990.



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