The Supreme Court and its committees, the two states and the central government must become objective and take the present and not just the past in mind, writes S L Rao.
I was born in Srirangam near Tiruchirappalli; I am a Kannadiga by mother tongue and domicile and have lived in Chennai for over 10 years, and in Bengaluru, where several relatives live, for over 15 years. This article aims to present an objective view of the the Cauvery water-sharing dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
Every participant in this dispute has been looking only at a section of the problem. The river originates in Karnataka and flows into Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala. The sharing of water between the two large states was decided by the British Indian government.
There was no Tamil Nadu then, but a much larger Madras Presidency. It was the imperial presidency. It carried great weight with the British Indian government. Obviously, the imperial government favoured its Madras Presidency. The princely state of Mysore was a vassal state and had to do what it was directed by the imperial government. Mysore state was where the river originated.
The British Indian government brokered two “agreements” in 1892 and 1924. These agreements gave a large proportion of the river water to Madras Presidency. The water could have been better distributed over the rest of south India where the river flows. But Madras was the imperial Presidency and got preference. Especially after the Mettur Dam was built on the Cauvery in Madras Presidency, there was an abundance of water after it flowed into the delta.
Madras Presidency farmers near the river and its canals began growing four paddy crops a year, an unprecedented practice in most of the world! This used the abundance of water now available from the Cauvery. It was necessary because paddy cultivation in India uses vast quantities of water as flooding is the method. Land in the delta region became valuable and the farmers there grew rich.
After Independence and especially after the States Reorganisation Commission report created the state of Karnataka, the imperial relationship of Madras with other parts of south India was replaced by relations between elected governments.
Karnataka is one of the driest states in India. The duty of the elected government was to see that their farmers got enough water for their crops. Even though the river originated in the state, in most years Karnataka dutifully obeyed the water-sharing norm laid down before Independence by the British. It had to be satisfied with a minority share of the water. The major share went to Tamil Nadu, the successor state to the Madras Presidency.
The premier city in Karnataka was Bangalore, a sleepy pensioners’ paradise. By the 1980s it had become a major public enterprise city, and a growing educational hub. The 1990s and thereafter saw it growing even more rapidly as it transformed itself into the Indian “Silicon Valley”. It became the fastest growing Indian city, with people flocking to it from everywhere in India and the world. The world’s largest research, and consulting firms came there. Employment boomed as did the population influx. Water had to be assured to the population. The only source was the 120 km distant Cauvery. This was done by building a pipeline for the purpose and then pumping it up 3,000 feet. This required large quantities of electricity and was expensive.
Mandya district is contiguous to the Cauvery and uses its water for growing sugarcane. Like paddy, it is a water-intensive crop. Little could be done to send the water to the dry districts because of the British agreements.
Despite the river originating and flowing through a good part of the state, Karnataka was unable to use much of it to satisfy its agricultural needs. And this, in one of the driest states in India!
The so-called technical committee created by the Supreme Court has agreed with the imperial “agreements” imposed by the British. It did not take into account the developments since and the duty of an elected Karnataka government to guarantee drinking water to the teeming city of Bengaluru. It ignored the status of the state as a very dry state. It advised the Supreme Court, which ordered that Karnataka should cede control over the dams and canals it has built, and the water that flows through them, to an independent Management Board. The idea that a state will not have control over the dams it has built is incredible.
The Supreme Court and its committees, the two states and the central government must become objective and take the present and not just the past in mind. Clearly, the supply of drinking water to a metropolitan city in the coming dry months must take priority over any other use. If Tamil Nadu or Karnataka farmers run out of water, their governments must give them drought relief, not scarce water from the Cauvery.
There has been no attempt to ensure wider use of available water by changing cropping patterns in the Tamil Nadu delta region and the Mandya district in Karnataka. There has been no attempt either to charge higher tariffs, justified by cost, for drinking water in Bengaluru, which could reduce demand.
There is no major effort in either state to save water, recharge aquifers, enforce rainwater harvesting all over and not give free electricity as they do to extract groundwater. This has led to steep falls in groundwater levels at the cost of future generations. The Union government also has to make paddy cultivation less attractive in line with falling demand and lower minimum support prices. This will also reduce mounting stocks, some rotting with the government.
Every one of the four parties, the Centre and the two state governments and the Supreme Court-appointed agencies, must move from history to the present situation. They must give priority to drinking water over irrigation.
For a long-term solution the two states must look objectively at agricultural practices, and conserve water with urgent projects.
The author is a former director general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research