Rediff Logo News Rediff Personal Homepage Find/Feedback/Site Index
August 10, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend

Opinion/ V C Bhaskaran

Rowing back in time on Cauvery...

Just before the beginning of the Christian era, the rulers of Tanjavur impounded the waters of the Cauvery river which originates in the Brahmagiri ranges of Kodagu district. The Cauvery, one of the seven holy rivers of India, flows for about 381 km along what is now Karnataka. No attempt was made to utilise its waters for irrigation until 1883 when the diwan of the princely state of Mysore launched a scheme. His primary aim was to increase the revenue to the king's coffers. The diwan's move was resented by the Madras residency under the British raj. Thus began the Cauvery dispute which Prime Minister Vajpayee of Independent India is trying to solve.

The Cauvery row had some respite after two rounds of talks between the Mysore state and Madras residency in 1892 and 1924. Mysore was permitted to construct a dam in Kannambadi village to impound 44.8 thousand million cubic feet of water. Madras appropriated to itself the right to construct a dam in Mettur in Selam district to impound 93.5 tmc ft of water. Madras naturally had what is called prescriptive rights over the upper riparian state of Mysore. Besides, Mysore was a princely state under the raj. Madras presidency formed a part of the raj, and thus was in an unassailable position. Malabar district was then part of the Madras presidency. Malabar is now part of Kerala, and Kerala too has joined the Cauvery fray.

The 1924 agreement was valid for 50 years, after which there was to be a review. It stipulated that Mysore could undertake any extension of irrigation by impounding Cauvery waters only with the prior consent of the Madras presidency. Twelve years after Independence and 15 years before the expiry of the pact, Mysore, by then rechristened Karnataka, wrote to Madras, in Tamil Nadu, inviting its attention to several clauses, and suggesting changes. Madras turned down the plea. Changes, it said, would be contemplated only after the expiry of the pact in 1974. Obviously, Tamil Nadu found it best suited to keep the agreement alive for its own benefit.

The central government began an initiative soon after, but the entire issue was given the appearance of a bilateral dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the other two riparian states, namely Kerala and Pondicherry, having been left out until the 1970s. And because of the political clout enjoyed by Tamil Nadu in New Delhi, Karnataka's plea for constructing dams across the Cauvery was not considered by the Centre. Karnataka launched many irrigation schemes, but these were not approved for Union funding. This added fuel to the fire.

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu had expanded its irrigation by leaps and bounds against the letter and spirit of the agreement. Its acreage increased from 1.665 million in 1924 to 2.82 million by 1971. Karnataka's score showed a rise from 314,000 to 682,000. The agreement had stipulated that Madras was entitled to increase its irrigation land to only 300,000 acres. Mysore's quota was 110,000 acres. Both had violated the agreement.

Countless rounds of talks have taken place to resolve the issue, without any success. If one scans through the headlines of the past decade, when the dispute assumed violent overtones, one can discern a pattern to make political capital. The two Kazhagams are using the issue for votes in Tamil Nadu; the Congress and the Janata Dal do the same in Karnataka. Now the BJP, with its newfound prominence, has also come into the picture.

According to a study conducted by the central government in 1972, the utilisation of water from Cauvery in Tamil Nadu was 489 tmc against Karnataka's 177 tmc. Now Karnataka wants to utilise 465 tmc, against its present usage of 312.32 tmc. It is against this background that Tamil Nadu went to the Supreme Court.

The Cauvery Tribunal, in its interim award of June 1991, ordered that Karnataka should release 205 tmc of water to Tamil Nadu during one water year, that is from May to June. It also stipulated a weekly quantum of flow, much to the chagrin of Karnataka. The largescale violence let loose on Tamils living in Karnataka still haunts the politically-charged scenario. Even the United Front government of H D Deve Gowda, in which the DMK was partner, could not resolve the Cauvery row. It was Deve Gowda who had organised massive rallies against the Cauvery Tribunal award, way back in 1991.

Karnataka has consistently opposed any river valley authority to supervise the distribution of water. It is also against any court verdict. It wants talks. And at the end of every round, politicians blame each other for the failure. Now thanks to the emergence of coalition politics, questions of state's autonomy, federation etc are being raised to defend belligerence.

Tell us what you think of this column