Rediff Logo News Travel Banner Find/Feedback/Site Index
July 21, 1998


The Rediff Special/ K Krishnamurthy

Science, not law, has the way out of the Cauvery crisis

E-Mail this story to a friend

When it first appeared in 1968, Nadanthai Vazhi Kaveri was described by R K Narayan as one of the finest contemporary books in Tamil. In his introduction to the English version, published five years ago, K Krishnamurthy provided a fascinating insight into the Cauvery dispute. An analysis which we reproduce here, with kind courtesy.

It is a supreme irony that this river of life should remain a bone of contention.

Even in the last century, there were rumbles of discord in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka about the sharing of Cauvery waters. Not that Tamilians and Kannadigas are cussed and quarrelsome peoples.

Shortage of water is a global phenomenon, an ever-growing problem. With exploding population and excessive demand on a limited supply / availability of water, stresses and strains were bound to emerge between these riparian states. This kind of situation is not unique to India.

In the United States, sharing of the Colorado waters was a matter of dispute. Even within the state of California, counties fought over the distribution of water resources.

But it is indeed unusual for claimants to come to blows over water-sharing issues.

To understand what makes this problem so controversial and explosive, a proper insight into the history of the dispute is necessary.

By an accident of history, irrigation got a head start in Tamil Nadu, paving the way for development in the 19th century. By the middle of the 20th century, a succession of engineers built up the magnificent Thanjavur delta canal network which transformed the district into the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu.

In contrast, the then state of Mysore started late in harnessing irrigation. It is a different story that it went on to emerge as a pioneer in hydro-power. Mysore initiated several river projects in the late 19th century.

The Madras Presidency (as it was known then) took notice and the two states negotiated an agreement in 1892 which committed Mysore to first getting the prior consent of the Madras government before building new irrigation reservoirs on any part of the 15 main rivers, including the Cauvery and its main tributaries. However, there was some consolation for Mysore that the Madras government was bound not to refuse such consent except for the protection of prescriptive right already acquired and existing under the terms of the 1892 agreement.

When the Mysore government wanted to erect a large dam and reservoir on the Cauvery at Kannamabdi, the two governments got together and hammered out an agreement in 1924 whereby future irrigation in Mysore of the Cauvery and its tributaries was pegged at 110,000 acres. In return, the Madras government agreed to limit the new area brought under irrigation by their Kaveri-Mettur project to 301,000 acres. This agreement was subject to review after 50 years.

In the past two decades, normal or above normal monsoon rains have been exceptional. It has become an annual feature for Tamil Nadu to plead with Karnataka in the month of May to release some water for the Thanjavur farmers. Thanks to the good sense and spirit of accommodation displayed by both sides, potential crises were tided over.

The happiness lasted as long as the two sides showed restraint. But there were undercurrents of discontent and a sense of injustice. Short-term measures never really resolved the issue. Once they failed to reach a long-term agreement and took the dispute to a special tribunal, they unwittingly ensured that the problem would simmer for a long time.

Expectedly, the dispute lies pending with the tribunal.

Tamil Nadu's stance is that in utilising the waters of a river flowing through more than one state, no state shall cause 'appreciable harm' to other states. It claims that the 1892 and 1924 agreements between Mysore and Madras were in conformity with this principle and laid down limits for extending irrigation in both states accordingly.

The 1924 agreement provided for re-opening certain provisions with a view to sharing surplus waters, if any, after 50 years. Tamil Nadu avers that after 1924, Karnataka violated the spirit of the agreement by impounding and utilising waters from the rivers so as to extend its irrigation far in excess of its entitlement, and has caused injury to established irrigation in Tamil Nadu. It seeks a direction to Karnataka to release flows due to it under the earlier agreements and to abide by the provisions of the 1924 agreement.

Karnataka argues that the two agreements are null and void, as they were between unequal parties, with the paramount power imposing its will on a princely state, and biased. It claims that development so far has been lopsided, with Tamil Nadu overappropriating and wasting water, while Karnataka was unable to develop its own irrigation because of unreasonable restrictions in the two agreements.

Karnataka contends that its vast areas are prone to drought and it is the state government's duty to provide irrigation to such areas. To discharge this duty, Karnataka needs more water. It seeks anew appointment of available waters without reference to the earlier agreements and based on the principle of equitable sharing.

It is obvious that a purely legalistic approach can be no meeting ground. Much also depends on the quantification of the terms, surplus and available waters. Only by give-and-take magnanimity on one side and moderation on the other can the present deadlock be ended.

In litigation, there can be no winner. Even if a court order is secured, it would be counter-productive to try and coerce a state into compliance. That would create further bitterness resulting in untold damage to our fragile federal system.

All well-wishers of the two states will hope that greater wisdom and a spirit of accommodation will prevail.

It is also to be hoped that in the dust of the present controversy, both administrations will not overlook long-term problems which are fraught with important consequences.

They must see the Cauvery as a whole and look at the forests, environment, watersheds in the two states to forestall any diminution of future water supplies. On the distribution side, the two states must pursue economical methods of transmission (minimising seepage and evaporation), maximum efficiency in utilisation and scope for varying the existing crop patterns (in anticipation of growing shortages).

We must look to science for our salvation, not to law. To begin with, the two states must consider setting up a joint scientific committee on the Cauvery, comprising forest experts, hydrologists, civil engineers and agronomists to monitor the state of the river regularly and to make periodic recommendations which should be implemented in a spirit of co-operation. Ultimately, it should be noted that the people of both states are the children of Mother Cauvery and must learn to share her gifts on a fraternal basis.

They ought to realise that the Cauvery, like all great rivers, faces a bigger threat from overexploitation and pollution.

Since 1968, many more factories have sprung up in the Mettur area and downstream. There is more than one paper mill functioning, and derricks are going up in the Thanjavur delta in a frantic search for oil. Pipelines for natural gas and crude may soon be laid across Thanjavur and its agricultural economy may undergo a total transformation.

If industrialisation proceeds apace, and more oil wells are drilled both on and off shore, propelling Thanjavur into an unprecedented oil boom, then more factories and power-houses may arise using the energy thus made available. Perhaps even an oil refinery and petrochemical or fertiliser plants may rise on the landscape.

The Cauvery that Janakiraman and Sundarajan saw in 1968 is disappearing and by the first decade of the 21st century it may vanish for ever.

Kind courtesy: Eternal Kaveri, by T Janakiraman and P G Sundarajan, translated from the Tamil by K Krishnamurthy, Penguin, 1993, Rs 85.

The Rediff Specials

Tell us what you think of this feature