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Cauvery dispute: 'Moral and legal victory for Tamil Nadu'

By Shobha Warrier
February 27, 2013 09:35 IST
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The bitterest water dispute in independent India is not about sharing of surplus water but about re-sharing of utilised water and that is why the issue has dragged on for so long, says Professor S Janakrajan.  

Professor S Janakrajan of the Madras Institute of development Studies is a specialist in agrarian institutions, interlinked agrarian markets, water management, water conflicts, stakeholder analysis and multi-stakeholder dialogues, environment, urban and peri-urban issues, disaster management and livelihood resilience.

He is also the man behind the formation of the Cauvery Family in 2003, where leading farmers from both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have come together to find a solution to the dispute.

Now that the Centre has been forced to notify the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal for sharing the waters of the Cauvery basin among the basin states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, and the Union territory of Puducherry on the directions of the Supreme Court, the Cauvery water sharing is once again in the news.

As per the Tribunal award, Tamil Nadu will get 419 TMC ft (against the demand of 562 TMC); Karnataka 270 TMC (against its demand of 465 TMC); Kerala  30 TMC and Puducherry 7 TMC. This notification is in the gazette dated February 19, 2013.

In an exclusive interview to’s Shobha Warrier, Prof S Janakarajan explains the implications of gazetting the Cauvery tribunal award.

What is the significance of the Supreme Court asking the Central government to implement the Cauvery Tribunal award and the Centre gazetting it?

Gazetting the final award is very important for Tamil Nadu because Tamil Nadu was hitherto depending on the interim award, for the implementation of which, they had to depend upon the Cauvery River Authority headed by the prime minister and the Cauvery Monitoring Cell headed by the Water Resources Secretary, government of India. When these bodies failed, the state had to go to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court used to revert them back to either of these bodies. The state had to plead for the release of water.

With the gazetting of the final award, that situation will not exist anymore.

With the notification of the final award in the gazette, the interim award becomes null and void and both the Cauvery River Authority and Cauvery Monitoring Cell shall also cease to exist.

But in the absence of these two bodies, somebody has to implement the final award. For that, the government of India must constitute the Cauvery River Management Board as required by the final award. This body will act essentially as an overseeing and supervising body of the timing and quantum of water to be released as prescribed the tribunal.

I would certainly say that with the notification of the final award in the gazette, the Tamil Nadu government can claim a moral and legal victory. 

But when people of Tamil Nadu are celebrating, the people of Karnataka are unhappy and they are expressing their anguish

Yes, indeed they are unhappy. One man's victory is considered another man's defeat. This is precisely because what is realised in the Cauvery basin as a whole is much less compared to what is demanded. It is a deficit basin and the dispute is sharing not the surplus and but re-sharing of the already utilised water.

The Karnataka government is appealing to the prime minister not to constitute the Cauvery River Management Board. Earlier, they had requested him not to gazette it but the government of India had no choice but gazette it.

It is now politically important for the government of Tamil Nadu to impress upon the central government to constitute the Cauvery River Management Board as soon as possible. If they don't, the government of Tamil Nadu could again go to the Supreme Court.

How important is the constitution of the Cauvery River Management Board?

Very important. They are the ones who are going to take over the management of the reservoirs of the upper riparian state, namely, Karnataka. They will supervise the timing and quantum of release of water and not the public works department of Karnataka. The board will be the implementing authority of the final award. They are supposed to ensure monthly water release as indicated in the final award.

Elections are around the corner in Karnataka and the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. We have to wait and see how the states and the Centre are going to go ahead with the formation of the board, as it is politically very important for all.

The tribunal has awarded 419 TMC of water to Tamil Nadu and 270 TMC to Karnataka. How will the water be shared throughout the year?

The total availability of water in the Cauvery basin is 740 thousand million cubic feet at 50 per cent dependability of which the share of Tamil Nadu is 419 TMC feet this much water  includes water that is realised both within the state of Tamil Nadu  and water that will flow from the upstream. The dispute is over how much water should flow from the upstream and when. This is precisely what has been indicated in the final award which says that 192 TMC feet should flow from Karnataka along with a monthly schedule.

Is the tribunal award fair to Karnataka?

It will not be fair on my part to tell you whether it is fair or unfair because the tribunal has dealt with this issue for so many years assessing so many records historically and otherwise. They have even looked at international laws and practices.

The tribunal was constituted in 1989 and came out with the interim award in 1990 and the final award in 2007.

But the people of Karnataka are very disappointed...

I am an academic and I am not holding hand for any state. But it is important for us to understand and analyse the claims and counter claims of both states.

Karnataka disregarded all the earlier agreements and called them all historical blunders because the agreements were made between the Maharaja of Mysore (a weak princely state at that time) and a very powerful Madras Presidency. They felt it was imposed upon them by the powerful British empire.

Karnataka is disappointed for the simple reason that they have always been against the release of any amount of water unless it surpluses over the four major reservoirs in their territory. That is grossly unfair. They cannot do that.  The dispute would not have reached this bitter dimension had they agreed upon some kind of realistic water sharing arrangement with Tamil Nadu. They were very adamant that they would not release any water unless there was surplus.  You must understand that a river will get its meaning only when there is a flow. Nobody owns a river. A river has no state boundaries; it transcends boundaries.

Do you feel gazetting of the Cauvery tribunal award is not going to be the end of the Cauvery water dispute?

Certainly not. Gazetting the final award is just one step. The board has to be constituted and the final award be implemented. In between, if an aggrieved party goes to the Supreme Court, I don't know what will happen.

Yes, many inter-state water disputes are resolved in the country through the intervention of the tribunals. But Cauvery water dispute is the most difficult and the bitterest water dispute that has happened in independent India. It is not about sharing of surplus water but about re-sharing of already utilised water. It is a deficit basin and a not surplus one. That is why this has dragged for so long.

As a water expert, I must emphasis one issue. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu must go beyond the legal battle for sharing water. Demand for water will go up everyday. Until the last three decades, 85-90 per cent of the demand for water came from the agricultural sector. But today, industrial sector claims more and more water and their demand is increasing rapidly. Urbanisation is so high that more than 50 per cent of people in Tamil Nadu live in urban areas as per the 2011 census, and hence demand for drinking water has also gone up tremendously. So, the contending states have to come together to handle the issue of ever increasing competing demand for water. In this context modernisation of agricultural and irrigation practices are extremely crucial which could result in enormous saving of water.

Also, pollution is going to be a bigger issue in future than sharing of water. All the major tributaries of Cauvery in Tamil Nadu -- Noyyal, Bhavani, Kalingarayan canal, Amaravathi and Kodaganaru are heavily polluted and add to the contamination of the river.

Many people predict that wars will hereafter be fought for water. Do you feel so?

I will give you an example. In the case of the Nile basin, water is shared between eleven countries in East Africa and there is a deep clash going on. In fact, the Nile Basin Initiative visited Cauvery basin to learn how a deficit basin is handled, how water is shared and the initiatives taken by the Cauvery family. I took them around the entire basin for two days. Therefore, all the transboundary river basins across the world are so heavily stressed and are seemingly contested terrains. War over sharing of water therefore cannot be ruled out.

Photo Credit: Sreeram Selvaraj

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