Cover Story

Cauvery conflict

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Members of the Desiya Thennindia Nadigal Inaippu Vivasayigal Sangam staging a demonstration on the Cauvery river in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, on September 22 against Karnataka's refusal to release water.

Farmers in Srirangapatna in Mandya, Karnataka, demonstrating on September 7 against releasing water to the lower riparian State. Photo: M. SRINATH

September 7, Thanjavur: Delta farmers preparing to plant seedlings in expectation of the release of water following the Supreme Court order. Photo: R. SENTHIL KUMAR/ PTI

Farmers in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, staging a novel protest on September 9 demanding supply of Cauvery water for irrigation. Photo: A. MURALITHARAN

The reappearance of the crisis shows that only equitable sharing of the river’s waters combined with scientific water conservation and management measures and time-tested farmer-to-farmer initiatives can be the solution to the dispute.

IN August 2009, as Karnataka, much like the rest of India, was coping with the worst monsoon in a century, a Tamil Nadu cadre Indian Administrative Service officer flew to Bengaluru from Chennai. The officer, in charge of Tamil Nadu’s Public Works Department, was acting as a courier for his Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi. His mission was to hand over a letter to Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa.

Karnataka Protocol officials received him at the airport and whisked him away to the Chief Minister’s residence, where Yeddyurappa was waiting for him. Multiple sources confirmed that Yeddyurappa did not read the letter but he told the officer that he was aware of its contents; he also gave him to understand that he had called at his residence an all-party meeting which he wanted the officer to attend. Yeddyurappa also informed him that bad things about Tamil Nadu would be said at the meeting. After the meeting, when the officer told him that it was not as bad as the Chief Minister had projected, Yeddyurappa remarked with a smile: “It was not all that bad. But wait till you see the MLAs.” The officer sat in on the Assembly session that day. The choicest abuses were hurled at Tamil Nadu, and speaker after speaker said no water should be released. No Minister, not even the Chief Minister, dared to differ.

The officer returned to Chennai in the evening of the same day. Before he left, he had one more audience with Yeddyurappa. “Don’t worry,” the Chief Minister told him. “Tell Anna [Karunanidhi] that water will be released.” Water was released the same night. Everything was unofficial. Yeddyurappa maintained that no water was released, while Tamil Nadu cried hoarse over the injustice meted out to the lower riparian State. But what happened as a result of the tacit understanding between the two States was that no passions were stirred, the delta areas received sufficient water to raise a good crop, and there was no agitation because nothing of this has been recorded.

Not a new story

The 2009 story had been enacted many times before, too. Durai Murugan, a senior DMK leader who is now the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, said: “I was Public Works Minister for 15 years. I’ve gone to Bengaluru countless times —when Veerandra Patil was Chief Minister, when S. Bangarappa was Chief Minister, when J.H. Patel was Chief Minister, when [H.D.] Deve Gowda was Chief Minister and when S.M. Krishna was Chief Minister. Each time, there was a huge noise at the all-party meeting or in the Assembly or in both. But each Chief Minister always granted, at least partly, Tamil Nadu’s demands, while maintaining a public stance that no water would be released.”

Karunanidhi, who began his career in the Cabinet as Public Works Minister in 1967, was party to such tacit understandings. Officials in Chennai say that there was only one instance when this personal touch did not work: this was when he met Kerala’s Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan in New Delhi in 2006 to resolve the Mullaperiyar dispute.

There was a crisis about water sharing in 1980. One day soon after he came back to power that year, M.G. Ramachandran ordered his driver to take him to Bengaluru from Coimbatore, where he happened to be at that time. The then Karnataka Chief Minister, R. Gundu Rao, was informed that MGR was on his way. MGR drove straight to Gundu Rao’s house, told him about the trouble brewing in the delta districts and got him to release water before the two of them sat down for lunch. One former official said that MGR thanked the Chief Minister and the people of Karnataka before he left for Chennai.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s approach has been different. In 1992, during her first term as Chief Minister, she went on a surprise fast for four days on the Marina beach over the Cauvery issue. She relented only after Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao sent his Water Resources Minister, V.C. Shukla, to assure her that a Cauvery monitoring committee would be set up. In 2007, she went on a day-long fast to push for the implementation of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) ruling. Apart from these two instances, she has generally sought the Supreme Court’s help or written to Prime Ministers to sort out the issue.

The problem

In the years of normal rainfall, the Cauvery is able to satisfy all the demands on its water along its 800-km course. Not so, however, in distress years. In some distress years, fights over the Cauvery spill on to the streets of the major cities in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. How do you divide the river basin waters—about 740 thousand million cubic feet—among Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Puducherry, which have a combined projected claim of 1,139 tmc ft? The water that is available quite clearly is not enough to meet the needs of all the parties. The different demands of each State and the vagaries of the monsoon make the equation more complex.

Complex, but solvable. A formula was arrived at by the CWDT, which was set up for the purpose and which took 16 years to come up with the final plan. But it left all three States and the Union Territory unhappy. Tamil Nadu was awarded 419 tmc ft: 192 tmc ft to be released by Karnataka and the remaining 227 tmc ft to come from tributaries within Tamil Nadu such as the Amaravathy, Bhavani and Noyyal rivers, and groundwater. Karnataka was awarded 270 tmc ft; Kerala, 30 tmc ft; and Puducherry, 7 tmc ft.

River water disputes rarely yield to simple solutions. Of India’s 18 major rivers, 17 are inter-State. There are many water-sharing conflicts, and there is no solution in sight for any of them. Political calculations have limited the space for science and mathematics in devising solutions, and therein begins the problem. External factors ranging from the burden of history to games of political one-upmanship bring into the equation elements that cannot be predicted, much less tackled without collateral damage.

In the case of the Cauvery basin, Tamil Nadu has been the historical favourite. A bias perpetuated over a century does become the norm, but it does not necessarily become just. Karnataka sees both the 1892 and 1924 agreements between the Madras Presidency and the princely state of Mysore as unjust. A dispassionate look at the agreements, brokered by the colonial rulers, makes it clear that the British were on the side of the Madras Presidency, a key constituent and financial contributor to the Empire.

Perceived sense of being wronged

It is this perceived sense of being wronged, plus a bunch of politicians trying to find relevance, that has often inflamed passions in Karnataka. The State has repeatedly used all avenues at its disposal to reverse the historic injustice. In August 2003, for instance, the State Cabinet proposed that the river’s water be shared with Tamil Nadu only for drinking purposes (most of Cauvery water is used for irrigation; a small percentage is used up by industries). This was again a bad monsoon year, and Karnataka was ready to defy the Union government if it was asked to release water for purposes other than drinking.

There have been instances of Prime Ministers intervening to sort out an impasse. There was a deficit monsoon in 1998, when the short-lived second Vajpayee government was in power. Durai Murugan recalled: “Karunanidhi spoke to Vajpayee, who was campaigning in a north Indian State, and told him that Tamil Nadu could not survive without water being released immediately. Vajpayee told Karunanidhi that he would be back in Delhi by 4 a.m. the next day and asked him to send an emissary.” When Durai Murugan met the Prime Minister in Delhi at 5 a.m. the next day, Vajpayee was well informed of the situation. He spoke to J.H. Patel, who was then the Chief Minister of Karnataka, and water was released.

As the south-west monsoon failed this year, Tamil Nadu rushed to the Supreme Court. In early September, the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water each day. Though there were protests, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah released water “with a heavy heart”.

The script went terribly wrong on September 12. Hardliners and fringe elements always love a compromise/status quo worked out by the institutions that hold up democracy. There is, after all, no better occasion to air perceived grievances and whip up passions. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) State president, B.S. Yeddyurappa, ironically the same man who cooperated with Tamil Nadu during an earlier crisis, visited Mandya on September 10 and spoke provocatively. The trouble in Bengaluru began soon after. News reports and interviews indicate that though there was some trouble even earlier in Mandya and Bengaluru, it was sporadic and unplanned.

BJP’s role

The State BJP’s tweets were in line with Yeddyurappa’s speech: “BJP Karnataka: I Insist CM to take clear stand on #CauveryIssue. We are with CM if he takes firm decision &stops further release of water to TN: Sh.@BSYBJP.”

This tweet followed the Supreme Court directive! Taking their cue from the State BJP handle, most BJP supporters and elected representatives followed suit. BJP MLA C.T. Ravi tweeted: “Shocked & Pained at Supreme Court verdict on #Cauvery water release to Tamilnadu. Don’t think Court realizes the meaning of Live & Let Live.”

Tamil Nadu BJP president Tamilisai Soundararajan described the Karnataka unit’s stance as “quite unfortunate”. “In response to a question on the Karnataka unit of the BJP protesting against the water release, Ms. Soundararajan said that it was quite unfortunate and added that the Tamil Nadu unit of the party would continue to stand with the Tamil people for getting the rightful share of water,” said a report in The Hindu on September 10. In her interactions with the press and tweets, she blamed the Congress and defended the BJP. “Cauvery issue: Farmers protesting against central Govt. is wrong - Tamilisai Soundararajan,” she tweeted on September 9. On September 14, she demanded Siddaramaiah’s resignation.

Soon after the first round of violence, the Bengaluru police drove home the message that violence would not be tolerated. Sample this tweet from Abhisekh Goyal, IPS, from September 15: “Hate messages reg #CauveryIssue maybe liable for- 120B(conspiracy),153A(promoting enmity),153B &109 IPC for abetment of any resulting crime.”

Television images of a Tamil truck driver being beaten and stripped on the outskirts of Bengaluru, Tamil businesses being attacked and arson at a private bus terminus in Bengaluru stirred emotions in Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu, there were attacks on Kannadiga pilgrims near Rameswaram, a group of tourists near Sirkazhi, and a hotel in Chennai. The regional media in both States played up the incidents, feeding on people’s insecurities.

The Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry issued an unprecedented advisory on September 13 urging the media to “exercise restraint while covering incidents of violence and rioting, not to carry news in such a way that incites violence, to exercise care in the choice of words while reporting incidents and to avoid telecast of live or file shots of violence or rioting”. At the outset, the advisory says that “certain TV channels have been telecasting provocative and inflammatory news/programmes” and that “some TV channels have also been airing footage of violent incidents, rioting, etc. These could further ignite tensions and reactions and could cause the law and order situation in both the affected States to deteriorate.” The Bengaluru Police Commissioner issued a similarly worded advisory the same day.

The passions ebbed, but on September 15 a horrific instance of self-immolation in Tamil Nadu threatened to throw both States back into another bout of no-holds barred violence. B. Vignesh, a member of the Tamil supremacist Naam Tamilar Katchi party, set himself on fire during the party’s rally in Chennai. He died in a local hospital the next day. A day before the rally, Vignesh hinted of his intention on his Facebook page in Tamil: “In tomorrow’s procession, there are chances of many protest suicides. I request the media to cover live the procession since they will be able to increase their TRPs. At least then, may the Tamil rise in anger. Let a student protest explode in this soil.” A senior journalist, Shabbir Ahmed, asked on Twitter: “Naam Tamil Katchi has officially released pictures of one of its cadre setting himself ablaze. What are they trying to do?”

The suicide raised many questions. Did the party and Vignesh’s friends not notice the post? If they did, did anyone not speak to him?

Heart-warming stories

Tightened vigil in both the States ensured that the incident did not set off another round of death and destruction. While the police in Bengaluru were pilloried for their inaction on the first day of the rioting, police action in the subsequent days, especially in Tamil Nadu, was appreciated. Ajay Rajagopal, CEO of a private firm, shared on his Facebook wall a screenshot of Bengaluru-based Dhanasekar Mani, who was travelling from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka: “My KA registered car was escorted by a police van throughout my journey in Tamil Nadu. I told them I can take care of myself. But they gave full protection.” (Photo date: 13/09/2016, 13:50.)

Joyal Bindu’s narration on Facebook got over 10,000 shares:

“What happened today, I shall never ever forget. The incident has really touched me and my family with the exemplary display of chivalry, dedication, sincerity and security towards the general citizens by the #TamilNaduPolice.

“After my Onam holidays, I was travelling back to Bangalore. From Kollam I stopped at the toll gate over Madurai bypass. A polite lady Police Constable of Tamil Nadu Police noticing my Karnataka registered car advised me to park aside and said that I shall be escorted by Police in the wake of recent #Cauvery unrest. For me it didn’t make sense what she said. Escort a common citizen on the highway by the Police!!?? I parked aside; soon 2 more KA registered cars joined and the motorcade from Madurai started at 10:00 am.

“I was unsure how long/far this escorting by the Police is going to go on. I believed, once the Madurai bypass limits are crossed, we will be on our own. But No! A relay of at least 7-8 Police Cabs with personnel took over from various check-posts to usher us safely on the highway. From a convoy of 4 vehicles we were in total of 16 vehicles by the end of day. As the sun started setting, I realised we started all this in the morning and the enthusiasm of the TN Police is still persistent only to ensure that we cross the TN State safely and enter Karnataka. Before I could stop by to thank the Policemen for ensuring our safety, the Pilot vehicle took a detour and faded into darkness with no expectation of goodwill or thanks letting us to proceed with our journey towards Bangalore.

“By 9:00 pm we safely entered Bangalore city. A closely monitored and controlled police escort for common citizens for over a distance of 350+ kms! Oh goodness me, it should be a joke, but hell no! May God Bless them with more power and bless our country with such zealous people for law and order.”

Back to Supreme Court

Once the law and order problems were sorted out, the fight was back in the Supreme Court. Karnataka, which initially maintained that it would be able to release 10,000 cusecs, now hardened its stand, and said that it was not in a position to release any water. Over the various hearings, the bench reduced the quantum of water release from 15,000 to 12,000 to 6,000 cusecs. Karnataka opposed each of these releases.

In 2002, the Supreme Court had pulled up the then Karnataka Chief Minister for contempt of court. Siddaramaiah does not seem to mind creating a constitutional crisis. What is important is that he offset the political damage that releasing water would cause, with or without a court order.

Siddaramaiah got his Cabinet to “defer” release of water to Tamil Nadu and convened a special session of the State Legislative Assembly on September 23 to discuss the issue, in open defiance of the court’s September 19 order. The House adopted a unanimous resolution noting that the combined storage of the four system reservoirs was 27.6 tmc ft: “It is now resolved to direct that in this state of acute distress it is imperative that the government ensures that no water from the present storages be drawn, save and except for meeting drinking water requirements of the villages and towns in the Cauvery basin and for the entire city of Bruhat Bangalore.

“The above resolution is unanimously passed after carefully considering the needs of the inhabitants of the State of Karnataka whose interests are likely to be gravely jeopardised if water in the four reservoirs is in any way reduced—other than for meeting the drinking water requirements of inhabitants in the Cauvery basin including the entire city of Bangalore.”

Karnataka’s defiance has created a constitutional crisis of the kind India has never seen before. No doubt, the Supreme Court exacerbated the situation with a series of orders and directions over nearly 30 years, but never before has an elected government tried to pit the legislature against the judiciary. “It is time that the Central government intervened in the matter before the Supreme Court acts,” said Durai Murugan, adding that Karnataka’s decision would strike at the root of federalism in India. “Tomorrow there is no reason for any State government to obey a ruling of the Supreme Court. This is dangerous and will tear at our democratic fabric,” he said. The Centre can direct a State under Article 256 of the Constitution to comply with a certain directive (in this case the ruling) and can also invoke provisions under Articles 365 and 356 if the State does not comply.

Plight of delta farmers

Where does all this leave the delta farmers in Tamil Nadu who wait for the Cauvery water to start agricultural operations in the delta districts?

The Cauvery delta area of 14.47 lakh hectares includes 20 taluks of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts, five taluks of Tiruchi district, two of Cuddalore and one taluk of Puddukkottai district. This is just over 10 per cent of the State’s land area. Rice is the principal crop, either single- or double-cropped. A third crop of rice is sometimes grown during the summer in some parts. Since the north-east monsoon is usually heavy, rice is preferred in the period from September to December. Short-duration crops are cultivated during Kuruvai (June onwards) and, if water is available, in December-January and April-May. The thaladi, a kind of bonus crop, is a medium-term variety that is cultivated in September-November. But the main crop is the high-yielding samba, and the current problems centre around release of water for samba.

As of now, farmers have planted in 11 lakh acres, and the requirement is about 1 tmc ft a day. Keeping the dead storage at Mettur at 10 tmc ft, there is, as on September 24, about 38 tmc ft for agricultural operations in the delta districts—that is, if water is not diverted for any other use, including that of drinking needs.

Farmers in the region insist that they have done as much water conservation as possible and vehemently deny that they have scant regard for the resource. Direct sowing is one of the most effective water conservation methods they have employed; and the farmers insist that as much as 70 per cent of the area is covered by direct sowing now. At the current rate of water release of about 12,000 cusecs a day, the tail-end areas of the delta will not get adequate water for the crop because the daily demand is about 23,000 cusecs. The delta farmer at the tail end is now at the mercy of the monsoon to save the whole planted area.

The political problems come at a time when studies have pointed to shrinking paddy coverage. A Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) report (“Combating Climate Change: Vulnerability of Cauvery Delta, Food Security and Livelihood Resilience”), due to be completed by December 2016, anchored by Professor S. Janakarajan, says that the area under paddy in the delta had shrunk alarmingly even as kuruvai as a paddy season was under threat. “Samba was now the only cropping season in areas that did not depend on groundwater for irrigation and that exposed it to the vagaries of nature leaving samba paddy at the mercy of the monsoon depending on the water release from upstream,” says the report, according to L. Renganathan of The Hindu (October 8, 2015). Asked what could be a way forward given the present problems, Janakarajan told Frontline that there needs to be some cooperation between the two States. “There is no sign of cooperation right now. They need to come down from their current positions,” he said.

Janakarajan was of the opinion that once the political climbdown happens, civil society leaders on both sides can work towards a solution. There are meetings scheduled in Bengaluru and at MIDS in Chennai over the next few weeks to bring together such leaders and work towards a solution. His confidence stems from the fact that the farmer-to-farmer initiative, which was the basis of the Cauvery Family, had produced significant results for a decade from 2002 to 2012. This, combined with water conservation measures, shifting crop patterns in tandem with other parts of the basin, regular desilting of the basin’s irrigation channels, tanks and other such structures, strict enforcement of pollution norms along the Cauvery, and, above all, transparency of all operations in the basin area will be the way forward, civil society leaders feel.

Solutions and more

As things stand, neither Tamil Nadu nor Karnataka can be seen as backing down. After the desperate plea made by Karnataka in the Supreme Court, Tamil Nadu’s submission prayed for a rejection of the Supervisory Committee’s order dated September 19:

“Assuming and not admitting the decision of calculation of inflows based on 56% of flows (as per the Committee) during the current irrigation year, the flows due to Tamil Nadu on a pro rata basis as contemplated in the Final Order for the period ending September 2016… would be 17.5 TMC ft. This Hon’ble Court may be pleased to direct Karnataka at least to release this quantity of water at the earliest.”

In a 2013 article in Economic & Political Weekly, reproduced in Water: Growing Understanding, Emerging Perspectives (Readings on the Economy, Polity and Society; edited by Mihir Shah and P.S. Vijayshankar, 2016), the Cauvery expert Ramaswamy R.Iyer argues that as long as Karnataka’s sense of injustice remains, it will not constructively cooperate in the implementation of the award. “It is therefore necessary to moderate that grievance to some extent. An adjustment of 20 or 30 tmc in the allocations will take care of the points raised by Karnataka, and will remove the grounds for any feeling of injustice…. A voluntary gesture on TN’s part will transform the situation dramatically.” Iyer proposes this in return for an assurance of monthly release on the part of Karnataka and a distress formula being worked out.

“A fundamental deficiency in the Indian river dispute settlement procedures is that they directly jump from negotiation to compulsory legal adjudication without providing for intermediate voluntary processes such as mediation, conciliation and voluntary arbitration,” notes S. Guhan in The Cauvery Dispute: Towards Conciliation (a Frontline publication), which remains an authoritative work on the issue. Looking back at the issue, Guhan points out that “what was missing, in essence, was an effort to mediate and conciliate differences between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu during the process of negotiations. This could have been done, if at all, by Government of India. But this it failed to do in any persistent or sustained manner.”

Beyond Cauvery

Colonial agreements may not be the best way to share river waters, but the management of most inter-State rivers are guided by them. Sections 130 to 132 of the Government of India Act, 1935, limits States’ use of inter-State river waters, although water supplies, canals and drainage are on the State list. Article 262 of the Constitution empowers Parliament to adjudicate on “any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution or control of the waters of, or in, any inter-State river or river valley.” Article 262 (2) provides for special tribunals. Tribunals, so far, have not achieved much.

Water conservation and usage are problem areas in both States. Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have legislation on participatory irrigation management aimed at, among other things, reviving the traditional tanks. Despite this, well-driven irrigation meant that farmers did not concentrate on tanks management. Crop diversification, reducing rice cultivable area marginally, and shifting to less water-guzzling varieties of rice have been among the suggestions that many experts have been talking about. But as long as the government, the main procurer of rice, gives a higher support price for rice than for other crops, farmers will be tempted to grow rice alone.