Situation in Karnataka

Karnataka’s troubles

Print edition : October 14, 2016

A truck set on fire on Mysuru road in Bengaluru on September 12. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, Water Resourses Minister M.B. Patil, and Industries Minister R.V. Deshpande, among others, at a special legislature session on the Cauvery waters on September 23 in Bengaluru. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

The Supreme Court’s directive to release water to Tamil Nadu arouses strong feelings in Karnataka which is yet to recover from two consecutive drought years and has had a deficit monsoon this year.

FOR most inhabitants of southern Karnataka, the Cauvery is not just a river; it is a giver of life, providing water for both irrigation and drinking purposes. With the Cauvery’s waters almost fully utilised by both the main co-riparian States, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (Kerala and Puducherry also share the river basin), it is of little surprise that the sharing, or more accurately the resharing, of the river’s waters has been an emotional and contentious issue for well over two centuries, with jingoistic and parochial politics completely overshadowing any fair, sane or equitable solution. As far back as 1807, there was correspondence between the Madras Presidency and the princely state of Mysore (most of southern Karnataka was part of the Mysore kingdom) over the use of the waters in the Cauvery and its distributaries by the latter, to the possible detriment of the interests of Madras.

Also, Karnataka, despite being the upper riparian State, has for a number of reasons—some self-inflicted, others unfairly heaped on it by nature or the powers that be—lagged behind in developing irrigation potential along the Cauvery, while Tamil Nadu has traditionally marched ahead, fully utilising the Cauvery system for its irrigation needs. The irrigation utilisation in Tamil Nadu is also of a much higher proportion relative to the generation of yield within that State’s catchment areas. Many irrigation experts agree that the princely state of Mysore was given a less-than-fair deal by the British (whose interests lay in the Madras Presidency) in both the 1892 and 1924 agreements. The 1924 agreement was binding for 50 years and continued even after that period with the inclusion of numerous review clauses. In 2007, after protracted legal battles, the final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) was pronounced. But even its gazetting in 2013 has not fully satisfied Karnataka, which feels undone by it. Karnataka’s appeal against the award comes up for hearing on October 18 before a three-member bench of the Supreme Court.

As per the CWDT’s award, of the total yield in a normal year of 740 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) of water, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been allocated 270 tmc ft and 419 tmc ft of water respectively, whereas Kerala has been allocated 30 tmc ft for the three sub-basins, that is, Kabini sub-basin 21 tmc ft; Bhavani sub-basin 6 tmc ft; and Pambar sub-basin 3 tmc ft. According to the Tribunal, “since, full use of allocated waters by the State of Kerala may take some years until the proposed irrigation projects of the State come into existence, till then, the unutilised water will be flowing to the lower States, namely, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and that water will be flowing into the existing reservoirs of Kabini, Bhavani and Amaravathy from which the distribution is to be monitored by the Cauvery Management Board, keeping in view the decision of the Tribunal”.

What makes the sharing of the Cauvery’s water really complicated is the south-west monsoon’s failure to provide its predicted yield of around 2,000 millimetres to 2,500 mm of rainfall in the catchment areas of the river and its major tributaries in the Western Ghats. Which then means that releases at Billigundulu at the intersection of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, from where the water flows into the neighbouring State, cannot “be ensured as per normal deliveries prescribed in the CWDT and a distress situation” exists. This situation has often triggered linguistic chauvinism and passions of partisan politics, and violence in both the States.

For irrigation experts and journalists covering the contentious Cauvery water-sharing issue, it was deja vu this September. According to figures released by the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Committee on September 14, a failed and retreating south-west monsoon meant that Kodagu district, which is the main catchment area of the Cauvery, faced a deficit of 36 per cent of its normal rainfall, a cumulative 1,451 mm of precipitation against a norm of 2,224 mm for the period between June 1 and September 12, resulting in the gross storage in all four major reservoirs of the Cauvery basin in Karnataka—Krishnarajasagar (KRS), Hemavathy, Kabini and Harangi—amounting to 31.58 tmc ft as against 59.95 tmc ft in the previous year. August is one of the wettest months in Kodagu, but the catchment received 345 mm of rainfall against the normal rainfall of 598 mm, a 42 per cent deficit. With Bengaluru, Mysuru and other towns in the Cauvery belt depending to a large extent, if not totally, on these reservoirs for their drinking water needs, Karnataka has maintained in public and in the Supreme Court that it cannot release water to Tamil Nadu for irrigation purposes.

The failure of the south-west monsoon to deliver its anticipated precipitation this year has meant a repeat of what happens in a monsoon-deficit year—Tamil Nadu petitions the Supreme Court citing the plight of its farmers; the Supreme Court orders Karnataka to release some water; Karnataka hums and haws about the distress its farmers are facing, before doing so; and violent protests break out when Karnataka agrees to release water. This pattern has been occurring with increased frequency over the years thanks to changing weather patterns, deficient rainfall in the catchment areas, reluctance on the part of farmers to switch to less water-intensive crops, and their inability to switch to a more judicious and efficient use of water. Added to this, of course, is the averseness of both the States to engage in dialogue to share the burden of the shortfall during distress years and the absence of a permanent, independent mechanism that can ensure this. While the CWDT’s final award, which came after years of litigation, asked the riparian States to share the deficiency on a pro rata basis, there is a major problem in implementing it since the Centre is yet to constitute a Cauvery Management Board, as directed by the Supreme Court on September 21, as desired by the Tribunal to oversee the implementation of the award. Currently, it is the Cauvery Supervisory Committee, set up by the Centre after it gazetted the Tribunal’s final award in 2013, comprising officials from the Union government and the Central Water Commission and representatives of both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, that adjudicates on technical matters.

Karnataka’s position

Caught in what he calls an extremely grim situation, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and his government have not only decided to prevaricate over the release of Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu but also defy the Supreme Court’s directions, which the government feels are impracticable and unpalatable to implement. On September 21, the Supreme Court directed Karnataka to release 6,000 cusecs of water a day to Tamil Nadu from September 21 to 27, but Karnataka pleaded its inability to do so. State Water Resources (Minor and Major Irrigation) Minister Mallanagouda Basanagouda Patil explained to Frontline that on September 23, the State had only 27 tmc ft of water in all of its reservoirs in the Cauvery basin (KRS, Hemavathy, Kabini and Harangi) and this was sufficient only for the drinking water needs of Bengaluru and cities/towns in the Cauvery basin such as Mysuru, Mandya and Srirangapatna until May 2017 and therefore it was not in a position to release water for agricultural purposes in Tamil Nadu. The Minister said that the deficit in rainfall in some areas was as high as 64 per cent.

With Karnataka’s legal challenge failing to secure it any substantial relief over releasing water to Tamil Nadu, Siddaramaiah initially sought an audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hoping that the latter would call for a meeting and a possible rapprochement between him (Siddaramaiah) and his Tamil Nadu counterpart, Jayalalithaa. But when that initiative failed to move forward (interestingly, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party in the State did not support the move, terming it “escapist”), the Siddaramaiah Cabinet, armed with a consensus from all major political parties in the State, called a one-day special legislature session of both the Houses on September 23 specifically to discuss the apex court’s directives. As was expected, the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council unanimously passed a one-line resolution directing that the water at present in Karnataka’s reservoirs should only be used to meet the drinking water needs of Bengaluru and other cities/towns in the Cauvery basin. The resolution was silent on the court’s order to release water to Tamil Nadu. While legal luminaries debate whether this confrontation between the Karnataka government and the Supreme Court will trigger a constitutional crisis, Siddaramaiah is hoping to plead before the court that Karnataka could not implement its order as there was a contrarian directive from the legislature, “the supreme voice of the people”.

Karnataka’s latest stand to defy the court’s directives is contrary to its earlier position when it was felt both by the State’s legal team, headed by senior counsel Fali S. Nariman, and the executive that implementing the court’s orders despite the distress situation and the protests would go in the State’s favour when further hearings on its special leave petition/appeal on the CWDT’s final orders came up before the apex court on October 18. In fact, it was with this in mind that Nariman on September 5 expressed the willingness of Karnataka to release 10,000 cusecs of water a day for six days to Tamil Nadu.

Of the 270 tmc ft of Cauvery water allotted to Karnataka by the CWDT, roughly 80 per cent is used for agriculture and industry (down from over 90 per cent in 2007), with the remaining 20 per cent being used for urban and rural domestic use.

According to Karnataka bureaucrats, Tamil Nadu’s decision to file a petition in August, instead of waiting until September or until the end of the monsoon season, set the cat among the pigeons. Many of them have criticised Nariman’s wisdom in offering to release water at the rate of 10,000 cusecs a day for six days.

An official explained: “Whenever Tamil Nadu goes to the Supreme Court in a distress year, it does not say how much water is immediately needed. Its representatives only say ‘we need water to start nurseries and grow our samba paddy crop and Karnataka has failed to release the monthly amounts of water that has been awarded to us by the Tribunal’. They never mention what is the distress situation in Karnataka. Nariman, who has represented Karnataka for decades, expressed the willingness to release water at the rate of 10,000 cusecs a day for six days. He had taken a similar decision in 2012-13, which was well accepted by the court.”

But the court’s decision to increase the number of days to 10 shocked Karnataka. Speaking to Frontline, a member of the State’s legal team said: “Tamil Nadu had asked for 20,000 cusecs for six days. Nariman said we could release 10,000 cusecs. But the court directed that we release 15,000 cusecs and on its own accord increased the number of days to 10. This is more than what even Tamil Nadu had asked for. The same bench also increased the Cauvery Supervisory Committee’s allocation from 3,000 to 6,000 cusecs. We are perplexed. There was a feeling that whatever we said was not being considered by the court. In parts of the Cauvery basin, the deficit is as high as 85 per cent.”

Karnataka was keen that the Cauvery Supervisory Committee depute a team of experts to the riparian States to assess the ground realities as was done by the Cauvery Monitoring Committee in 2012. Explained former Water Resources Minister Basavaraj Bommai: “We have learnt that the four Cauvery districts of Tamil Nadu are not facing any distress and have a good groundwater table. Karnataka must insist that a team of experts must visit the catchment areas and take stock of the situation in both States before passing orders. Tamil Nadu is not allowing an inspection of their reservoirs.”

Karnataka is also opposed to the monthly schedule of deliveries. A senior bureaucrat said: “Our reading is that changing weather patterns and increasingly frequent erratic monsoons have meant that rains in July and August are very up and down. So don’t say give us 94 tmc ft by August, 134 tmc ft by September, when our first crop itself is at its peak and needs water. Shift deliveries to September/October when inflows in all probability will increase and the July/August shortfalls in inflows to Tamil Nadu can be made good since we will also not be using that much water. The rainfall patterns have changed on the ground; it is only a rare year that the mathematical computations of rainfall made sitting in New Delhi can be matched by what is happening on the ground. And what constitutes a distress year cannot be decided on the basis of monthly allocations. The Tribunal has directed that in a distress year the States will share the deficiency on a pro rata basis. Fine. In a distress year if Tamil Nadu gets normal rain under the north-east monsoon how will you compensate Karnataka, which has suffered in the early months? The benefits from a normal [during a distress year] or a surplus north-east monsoon in a normal year should also be shared equally. Our reading is that there is a correlation between a failed south-east monsoon and a normal north-east monsoon.”

Management board

Karnataka has been stalling the setting up of a Cauvery Management Board on the grounds that its special leave petition on the CWDT order is pending in the Supreme Court. Officials are of the view that such a board will undermine the authority of the State’s Irrigation Department. One official said: “The role and responsibility of the board will go beyond just regulation. They will tell us what area to cultivate. This is not acceptable. We should be allowed to utilise our allocation the way we chose fit.”

M.B. Patil said Karnataka would question the legality of a two-member Supreme Court bench directing the Centre on September 20 that a Cauvery Management Board be set up within four weeks when the matter was pending before a three-member bench of the court. State irrigation engineers told Frontline that as Karnataka had been cultivating around two lakh acres of sugarcane in the Cauvery basin and had over the past three years been feeding water for some of the lift irrigation schemes, the setting up of the board could make things difficult for the State.

Reservoir at Mekedatu

Karnataka is also upset that Tamil Nadu has stalled its plans to construct a balancing reservoir, at a cost of over Rs.5,900 crore, across the Cauvery at Mekedatu in Ramnagaram district on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border. The scheme, which was mooted in 2003, is envisaged to meet the drinking water needs of Bengaluru. In June, Jayalalithaa wrote a 29-page memorandum to Modi demanding that the project be stopped.

M.B. Patil said: “We are going ahead with the project. We have already spent Rs.25 crore and got the detailed project report ready. It is being built within our State and Tamil Nadu’s objections are unfounded. Karnataka is of the opinion that it has to increase the number of reservoirs since the KRS dam is far too upstream, 180 km from the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border. So the State is not able to store water in catchment areas downstream of KRS. The water is flowing into Tamil Nadu without restriction. Mekedatu will have one such reservoir.” Karnataka is worried that the creation of a Cauvery Management Board will further scuttle its plans to have a balancing reservoir at Mekedatu.

Karnataka’s decision not to release water in June and July when inflows were sufficient has, according to some irrigation experts, come to haunt it. Had it released water then, it would be in a far more comfortable position, having gone some way in fulfilling its obligation of releasing water to Tamil Nadu.

Distress and despair

In Mandya and Mysuru districts, considered the rice bowl of Karnataka, farmers were up in arms over the release of water to Tamil Nadu. They blocked the busy Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, jumped into the river in protest, and tried to lay siege to the KRS and Kabini reservoirs. In the Kabini command area, farmers said they had lost hope of harvesting paddy cultivated in one lakh acres since the seedlings needed water for the next three months and there was no prospect of getting water from the Kabini dam. According to farmers in the Kabini command area, over 25,000 acres in the tail end of the irrigation canals in the Kabini command area remained unsown for want of water. They are furious that while farmers in Tamil Nadu were ready for the third crop, they were not even in a position to harvest one.

Looking skyward and throwing his hands up in despair, Shumanahalli Suresh, an office-bearer of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, said: “Can we manufacture rain for Tamil Nadu. How can we release water? There is no water for even our fields. Farmers here have taken loans and cultivated. What will be their fate?”

Many farmers are of the opinion that the indiscriminate and often illegal felling of trees in the upper reaches of the Cauvery’s catchment area in Kodagu district by the powerful timber lobbies that operate from across the border in Kerala, and for the building of power transmission pylons, and in the garb of tourism (homestays) promotion and building houses for plantation labour has played havoc with rainfall patterns. Nanjunde Gowda, a farmer from Mandya, said: “Trees as tall as 70 metres with the girth measuring about 4 m have been cut down even in the core areas of the forest. When we protested and took a delegation to meet the authorities, including the Minister, they expressed their helplessness in curbing the felling of trees. This is because many powerful people are involved in the operation.”

Farmers are angry that the Siddaramaiah government has not done enough to protect their interests. They are firm that courts cannot determine river water allocations since it was an emotive issue and had to be considered by a committee consisting of representatives from all the four riparian States.

If the bandh called on September 9 by farmers and other organisations passed off without any untoward incidents, three days later all hell broke loose. On September 12, hours after the Supreme Court directed Karnataka to release water, violent protests broke out. Although there were protests in a number of cities and towns across Karnataka, certain pockets of Bengaluru bore the brunt of the violence.

According to the apex industry body Assocham, Bengaluru suffered a loss of between Rs.22,000 crore and Rs.25,000 crore because of the violence, destruction of public infrastructure and disruptions to air/road/rail transport. One person was killed in police firing and another fell to his death from a three-storeyed building while fleeing lathi-wielding police personnel; 49 police personnel and 17 civilians, who sustained injuries in the violence, were hospitalised; 159 vehicles, private and public, including 108 buses, 25 cars and 25 two-wheelers, were burnt; and 112 vehicles were damaged. Thirty-seven shops and houses were attacked and vandalised. The police arrested more than 560 people and registered 193 cases. The police would like us to believe that the violence was spontaneous and was not planned rioting. Taking a dim view of the failure of the police to anticipate the violence and control it, the government transferred two Deputy Commissioners of Police.

Water efficiency

According to experts in the field of irrigation and climate change, the amount of water that is used by farmers can and must be drastically reduced. Said Ashwin Mahesh, a social technologist and former Antarctic climate scientist: “Paddy and sugarcane can be grown with a lot less water than is used now. The methods currently used are 40 to 50 years old. For example, paddy farmers must switch to drip or SRI [System of Rice Intensification], the low water, labour-intensive method that uses younger seedlings singly spaced and typically hand-weeded with special tools that are aimed at increasing the yield of rice produced in farming. The method, developed in 1983 by the French Jesuit priest Father Henri de Laulanie in Madagascar, would reduce water utilisation by half. Right now, with water being free there is no intention to curb its use. The need of the hour is water-efficient agriculture. But both States avoid water efficiency methods in agriculture.”

Mahesh said farmers facing a bad water situation were actually agitated not so much over the sharing of the existing water but over their livelihoods. They should be covered by a comprehensive insurance package. “Paying farmers Rs.25,000 an acre by way of insurance compensation is better than the State suffering a Rs.25,000 crore loss,” he said.

Irrigation experts point out that 160 to 180 tributaries of the Cauvery were silted, significantly reducing the volume of water flowing into the river. Dams are half–filled, so even when the monsoon is normal, thanks to siltation, the volume of water stored is reduced. A 6 to 8 per cent improvement in siltation levels is all that is needed to reduce the distress. What they collectively ask is, “Are you prepared to at least do what is necessary, not necessarily what is possible?”

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