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Cauvery pressures

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

The Tamil Nadu government criticises the Cauvery River Authority for failing to direct the Karnataka government to release its surplus water to the State.

IF the Tamil Nadu government's stand that the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) was a "toothless" body needed reinforcement, it was amply provided when the CRA, meeting under the chairmanship of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee on October 10, failed to direct the Karnataka government to release at least 10 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu officials said that Karnataka had surplus water in its reservoirs and yet refused to release 137 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu through the Cauvery river from June to September as stipulated in the interim order of the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal. Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna argued that his State needed to store the water for the summer crop (which is several months away). Tamil Nadu officials and farmers' representatives found this stand shocking when water was needed for the main samba paddy crop on about six lakh acres; the short-term kuruvai crop on 25,000 acres had already withered.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam found the outcome of the CRA meeting "very disappointing". He told mediapersons in New Delhi: "The talks ended in failure. It is disappointing that no decision was taken at the meeting. The Karnataka Chief Minister refused to accept Tamil Nadu's demand. Prime Minister Vajpayee also did not pressure Karnataka." Panneerselvam estimated that Tamil Nadu had incurred a loss of Rs.300 crores because of Karnataka's refusal to release the Cauvery water in the last four months. "The fate of the (samba) crop on six lakh hectares has come under a question mark," he said.

Law Minister C. Ponnaiyan, who also attended the meeting, said the CRA was "powerless" and that Karnataka "behaved" as it had on earlier occasions. He pointed out that even after Union Water Resources Secretary B.N. Navalawala suggested that Karnataka could spare at least 10 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu immediately, Vajpayee did not respond in a positive manner. According to Ponnaiyan, Karnataka had 90 tmcft in its reservoirs while 24 tmcft would suffice for its crops. He alleged that Karnataka had "illegally stored water for its future use".

S. Ranganathan, secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers' Welfare Association, said the CRA had "absolutely failed in its duty" to come up with a pro rata formula. He pointed out that the Tribunal had suggested that in a year of deficient rainfall, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu should share the water on a pro rata basis.

While the Prime Minister is the chairman of the CRA, its members are the Chief Ministers of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Pondicherry. The CRA was set up on August 11, 1998 essentially to decide how the three States and Pondicherry should share the water in a distress year. The CRA was to be assisted by a monitoring committee consisting of officials from the Union Department of Water Resources, and the Chief Secretaries and irrigation officials of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry. The Tribunal, in its interim order of 1991, had mandated that Karnataka must release 205 tmcft to Tamil Nadu in a water year from June to May. The order prescribed the weekly and monthly releases.

In the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu, paddy is cultivated in a total area of over 12 lakh acres - kuruvai first in three lakh acres and samba on nine lakh acres. If the northeast monsoon is good and water is available, another crop called thaladi is raised.

An official press release of the Tamil Nadu government attacked both the CRA and the Karnataka government. It said that neither Karnataka agreed to release 10 tmcft to Tamil Nadu nor the Prime Minister persuaded Karnataka to do it. "Besides, the Prime Minister did not consider issuing an advisory note to this effect to Karnataka." According to the press release, all that the CRA meeting decided was that the northeast monsoon would be "closely monitored" and if warranted, an emergency meeting of the CRA would be convened to consider steps to be taken.

According to Tamil Nadu government officials, this was a repeat performance. At the height of the water crisis faced by farmers in Tamil Nadu, when the monitoring committee met on September 6 after already losing 15 days, it did not direct Karnataka to release water. All it decided was that it would wait for another five days, hoping that there would be rain in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. And there was no rain until the third week of September.

THE strong reaction from Tamil Nadu had its impact. Hours after Panneerselvam expressed his ''disappointment", the CRA directed the Karnataka government to "ensure flows at the Mettur reservoir as stipulated by the Tribunal, especially in view of the situation being faced in the Cauvery basin".

But Tamil Nadu officials said they had not heard anything to the effect from the Centre. Hence the State government went ahead with its case in the Supreme Court seeking a direction to Karnataka to release at least one tmcft every day until the end of October and also release the quantity of water as stipulated in the interim order of the Tribunal. Justice S.P. Bharucha and Justice Y.K. Sabharwal directed the posting of the case before an appropriate Bench on October 29.

Jayalalithaa, then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, wrote to Vajpayee on September 14 seeking his personal intervention as the CRA chairman "to convene an emergency meeting" of the CRA because the water situation was "precarious" in the State and farmers were facing "economic ruin".

From June to October 9, Karnataka must have released 147 tmcft under the Tribunal's interim order. But Tamil Nadu had received only 82 tmcft - which meant that there was a deficit of about 65 tmcft. There was some relief when it rained in the Cauvery delta in Thanjavur and Nagapattinam districts in late September and the first week of October. Kuruvai, which was cultivated on 1.5 lakh acres, was by and large saved. But the crop had withered on 25,000 acres.

Ranganathan said: "We were saved only by this rain, neither by Karnataka nor by the Centre." Ponniayan said: "All we got was rainwater. We did not get water as stipulated by the Tribunal's interim order." An official belonging to Cauvery Technical Cell, Tamil Nadu, said: "Karnataka has not given us a drop of water from its reservoirs. The 15 tmcft we received was from the rains over the delta districts."

At the CRA meeting, Panneerselvam wanted releases by Karnataka to be monitored on a monthly basis. In the past, only when a crisis situation developed and Tamil Nadu raised a hue and cry was there an attempt to convene a meeting of the monitoring committee and "the Authority ostensibly waits with the fond hope that nature will take its course and the situation will pass". He estimated that the actual cultivation in Tamil Nadu had been reduced to three lakh acres from five lakh acres (for kuruvai) for the past ten years. "In the absence of arrangements to ensure release of 137 tmcft from June to September as stipulated by the Tribunal, the State has had to beg for water to save its farmers from misery and ruination," he added.

The Chief Minister said the transplantation of the samba crop had been delayed. The farmers had raised nurseries for samba on about 58,000 acres which could be transplanted to six lakh acres. This required 180 tmcft. Only if the Karnataka government released both the shortfall accrued and the stipulated quantity of water from now onwards would the farmers be in a position to sustain the samba crop.

As on October 13, the Mettur reservoir in Tamil Nadu had only 57 feet of water (the full level is 120 feet). According to Ranganathan, the reservoir position in Karnataka was "absolutely satisfactory". They had 90 tmcft of water, which amounted to a "surplus". If Karnataka released one tmcft a day until the end of October, "we can complete the planting of samba and sustain it", he said. However, he cautioned that the situation even now was not safe. He anticipated a stress, even if there were to be normal rainfall between November 15 and December 15 and again towards early January 2002.

Ranganathan said Vajpayee should direct Karnataka to release water and it was within his right to do so. But "the Centre is playing truant and it is not honest", Ranganathan alleged.

Ranganathan refuted Krishna's claim that drought prevailed in 42 taluks in Karnataka. According to Ranganathan, drought prevailed only in taluks that were not situated in the Cauvery basin. The Meteorology Department had stated that despite the erratic behaviour of the south-west monsoon during the early part of the season, the deficit was made up later, and the season was normal.

Ranganathan challenged the claim made by the Karnataka government in a memorandum given to Vajpayee on September 14 that Tamil Nadu had admitted before the monitoring committee that it had increased the kuruvai cultivation from 1.27 lakh acres in 1991 to 3.2 lakh acres in 2001. He said the kuruvai cultivation was normally done over 4.5 lakh acres. After the Cauvery dispute erupted and especially from 1983, it had been reduced to 3.5 lakh acres. It continued to be raised on 3.5 lakh acres.

Karnataka's attitude has made Tamil Nadu officials and farmers wonder whether it will implement the Tribunal's final award, which is expected in July/August 2002. Will the CRA, headed by the Prime Minister, assert itself?