Cauvery water dispute

Delta’s anguish

Print edition : March 08, 2013

Wilted paddy crop at Royanallur village in Tiruvarur district. Photo: M. Moorthy

Tamil Nadu announces a relief package for farmers in the Cauvery delta even as their leaders criticise the Centre for not finding a distress-sharing formula to end the water dispute with Karnataka.

THE worst fears of the farming community in the Cauvery basin, more particularly those in the eight delta districts of Tamil Nadu, have come true. Parched agricultural lands, wilting crops, dry ponds and faces filled with agony welcome visitors to the region hailed as the State’s granary.

The situation is so alarming that Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced in the Assembly on February 8 that all districts in the State except Chennai would be declared drought-affected. She has also come out with a Rs.2,143–crore relief package for the delta region.

A truant monsoon, the unresolved Cauvery dispute and increasing groundwater salinity have resulted in crop failure, not only in the kuruvai (short duration) but also in the samba (long duration) crop season, on an unprecedented scale, inflicting heavy losses on the farmers. This apart, factors such as escalating costs of farm inputs, usury and power shortage have pushed lakhs of farmers into the quagmire of debt and despair. The crisis has rendered lakhs of farmhands jobless and driven 10 farmers in the delta region to suicide.

Although some independent studies have confirmed that the farmers resorted to the extreme step mainly owing to agricultural distress, the government has maintained that crop loss was not the cause of the suicides.

Describing the situation in the delta districts as “calamitous”, the Chief Minister sought the intervention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to notify the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT). In a letter to the Prime Minister on December 22, she highlighted the plight of the farmers and agricultural workers. “[T]he situation has become grim, affecting the livelihood and the survival of millions of farmers and agricultural labourers in the State,” she said in the letter.

The government’s concern found its echo in the Governor’s address to the Assembly on January 21. Governor K. Rosaiah pointed out that although the State’s legal battle resulted in Karnataka releasing 63.55 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of Cauvery water, there was a shortfall of 31.4 tmcft as per the pro rata distress-sharing formula. “As a result, this year, Tamil Nadu has suffered a major setback in food production in the Cauvery delta area.”

Taking exception to the Karnataka government’s “intransigent attitude”, Jayalalithaa announced on January 21 that the State would file an original suit claiming damages from the neighbouring State.

Special package

The government came out with a special package in December to save the standing samba crop. The 10-point programme included 12-hour three-phase power supply for operating agricultural pump sets, a diesel grant of Rs.600 an acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare), and relief up to Rs.8,692 an acre through insurance schemes. A high-level committee constituted by the Chief Minister on January 5 with Finance Minister O. Paneerselvam as its chairman visited the delta districts to ascertain the gravity of the situation.

The farmers’ associations launched a series of agitations in the delta districts demanding early action to salvage the standing crop. With over 70 per cent of the kuruvai crop withering away, farmers took up samba cultivation hoping to make over the losses incurred from the short-term crop. But to their dismay, the samba crop has also failed more than 50 per cent of the farmers. However, a number of farmers, who had some inkling of the dire prospects of the samba crop did not raise any crop this season. At many places farmers started harvesting the wilted crops so that they could be used as cattle fodder.

Anguished over the loss, farmers boycotted the grievance day meetings held at the collectorates in almost all the delta districts. Rallying under the associations owing allegiance to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, farmers picketed the collectorates in Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Tiruvarur districts in the first week of January pressing for a compensation of Rs.25,000 an acre for crop loss, Rs.10,000 an acre for fields that were left uncultivated for lack of water for irrigation, Rs.10 lakh to the next of kin of farmers who had committed suicide, and Rs.10,000 each to the families of farm labourers who were rendered jobless.

The delta farmers staged a protest in Chennai on January 8 to highlight similar demands. Justifying the protest, functionaries of farmers’ associations said the significance of the issue should be properly understood as the Cauvery protected the livelihood interests of over 2.5 crore people in the basin districts besides catering to the drinking water requirements of millions of others in many other areas of the State, including Chennai.

The unprecedented situation has emphasised the urgent need for initiating long-term measures to prevent the recurrence of such crises, safeguarding the interests of farmers and farm workers, striving for early notification of the final award of the CWDT, linking of inter-State rivers, and amending the crop insurance system. It also brought to the fore the Central government’s “failure” to effectively intervene in inter-State water disputes, the efficacy of the proposed permanent water disputes tribunal, the real estate boom that has taken away fertile lands, and the impact of the changing land-use pattern in the Cauvery delta. In a fortnight that saw events unfolding in quick succession, the Supreme Court on February 4 directed the Central government to notify the CWDT’s final award before February 20. The court also flayed the Centre for “abdicating its responsibility” in this regard. Making it clear that the Centre had no justification to delay the notification of the award, the court pointed out that the States concerned had already given their consent to notify it without prejudice to their rights and contentions raised in the pending appeals. It has also referred to the earlier submission of the Additional Solicitor General that the “Centre’s final decision for publication is expected by January 31, 2013”.

The court also directed the Central Water Commission to depute an experts’ committee to the delta districts in view of the conflicting claims by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on the condition of the standing crops. Tamil Nadu said in its submission that six lakh acres was under single samba crop, of which, three lakh acres would require two wetting and the remaining one wetting, and that the water requirement for this crop was 9 tmcft. However, Karnataka claimed through an affidavit that about 40 per cent of the area had already been harvested and in 50 per cent of the area the crop was ready for harvest. In the remaining 10 per cent of the area no water was required as the crop had matured, it claimed.

The court asked Tamil Nadu to release 2 tmcft of water from the Mettur reservoir to save the standing crops (this quantity would have to be replenished by Karnataka).

The experts’ team of the Central Water Commission undertook a day-long visit to the major delta districts on February 5 and submitted its report to the Supreme Court. On the basis of the report, the court directed Karnataka to release 2.44 tmcft of water to save the samba crop on about one lakh acres. Tamil Nadu contended that the view of the team was “wholly arbitrary and seemed to be a predetermined move without taking into account the miseries of the poor farmers spread over the entire delta”. But the court rejected the State’s demand for release of at least 9 tmcft of water.

Although Karnataka initially said it would move the Supreme Court seeking a review of the order and that it was not in a hurry to release water, it started releasing water on February 9. Taking the legal battle to a new height, Karnataka moved the Supreme Court on February 12, seeking a review of the February 7 order. In its review application, the State said it had released 2,000 cusecs of water until February 9 and that on February 11 it had given instructions to increase the rate of flow to 6,000 cusecs. It said any further release would deprive Bangalore city of drinking water. It also pointed out that Tamil Nadu could meet the water requirements of the standing crops from the Mettur reservoir.

On February 13, Tamil Nadu filed a contempt petition against Karnataka Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar and four others for releasing a very low quantum of water from the Krishnarajasagar and Kabini reservoirs in “brazen and wilful” defiance of the court order.

Assessment not fair

However, farmers in the delta expressed disappointment over the court’s order, saying that the quantity of water fixed by it would not meet the requirements of the standing crop. They said the experts’ panel studied the situation only in 10 per cent of the affected areas. The panel had not done a proper assessment, S. Ranganathan, secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, said. The condition of the crop was not uniform in the delta, he said, adding that it was good in the upper reaches while there was a marked deterioration of quality in the tail end. This fact should have been taken into account by the panel, he opined. Considering factors such as water loss owing to evapotranspiration, illegal sand mining and cracks in the paddy fields, the quantity earmarked by the apex court was not sufficient, he said.

Expressing similar views, the president of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, K. Balakrishnan, and general secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Kisan Sabha, V. Duraimanickam, said the time was too short for the team to assess the situation in a fair manner. They criticised the Centre for shirking its responsibility to resolve the Cauvery dispute and find an amicable distress-sharing formula.

Ranganathan said Karnataka’s decision not to honour its commitment to release water as per the distress-sharing formula was mainly for “political reasons” as elections were round the corner in that State. According to Ranganathan, the most significant positive outcome of Tamil Nadu’s legal battle to assert its right with regard to the sharing of Cauvery waters is the Supreme Court’s direction to the Centre to notify the final order of the CWDT.

The Jayalalithaa government has been “straining every nerve”, as it says, to get the award notified. The Chief Minister wrote to the Prime Minister on December 20 urging him to expedite notification of the award passed in February 2007.

A couple of days later, she wrote another letter to him reiterating her demand for notification “without any further loss of time”. She also pointed out that the Supreme Court on December 5 had asked the Additional Solicitor General to seek instructions as to when the final order would be notified. At the 31st meeting of the Cauvery Monitoring Committee held on December 7, it was agreed to notify the award not later than the end of that month.

The government and the farmers’ leaders firmly believe that the move is essential to constitute the Cauvery Management Board and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee so that the final award can be brought into force.

It is also important to ensure fair sharing of Cauvery waters, more particularly in a distress year.

As the farmers’ agitation began gaining momentum, the Chief Minister announced a 15-point package with disaster relief, farm insurance and special additional relief as its components. Under the scheme, 1.75 lakh farmers, covering 3.61 lakh acres, will be given compensation at the rate of Rs.15,000 an acre if the loss of yield was more than 50 per cent. For farmers who suffered a loss of less than 50 per cent, the relief will be based on average crop loss in the respective areas, after getting the consent of the insurance companies.

Another significant relief measure is the increase in the number of man-days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) from 100 to 150. Under this scheme, 15,000 farm ponds would be created in the delta districts at an estimated cost of Rs.181 crore. Other employment-generating works, to be implemented at a cost of Rs.1,336 crore, are expected to provide farm workers wages to the tune of Rs.1,517 crore. Under the MGNREGS, jobs will be provided to 3.34 lakh agricultural workers in the non-delta districts.

The relief package has been welcomed by farmers’ associations. But many of their functionaries, including K. Balakrishnan and Duraimanickam, have urged the government to announce cash relief for agricultural workers. P.R. Pandian, State council member of the All India Kisan Sabha, pleaded for the implementation of crop insurance on the basis of village-level assessment instead of firka-based evaluation of loss. Adequate care should be taken to ensure that genuine tillers availed themselves of the relief, he stressed.

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