Simmering discontent

Print edition : March 22, 2013

On the Bangalore-Mysore highway on February 20, Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha leader K.S. Puttannaiah and others protesting against the notification of the final award of the tribunal.

BE it politicians, farmers’ bodies or irrigation experts, people from across the spectrum in Karnataka feel that the February 19 decision of the Union government to gazette the Final Order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT), even before it was discussed in Parliament, was hasty and prompted mainly by political expediency. The State (as have the other riparian States, Kerala and Puducherry) has gone in appeal to the Supreme Court against the award. It has also submitted clarificatory petitions before the CWDT.

Karnataka is optimistic that the Centre will not set up the Cauvery Management Board (CMB), an inter-State forum envisaged to ensure compliance with and implementation of the tribunal’s order, until its petitions are disposed of. The CMB is to be established in lieu of the Cauvery River Authority (CRA). In the interregnum, Karnataka wants the CRA, which functions under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, to continue. It also prefers the Cauvery Monitoring Committee to monitor and solve any disputes.

Karnataka is worried that the setting up of the CMB and a Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (instead of the Cauvery Monitoring Committee) will result in its losing control over its four Cauvery basin reservoirs. Said Capt. (retd) Raja Rao, a former Irrigation Secretary: “The gazetting of the final notification will result in the State government losing supervisory control over the Krishnarajasagar, Hemavathy, Kabini and Harangi reservoirs. Karnataka will not be able to exercise the option to release water to Tamil Nadu only after it has sufficient storage in the reservoirs, particularly in the years of distress, like the present one.” He said the restrictions being placed on Karnataka with regard to the cultivation of sugarcane and paddy in the basin (16,000 hectares) would drastically affect the availability of sugarcane to the eight or nine sugar factories in the vicinity, hamper the production of molasses (an excisable commodity) in the distilleries, and alter the entire agro climate in the area.

Speaking to Frontline, Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar said the Cauvery Management Board and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee should not be set up immediately since “Tamil Nadu’s claims have been exposed as incorrect” as per the latest assessment made by a team from the Central Water Commission under the direction of the Supreme Court. Shettar said “the very basis of allocation of crop water requirement for Tamil Nadu by the tribunal had been overestimated, overlooking the objections of Karnataka” and that it “needed to be revisited”. He said he would be meeting Members of Parliament and Union Ministers from Karnataka before the State took any concrete action.

Shettar, in a letter to the Prime Minister on February 20, stated that Karnataka, in its civil appeals before the Supreme Court, had challenged the constitution of a management board as proposed by the tribunal. “The proposed board will protect the interests of the lower riparian State, and Tamil Nadu will virtually take control over the Karnataka reservoirs, which were built with the State’s resources. This would be a draconian measure, which is against the spirit of the federal system. Unless the civil appeals are finally decided by the Supreme Court, it is not appropriate to constitute a management board,” the letter says.

Bangalore’s water woes

Shettar’s letter indicates that the tribunal’s order had not taken into consideration the entire drinking water needs of India’s fastest-growing metropolis, Bangalore, leaving out two-thirds of the city’s population (since as per the CWDT they live outside the Cauvery basin). While the tribunal has assessed the drinking water needs of one-third of Bangalore at 17.5 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft), it has wrongly, say irrigation experts, assumed that 50 per cent (8.75 tmcft) of this will come from groundwater. Studies by both the Central Ground Water Board and the Karnataka Mines and Geology Department have shown that groundwater levels have depleted in Bangalore because of overexploitation and will not be sufficient to provide 50 per cent of the city’s needs. According to officials from the State Irrigation Department, this fact will be highlighted in the Supreme Court when Karnataka seeks a relook at the award.

Karnataka is also piqued that the magnanimity shown by it (and which is made part of the provisions of the Bachawat Award) in providing Chennai city with 5 tmcft of water from the Krishna river (despite Chennai being well outside the Krishna basin) for its drinking water needs, a parallel assessment had not been shown by the CWDT for the drinking water needs of other cities in Karnataka such as Mysore, Mandya, Hassan and Tumkur. Holding that these cities are outside the Cauvery basin, the tribunal said they were not entitled to water from the Cauvery.

Another area of concern for Karnataka is that the Kabini reservoir, which at present has a capacity of 18 tmcft, will become a storage point for Tamil Nadu. Explained Capt. Rao: “We get very good flows in the Kabini catchment. But as per the award, irrespective of what we store in the Kabini reservoir, we can use only 11.99 tmcft. The rest will have to be released to Tamil Nadu. All the unused water flowing from Kerala during the monsoon into the Kabini reservoir, which we stored and utilised for our wet crops, will become a thing of the past. The water used by the wet crops and after evaporation losses used to seep back to the river basin as base flows. These base flows were almost entirely being used for the drinking water needs of Bangalore. Now, with the restriction on our water use, the extent of perennial crops will come down, resulting in almost no seepage/base flows. Bangalore will bear the brunt.”

Though protests against the notification of the award have been generally muted in the State, the Karnataka Praja Pragati Ranga, a coalition of 17 Dalit, backward class and religious minority organisations, have threatened to lay siege to the residences of MPs and Union Ministers from the State if they do not stall the Centre from constituting the CMB. Terming the Final Order of the tribunal a “death sentence for Karnataka”, Kodihalli Chandrashekar, State convener of the coalition, said that the constitution of the board would further complicate the Cauvery problem.

Ravi Sharma

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