‘One practical solution to Kaveri dispute could be a reservoir to store rainwater’: C. Chandrashekhar

Published : Oct 09, 2023 18:35 IST - 9 MINS READ

C. Chandrashekhar, a retired police official from Karnataka, offers a historical perspective on the Kaveri Dispute.

C. Chandrashekhar, a retired police official from Karnataka, offers a historical perspective on the Kaveri Dispute. | Photo Credit: LEKHA NAIDU 

This can be used for drinking water purposes and electricity generation in Karnataka, and for the timely release of water to Tamil Nadu.

C. Chandrashekhar, a retired police official from Karnataka, has had a long-standing interest in matters related to the Kaveri River (he prefers the spelling “Kaveri” over “Cauvery”). Having spent his formative years and dedicated years of service in the police force in the vicinity of both minor and major rivers in southern Karnataka, such as the Arkavathy (a tributary of the Kaveri) and the Tunga in the Western Ghats, he fondly remarks that the “Kaveri DNA must have been an integral part of my life since birth”.

In 1991, while working in the Intelligence Department, Chandrashekhar witnessed ethnic violence erupt in Bengaluru (then Bangalore) following the interim order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. During these disturbances, 21 people lost their lives, an event that he describes as a significant factor that sparked his profound interest in understanding why a dispute over a river had evolved into such an emotionally charged issue. This curiosity prompted him to delve into historical archives to unravel the intricate and deep-rooted historical origins of the dispute, which initially emerged as a conflict in the nineteenth century between the Mysore Princely State and the Madras Presidency.

In a conversation with Frontline, Chandrashekhar sheds light on the Kaveri dispute, drawing from the material in his 2022 book Kaveri Dispute: A Historical Perspective.

Your research shows that anyone interested in the altercation between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of the Kaveri water must understand the long history of this dispute. Can you explain the significant milestones of the Kaveri water dispute?

The dispute regarding the sharing of the waters of the Kaveri River is more than two centuries old. During the Anglo-Mysore Wars, irrigation projects took a backseat in Mysore. After the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799, Krishnaraja Wodeyar III, who was a five-year-old boy, was enthroned in Mysore, but the real ruler was Diwan Purniah who took up desilting of tanks and repair of irrigation streams in 1807. At the time, farmers in Tanjore [now Thanjavur] objected to this, saying any desilting would result in the diminution of flows in the Kaveri. Thus, 1807 can be identified as the genesis of the problem.

In the 1820s, there were two serious failures of the monsoon because of which the Maharaja of Mysore faced the threat of not honouring his commitment to the East India Company as per the obligations imposed upon Mysore by the Subsidiary Treaty. When the Maharaja used coercive measures to collect taxes, there were a series of agrarian revolts all over Mysore, leading the East India Company to depose the king and begin ruling Mysore directly in 1831.

In 1866, Colonel Richard Sankey, a British officer, was tasked with finding a solution to the repeated instances of droughts in Mysore. Sankey studied the issue and recommended that irrigation facilities could be increased only if the storage capacity in the tanks was increased.

In 1881, Mysore rule was restored to the Wodeyars, but the terms of the Instrument of Transfer were unequal, as Mysore was deemed to be a vassal state of the [British] Government of India (GoI). With this background, Mysore attempted to increase irrigation facilities in its region, leading to a meeting in May 1890 in Ooty [now Udhagamandalam] attended by Diwan Sheshadri Iyer, who represented Mysore, and four British officers on behalf of the Madras Presidency.

In this meeting, Iyer forcibly argued for the rights of Mysore and memorably said, “Tanjore farmers can use the waters of a river only until those above [that is, the upper riparian region of Mysore] do not store her waters or do not have the capability, but they cannot take away the rights of Mysore.” An agreement was signed in 1892 after this meeting, during which the “prescriptive right,” meaning the established use of the Kaveri River water by Madras Presidency, was established. The 1892 Agreement also stated that Mysore could build new projects only after obtaining the consent of the Madras Presidency.

Mysore wanted to build a dam across the Kaveri at a village called Kannambadi [The earlier name of the Krishnaraja Sagar (KRS) Dam was Kannambadi Katte]. Still, Madras Presidency, which became aware of this development when work commenced in 1909 and 1910, objected to the construction. For Mysore, the building of KRS was crucial, as it had already reneged on its obligation to supply electricity to the British-managed Kolar Gold Fields after the failure of monsoon rains in 1903.

The challenge for the Maharaja of Mysore, Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar, soon after 1903 was: How do I prevent such an eventuality from recurring? The solution was to build a dam at Kaveri to store enough water for the production of electricity. Still, this was objected to by the Madras Presidency. After numerous negotiations, permission was finally given to Mysore to build a dam with a capacity of 11 TMC [thousand million cubic feet] of water.

The Mysore ruler, keen on providing irrigation facilities, contended that Mysore had already invested a substantial amount of funds in the building of a dam with a capacity of about 45 TMC and sought permission for this. This oppositional stance meant that the issue was referred to an arbitrator named Sir H. D. Griffin under whose aegis, Mysore and Madras arrived at four terms of reference in 1914. Griffin’s ruling allowed for the building of a dam across Kaveri in Mysore if enough water was released downstream for the farmers of Madras to sustain their agricultural activities. Madras Presidency disagreed with this and appealed to the Secretary of State for India, who annulled this report.

Afterward, Mysore and Madras Presidency agreed on another agreement, generally known as the Second Agreement or the 1924 Agreement, after which the KRS was built with a capacity of around 45 TMC. The 1924 Agreement also stated that this covenant would be valid for 50 years.

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What happened after 1947 and how did the dispute fester in the post-Independence period?

After Indian Independence, states were reorganised on a linguistic basis in 1956, and the new entities of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu inherited this thorny dispute. As the 50-year-old deadline of the Second Agreement was nearing in the early 1970s, the GoI invited the Chief Ministers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for discussions. After these discussions, the Cauvery Fact Finding Committee [CFFC] came into being in 1972. Despite the formation of the CFFC, no decision took place, and the Tamil Nadu government wrote to the GoI to constitute a tribunal under the Interstate Water Disputes Act, 1956.

The GoI wrote to the Supreme Court of India, which in turn directed the Union government to constitute a committee known as the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal [CWDT], established in 1990. When the proceedings started, Tamil Nadu requested an interim award, which was given in 1991. The implementation of this award led to widespread violence in Karnataka. The final verdict was delivered in 2007, allocating 270 TMC to Karnataka and 419 TMC to Tamil Nadu in one water year, which runs from June to May.

Karnataka filed an appeal in the Supreme Court objecting to this allocation by the CWDT. The Supreme Court finally delivered its verdict in February 2018, adjusting the apportioned shares between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to 284.75 TMC and 404.25 TMC, respectively, and that is where the situation stands.

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu only dispute Kaveri water sharing during droughts. Has the CWDT or the Supreme Court created a distress formula for these years?

No, nothing is specified. The CWDT and the Supreme Court do not provide a clear distress formula and have only mentioned that water should be apportioned on a pro rata basis during times of distress. The situation is even more complicated because how the water is used is also a factor. In Tamil Nadu it is mostly for irrigation, while in Karnataka it is for drinking water and irrigation.

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“We should remember all these and come up with broad-minded solutions considering that climate change is going to become a bigger problem in the years to come.”

The Supreme Court’s order in 2018 should have been the logical conclusion of the dispute so why does the issue continue to remain contentious?

This takes us back to what we have discussed just now. In a distress situation, a formula must be given which was not provided by the verdict of the Supreme Court and even if a formula is provided in the future, it has to be accepted by all parties concerned. There should be specifics and so far, no specific solutions have been provided regarding the distress formula.

Is there a permanent solution to this issue considering that this is an emotional issue for people in both States?

One practical solution could be to build a reservoir to store rainwater in years when we have bountiful monsoons. For instance, in 1991, when the tribunal gave its verdict (when Karnataka was literally on fire) we had excess rainfall. If I remember right, Karnataka released something like 380 TMC of water to Tamil Nadu during 1991 and 1992. So, one possible solution is to have a balancing reservoir that can be used for drinking water purposes and electricity generation in Karnataka as well as for the timely release of water to Tamil Nadu according to the schedule prescribed by the Supreme Court.

Tamil Nadu has objected to any such plan and we do not have a mechanism to store water when reservoirs in Karnataka are full and water must necessarily flow to Tamil Nadu. If a balancing reservoir comes up at some point (like Mekedatu), this water can be stored and utilised. Last year, we had floods in Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu got as much as 669 TMC of excess water. If a part of that outflow had been stored somewhere along the way, the distress situation that we are witnessing now would not have arisen.

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While you have focussed on the history of this feud between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, how do you see the future? We ask this in the specific context of climate change because of which rainfall patterns are becoming increasingly erratic.

I have studied rainfall patterns in Mysore for the last 100 years. We have had erratic monsoons in the past but this has increased over the past two decades. We will have to go back to wise people like Sheshadri Iyer who said that we should not talk about the private rights of individuals; instead, we should talk about the general welfare of people who live on the banks of a river. He also said that we should look at the problems of water from a higher level. The Supreme Court said that a river is a gift of god, a gift from nature, which we should use for the welfare of the people. We should remember all these and come up with broad-minded solutions considering that climate change is going to become a bigger problem in the years to come.

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