Karnataka sees red

Print edition : April 25, 2008

THE Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) may have given its final order, but the dispute is far from settled. Tamil Nadus decision to move forward on the Hogenekkal drinking water project has Karnataka seeing red.

The opposition to the project has snowballed in the State. Mainstream political parties have voiced their objection to the project and to reported statements by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi at the foundation-stone laying ceremony of the project in February this year. The street fighters are the Kannada parties and organisations coming under the banner of the Kannada Rakshina Vedike.

As in the past, violence has taken a dangerously anti-Tamil turn, with Tamil films, television stations and newspaper offices bearing the brunt of the protesters ire.

The absence of hard information on the project is a striking feature of the current agitation. Neither political parties and groups, nor the State government appears to have concrete facts about the project and how its construction may affect Karnataka.

A lot of this could have been avoided if the Tamil Nadu government had given us a copy of the Detailed Project Report of the Hogenekkal project, Chief Secretary Sudhakar Rao told Frontline. We could have come to an informed opinion on the matter.

Tamil Nadu has referred to a 1998 agreement between the two States. As both States had drinking water projects they needed Karnataka with the Bangalore drinking water project and Tamil Nadu with the Hogenekkal project they agreed that neither State would object to the others project. Or so Tamil Nadu says. A senior official in the Karnataka Irrigation Department told Frontline that there was no hard and fast agreement but only a discussion on the matter.

In 1998, we had approached the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund [OECF], Japan, for aid for the Bangalore Drinking Water Supply Project, the official, who did not wish to be named, said. Tamil Nadu wrote to the OECF asking them not to give us aid as the issue was an inter-State dispute.

Subsequently, the Union Ministry of Water Resources convened a meeting of both States at which Tamil Nadu officials were chastised for writing to a foreign aid agency rather than letting the States, sort out the problem between themselves.

We had a discussion, but there was no formal agreement. Tamil Nadu subsequently got clearance from the Water Resources Ministry for lifting water from the Cauvery for the project, but there were other clearances they needed. We wanted a copy of the detailed project report, he said.

While the Bangalore drinking water supply project was placed before the Tribunal, the Hogenekkal project was not. This is a matter that irks Karnataka. We actually know very little about the project, the official said.

The second aspect of the project that is of concern to Karnataka is its location. The project is to be located at the end of the 64-kilometre stretch where the Cauvery forms the boundary between the two States. Here too there is a lack of information on how water will be drawn for the project. Will the river be dammed? If so, will the reservoir submerge parts of Karnataka as well?

There are territorial concerns as well, Rao said. The boundary beyond Mekedatu and before Hogenekkal is ambiguous. We have been requesting Tamil Nadu for a joint survey of that part of the river, he said. A meeting in Mysore in March 2006 between the two sides agreed on the need for a joint survey. The first survey was to have been done in April 2006. Karnataka subsequently called for a meeting in September 2007, which the Tamil Nadu side did not attend, he said.

Clause 18 of the Final Order of the CWDT states: Nothing in the order of this Tribunal shall impair the right or power or authority of any State to regulate within its boundaries the use of water, or to enjoy the benefits of water within that State in a manner not inconsistent with the order of this Tribunal.

Drinking water projects are allowed, provided they do not interfere with the statutory water releases laid down by the Tribunal in its final order. As the head works of the drinking water project lie in a part of the river that forms the common boundary, Karnataka argues that it has a valid objection to the project.

Drinking water is a State subject, and drinking water projects must be given priority over irrigation or power projects while deciding river water utilisation, according to the National Water Policy.

The drinking water needs of a drought-prone district like Dharmapuri is a priority for Tamil Nadu, but transparency on the scheme, especially in the context of an embittered relationship over water sharing, could have helped avert the recent confrontation.

Parvathi Menon
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