A difficult turn on Cauvery

Published : Oct 25, 2002 00:00 IST

The dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing the waters of the Cauvery enters a complex stage with the S.M. Krishna government taking the extreme step of disregarding the directives of the Supreme Court and the Cauvery River Authority.

THE politics of the Cauvery has entered a new phase of turmoil with Karnataka defying the October 4 order of the Supreme Court asking it to resume the release of 0.8 tmc ft of water to Tamil Nadu. Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, in his response to the judgment of the three-member Supreme Court Bench comprising Chief Justice B.N. Kirpal and Justices K.G. Balakrishnan and Arijit Pasayat, made it clear that the State could not comply with the order. He cited as the reason poor storage in the Cauvery basin reservoirs. Karnataka was a party to the decision taken at a meeting of the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) on September 8 to release 0.8 tmc ft of water. On September 18, Krishna stopped the release of water after a protesting farmer jumped into the Kabini reservoir and drowned. The current crisis appears to be veering close to a repeat of December 1991, when there was a wave of violence in the State following the Central government's decision to gazette the Interim Order passed by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

Predictably, the Chief Minister's decision to disregard the Supreme Court order received wholehearted support from within the ruling Congress(I) and the Opposition. Political Karnataka, it would appear from the response, would rather defy the court directive than alienate political sentiments in the State, particularly in Mandya district, the heartland of the Cauvery agitation, which also happens to be the home district of the Chief Minister. However, there has been strong criticism from Opposition parties of the nine-day `padayatra' (march) that the Chief Minister commenced on October 7 from Bangalore to the Krishnaraja Sagar dam in Mysore. Although billed as a move to "take farmers into confidence" about the government's course of action, his decision appears to be dictated by the need to take the political leadership of the Cauvery movement back from the groups under the Cauvery Hitharakshana Samithi. After all, at no time during the last six weeks did the Chief Minister or any of his senior colleagues go to Mandya or Mysore district to quell the mindless violence or to promote an environment of goodwill between those affected by the drought in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Krishna appealed to all political parties, intellectuals, writers and film artists to join the padayatra. From his public statements, he appears to be well aware of the possibility of a repeat of the events of December 1991 when there was a wave of anti-Tamil violence in the State. If he uses the popular platform offered by the padayatra to urge that peace be observed at all costs by the Cauvery movement, Krishna could well help prevent another bout of anti-Tamil violence.

Violence in Mandya, sponsored by the Samithi, has continued unabated although no water was released to Tamil Nadu in the last three weeks. Mandya district has a controversial record of opposing any irrigation or drinking water scheme for any other district, leave alone to Tamil Nadu. Last year, there were widespread protests in the district over a drinking water scheme to take the Cauvery water to Mysore city. Little action has been taken against mobs that have been targeting public property, or against those directing the violence. There is an ominous consolidation of anti-Tamil sentiment in the State. The screening of Tamil films has been stopped and Tamil television channels have been taken off the air. A new umbrella organisation, the Krishna-Cauvery Protection Committee, has been floated. This forum is likely to become a serious contender for the leadership of the struggle.

A second contempt of court suit by Tamil Nadu against Krishna is only one element of the likely fallout from Karnataka's decision. There is already a contempt petition against the Chief Minister and four others (including H.K. Patil, the State Water Resources Minister) in the Supreme Court. The hearing has been postponed to October 24.

In that case the defence of the State would rest on the fact that the CRA order contains a proviso that says that the release of water is dependent on sufficient inflows into the reservoirs. However, the present decision by the government to stop water will probably constitute a clear case of contempt. The contempt issue may then overshadow the more substantial case that Karnataka would like to offer on the actual reservoir position vis--vis the pressing water requirements in the State.

The ramifications of Karnataka's decision are extremely serious. The tendency over the years of successive governments in the State to disregard unfavourable orders of the Supreme Court and other adjudicatory bodies (such as the CRA or the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal) has put extreme pressure on the federal structure and its dispute-resolving mechanisms. Political organisations and groups that articulate narrow chauvinistic demands, amorphous and dormant in normal times, rise to ascendancy in periods when the Cauvery dispute comes to the fore. Since 1990, all State governments without exception have allowed this political tendency to dictate the State's responses to the issue.

The perception that Karnataka has been the victim of grave historical injustice in respect of water sharing, and that the Cauvery today is by right Karnataka's has sunk deep, and is at the root of the refusal to release water. There appears to be an across-the-board consensus on this premise, expressed rather succinctly by the Kannada film actor Rajkumar at the height of the present crisis. "Cauvery, Kannada and Karnataka cannot be separated," he reportedly told a demonstration of members of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce.

THE opposition to the release of water has continued unabated since mid-September, even as the Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CMC) delegation visited the State, and through subsequent court proceedings. Indeed, the base of the movement has widened with newer sections lending their support to it. By September 23, the Cauvery protests had gained considerable momentum. Road and rail transport was disrupted in the districts of Mysore and Mandya, shops and educational institutions were closed, and normal life was thrown out of gear. On September 24, the day the CMC team arrived, protests continued in Mandya, and a bandh was observed in Chamarajanagar.

While the Mandya protests were spearheaded by the Cauvery Hitharakshana Samithi under D. Made Gowda, they have been supported overtly or tacitly by mainstream parties such as the Janata Dal , the Congress(I) and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The movement and its demands have received support from a range of cultural and intellectual fora, with even prominent liberal voices lending their support. Apart from known pro-Kannada groups such as the Akhila Karnataka Dr. Rajkumar Fans Association and the Kannada Chaluvali (Vatal Paksha) under Vatal Nagaraj, there are less known groups that have come out against the release of water. A convention of Kannada workers held on October 4 in Dharwad, presided over by Baraguru Ramachandrappa, a prominent intellectual and the Chairman of the Kannada Development Authority, extended support to the agitation. Mysore city has seen a steady stream of protest demonstrations and processions by several student and youth organisations and by lesser-known groups such as the State Handicrafts Manufacturers Association and the Mysore Development Thinkers' Forum.

Karnataka acquiesced with the Supreme Court order to release 1.25 tmc ft of water on a daily basis to Tamil Nadu in early September but sought an early meeting of the CRA to challenge what it perceived as the unfairness of the order. This time the government's response has been different. It would rather face contempt proceedings than take on the wide and formidable array of groups and organisations that view "giving" water to Tamil Nadu as a betrayal of Karnataka's interests. It is likely that the State government will once again seek an early meeting of the CRA to resolve the issue, although it may have found more support within the CRA if it had respected the Supreme Court and then placed its case before it. In his deposition in response to the contempt proceedings before the court, Krishna declared that he acted in the interests of the farmers who had sown crops on 5.9 lakh acres (2.27 lakh ha) in the Cauvery basin, and expressed regrets for any constitutional remiss. It appears unlikely that the court will be satisfied with a mere expression of regret this time round.

The CMC, in its assessment of the situation in the basin State on September 24 and 25, said that the condition of crops on 5.34 lakh acres (2.14 lakh ha) in the Krishnaraja Sagar command area was "healthy". It said that the total water requirement for the standing crops in Karnataka was around 67.39 tmc ft. An additional 14 tmcft would be required for the State's drinking water needs. The combined storage level of the four reservoirs was 48 tmcft on September 25 (as against 82.9 tmcft on the same day in 2001). The storage levels have fallen since then. According to the Cauvery Cell in Bangalore, the live storage levels as on October 4, was only 29.004 ft (as against 69.003 ft on the same day the previous year).

There is little doubt that the storage position in the State's reservoirs is low and that there is a genuine issue of water for its standing crop and drinking water needs. But the pressure on Karnataka will be strengthened by the CMC report on Tamil Nadu, which minces no words in describing the serious drought situation in the delta area and the State's water requirements. When the CRA next meets, this factor will surely be kept in mind when the issue of sharing is discussed.

Krishna, in his response to the Supreme Court order of October 4, said that the history of flows in the last 11 years showed that the intermediate and lower Cauvery catchment (that is, beyond Biligundlu) used to generate a minimum of 32.4 tmc ft a day in October. He was optimistic that this amount would be generated this year too. Karnataka also suggested that Tamil Nadu adopt the method of direct sowing for its samba crop and postpone sowing operations until the third week of October, when the northeast monsoon arrives.

Karnataka's pleas before the CRA for a distress-sharing formula may sound somewhat unconvincing now that it has taken the extreme step of disregarding the directives of both the Supreme Court and the CRA. While there is a serious shortage of water in the State for its own needs, its rigid refusal (backed by public opinion at large) to release any water in a spirit of sharing and good neighbourliness does not contribute to creating the environment needed to resolve the issue. Even for the adjudicatory process to work, an environment of goodwill is needed. Neither State appears ready to offer that.

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