Cautious optimism in Karnataka

Print edition : March 16, 2018

Residents of Krishnappa Layout collecting water from a tank to which a farmer has connected his personnel borewell pipe, in Bengaluru on February 20. Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

IN Karnataka, the Supreme Court’s February 16 decision on the sharing of Cauvery water is seen as a victory of sorts for the State. But many in the corridors of power think that it is a pyrrhic victory. The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, by holding the view that Karnataka was the “more deserving amongst the competing States” and that it had suffered “limited access to and use” of the Cauvery waters, upheld the State’s two pleas: to take into account the groundwater available (the Central Ground Water Board had estimated it to be in excess of 20 tmc ft) in the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu while the waters are shared; and to allocate water for the drinking water requirements of Bengaluru, most of which have so far come at the cost of irrigation needs. However, the court’s directive to the Government of India to frame within six weeks a legal and technical Cauvery water sharing “scheme” under Section 6A of the Inter State Water Disputes Act (ISWDA), 1956, to implement the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal’s (CWDT) award as modified by the latest judgment, has not impressed Karnataka. To most observers this is akin to the apex court directing the Centre to constitute a Cauvery Management Board and Regulatory Authority (CMBRA) as suggested by the CWDT to oversee implementation of its award.

Karnataka fears that a board will result in the State losing control over its four Cauvery basin reservoirs—Krishnarajasagar, Hemavathy, Kabini and Harangi. Also, Karnataka may find it difficult to go ahead with the construction of dams and other irrigation projects in the Cauvery river basin, including the controversial Rs.5,500-crore balancing reservoir proposed at Mekedatu. At present it is the Cauvery Supervisory Committee, which was set up by the Centre after it gazetted the tribunal’s final award and comprises officials from the Union government, the Central Water Commission and representatives of basin States, that adjudicates on technical matters.

Explained State Water Resources Minister Mallanagouda Patil: “The court has not specified the setting up of a management board. It has only said there has to be a scheme to implement the CWDT’s award. Anyway, we are opposed to the setting up of a board. Earlier we had objected to the setting up of a board, citing the fact that the award was an interim one. Let the present system of a committee [Cauvery Supervisory Committee] or an authority with similar powers manage the water flows. We are as yet discussing the matter with our legal team. We will take a final call after the Centre comes out with its stand on the issue of a board. The board has to be constituted by an Act of Parliament. Also, a board cannot impose restrictions. Each State has a right to distribute the water as it sees fit from its allocated share of waters. And again, crop patterns are according to a State’s own conveniences.”

Patil said that his government was apprehensive that the directions of a board to release water at monthly intervals would become un-implementable during years of less rainfall and distress.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has also stated that Karnataka was opposed to the formation of a separate board by the Centre. In 2014, he led an all-party delegation from the State and presented a memorandum to the Centre stating that a “Cauvery Management Board unduly infringes upon the authority of the State of Karnataka to use even its allocated share of water’’.

This view is echoed by Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, Jagdish Shettar of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): “Earlier also we were opposed to any board. Why do you need a board? The present system of a Cauvery Supervisory Committee is enough.”

With elections to the Karnataka Assembly around the corner and the parliamentary elections little over a year away, the Centre will find it difficult to constitute a board. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to walk a tightrope if he has to please both Tamil Nadu (where there are 39 Lok Sabha seats) and Karnataka (28 Lok Sabha seats). Setting up the CMBRA will provide enough reason to the both the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) to accuse the BJP of selling away Karnataka’s interests. But any delay in setting up the CMBRA will put Modi on a collision course with Tamil Nadu.

The court’s reiteration of the CWDT’s decision to exactly apportion lands for irrigation and determine the water to be allocated to these lands has also not gone down well with the Karnataka government. Karnataka, though, is apparently satisfied with the other aspects of the judgment. Said Patil: “We are not very happy. Just happy. The court has partly addressed our concerns. We had made a plea for another 42 tmc ft, including the transferring of an amount that is equal to the 20 tmc ft of groundwater available with Tamil Nadu. The court has given us 10 tmc ft out of this 20 tmc ft.”

While 4.75 tmc ft will go for Bengaluru’s drinking water requirements, the remaining 10 tmc ft will go for irrigation. Though there are still restrictions on usage—only 40,000 hectares of sugarcane, no summer paddy and no water from the Cauvery allocations for any lift irrigation schemes—the irrigated area is expected to go up by 10 lakh acres (four lakh hectares). Karnataka, which, according to irrigation engineers, is already cultivating around two lakh acres of sugarcane in the Cauvery basin and has been, over the past two or three years, feeding Cauvery water for some of its lift irrigation schemes, will find it difficult if the CMBRA is set up.

Relief for Bengaluru

The 4.75 tmc ft allocated for the drinking water needs of Bengaluru is a matter of intense relief to the State. With a population in excess of 10 million, the city is today spread over an area of 800 square kilometres (the core area of 245 sq km, eight urban local bodies of 330 sq km, and 110 villages of 225 sq km). But the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) has not been able to meet the requirements of even the 8.5 million people in the 570 sq km that it currently caters to. The current supply from the Cauvery—which is 86 km south of the city—is 1,350 million litres a day (mld). According to a BWSSB estimate, in 2051, when the city’s population will be 20.561 million, the requirement will go up to 4,100 mld or 52.86 tmc ft of water.

With tanks being polluted or encroached upon and the Hessarghatta and Thippagondanahalli reservoirs failing the city, the Cauvery has become Bengaluru’s only lifeline. Since 1974, the BWSSB has been supplying treated Cauvery water to Bangalore City under the Cauvery Water Supply Scheme (CWSS) Stages I, II, III and IV and phases I and II. However, in order to provide water to the newly added 110 villages with a population of over 1.5 million which are now part of Bengaluru, the BWSSB has formulated the CWSS Stage V. Estimated to cost Rs.5,550 crore, the project is slated to be completed by 2023. The proposal is to take up Stage V in two phases, a phase I of 500 mld (6.45 tmc ft) and a phase II of 275 mld (3.55 tmc ft) capacity. In 2014, the Urban Development Department allocated 10 tmc ft of water for these two phases.

Engineers associated with the Cauvery projects said that the extra 4.75 tmc ft allocated by the court would not mean water in excess of the 29 tmc ft already earmarked for Bengaluru. At present, 85 per cent of Bengaluru’s residents get on an average around 60 litres of Cauvery water each, supplied three times a week. This, it is said, is way below the 150 litres per capita per day benchmark set by the World Health Organisation and the Central Public Health and Environmental Organisation.

Bengaluru consumes 50 per cent of the Cauvery water reserved for domestic use in Karnataka, but over 400 mld of the 1,350 mld of water pumped into the city goes waste and is called “non-revenue water” or “unaccounted for water”, that is, water lost in distribution. Wastage is of two kinds: leakage in the water supply system, which accounts for over 88 per cent, and, unauthorised water connections.

Ravi Sharma

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