The Cauvery Dispute

Gain some, lose some

Print edition : October 28, 2016

Cauvery water being released from Krishnarajasagar dam in Mandya district on October 4. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Chief Ministe Siddaramaiah joins the fast by former Prime Minister Deve Gowda in Bengaluru on October 1 in connection with the Cauvery dispute. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Karnataka is relieved over the “manageable” court order directing it to release Cauvery waters at the rate of 2,000 cusecs from October 7 to 18.

BOXED into a corner for over a month by a series of orders from the Supreme Court over the release of the Cauvery river’s waters to Tamil Nadu and with the threat of wilful disobedience hanging over its head, the Karnataka government began releasing water for standing crops in both the States from the night of October 3. The discharge of water began just hours after the apex court questioned Karnataka’s defiance in not obeying its orders and the two Houses of the Karnataka legislature had passed a carefully worded resolution empowering the State government to release Cauvery waters into the State’s irrigation canals. This would automatically result in a quantum of water reaching Tamil Nadu as well. The unanimous resolution stated that given the increase in inflows and storage levels in the State’s four reservoirs in the Cauvery basin—Krishnarajasagar (KRS), Hemavathy, Kabini and Harangi—in the past 10 days (between September 24 and October 3), the State government, “after ensuring drinking water requirements, may take an appropriate decision regarding release of water to the crops of farmers and in the best interests of the State”.

The resolution was in stark contrast to the one passed on September 23 when the two Houses said that only 27 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) of water was available in all the Cauvery basin reservoirs and that water should only be supplied for drinking water purposes to Bengaluru and other cities/towns in the Cauvery basin. According to the government, the four reservoirs on October 3 had a combined storage of 34.13 tmc ft of water against 43.57 tmc ft required for just the standing crops in Karnataka’s Cauvery basin. Engineers confessed that with the south-west monsoon having already run its course, the chances of further rain in the catchment areas of the Cauvery in Karnataka seemed weak.

Speaking in the Assembly, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said that 23.36 tmc ft of water was required for drinking water purposes in cities and towns in the Cauvery basin until June 2017. He also explained that the release was meant to ensure at least partial compliance of the Supreme Court’s directions asking the State to release water to Tamil Nadu at the rate of 6,000 cusecs from October 1 to 6. (On October 4, the court modified the quantum of release to 2,000 cusecs from October 7 to 18, which Karnataka says is manageable.) Fully aware of the political ramifications of releasing water, Siddaramaiah was quick to point out that his government “will not compromise on the drinking water requirements of the people since it was a fundamental right” and that it had “a moral obligation to do so”. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Jagadish Shettar told Frontline that his party members had supported the resolution since it would benefit Karnataka’s farmers.

The government also justified the release of water by saying that it would help standing crops on 4.26 lakh acres in Karnataka. Siddaramaiah took pains to explain that around 1,200 to 1,500 cusecs was at present flowing as run of the river to Tamil Nadu. This was in addition, he told the Assembly, to the flow of 3,000 cusecs on account of water being released into canals in Karnataka and flowing to the gauging station at Biligundulu, and a like amount (3,000 cusecs) that flowed because of bad management of water in Karnataka.

Attempting to take the moral high ground, the Chief Minister said that Karnataka had, with the exception of three distress years—2012-13, 2015-16 and 2016-17—in the last decade, always released water to Tamil Nadu in excess of the 192 tmc ft as stipulated in the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’s (CWDT) final orders. According to engineers at the Cauvery Neeravari Nigam Ltd, the court’s latest orders directing that 2,000 cusecs should be released was a big relief and the situation was manageable. Explained an engineer: “We were initially directed to release 90,000 cusecs from September 20 to October 6. The court has modified it to 2,000 cusecs. So now we have to release 58,000 cusecs up to October 18.”

But others are not so confident. According to irrigation experts such as the former Secretary of the Department of Ecology and Environment, Capt (retd) S. Raja Rao, with the chances of the south-west monsoon bringing rain to the catchment areas of the river in Karnataka almost being nil, the only hope of releasing water to Tamil Nadu could come if it rained downstream of the KRS and Kabini reservoirs. Said Raja Rao: “There is not much storage in any of the dams in Karnataka. With the sluices being above the dead storage, how will the water flow? And the older the dams, the more the silting. All this will not help in water flowing out of the dam.”

The Centre’s sudden volte-face to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that it would not be able to set up a Cauvery Management Board (CMB), citing Article 262 of the Constitution and provisions of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956 (which forbids the Supreme Court in intervening in inter-State water disputes), also came to Karnataka’s rescue. Karnataka has always opposed the formation of the board and has refused to name its nominee. Cutting across party lines, Members of Parliament and legislators from the State expressed the view that the Supreme Court did not have the jurisdiction to direct the Union government to form such a board. Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda even undertook an indefinite fast in order to put pressure on the Narendra Modi government to refrain from constituting such a board.

Although both the Supreme Court’s decision cutting down the rate of water to be released to 2,000 cusecs and the Centre’s opposition to the formation of a CMB were to Karnataka’s liking, most observers are of the view that Karnataka legally had little choice but to comply with the court’s orders. The State’s sudden desire to comply also stems from the fact that the Supreme Court will on October 18 hear a special leave petition (SLP) filed by all the riparian States questioning the adjudication of water by the CWDT.

Explained Water Resources Minister M.B. Patil: “We do not want to attract the wrath of the Supreme Court and not be heard when our SLP comes up on October 18. We are more concerned about our questioning certain aspects of the CWDT’s orders.”

Karnataka is also happy with the court for acceding to the Centre’s suggestion to appoint a “technical team” that will visit the Cauvery basin and report back to the court by October 17 on the ground realities.

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