Cauvery, Mekadatu & inter-state river water turbulence

It raises its head when there is deficit rainfall like it did this year as Karnataka received lesser precipitation and delayed its water release.
Cauvery, Mekadatu & inter-state river water turbulence
Cauvery, Mekadatu & inter-state river water turbulence

CHENNAI: Interstate water problems have existed for ages - ever since Independence and even before. The Indus and the Teesta water issues with Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively, continue to be contentious. Disputes between upper riparian states and those downstream rarely get amicably resolved, bringing an adjudication mechanism into play that leaves most sides less than happy. Almost all rivers, including the Ravi-Beas, Narmada, Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery, Vansadhara and Mahadayi, besides the Indus and the Brahmaputra have been locked in controversies from time to time.

The Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is simmering even after it was officially resolved with the formation of the Cauvery Water Management Authority in 2018. It raises its head when there is deficit rainfall like it did this year as Karnataka received lesser precipitation and delayed its water release.

While farmers in TN are worried about their standing Kuruvai crops, Karnataka claims a lack of adequate reservoir storage even to serve the drinking water needs of the state. TN Chief Minister M K Stalin and water resources minister Duraimurugan recently flagged the matter before Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister for Jal Shakti Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. They argued that Karnataka refused to release water despite having more than 80% of storage in their dams.

Though Karnataka did release some water a couple of weeks ago, it did not meet the monthly deficit season formula fixed by the Supreme Court. TN knocked on the SC door, which set up a division bench to hear the matter. (Early this week, the Cauvery Water Management Authority directed the release of 5,000 cusecs for 15 days and the state began to comply.)

Karnataka retaliated by holding an all-party meeting chaired by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, which decided to expedite the construction of a dam at Mekedatu and send a delegation to meet the PM on the water-sharing row. The hot-button topic of Mekadatu drew the expected sharp reaction from farmers' associations in TN, who argued that Karnataka’s decision was against the spirit of the SC verdict.

Inter-state water disputes

Inter-state water disputes have had prolonged hearings at tribunals and delayed solutions. The ever-increasing demand for water, environmental issues and political dynamics have made the issue more complicated. "The third world war is at our gate, and it will be about water if we don't do something about this crisis,” India’s Waterman Rajendra Singh once said, pointing to the increasing water scarcity in India and across the globe. The fundamental problem for water disputes is its uneven distribution in lower riparian states. Many inter-state water disputes have their roots in agreements signed during the British Raj.

Tribunal mechanism

The Inter-state River Water Disputes Act, 1956 (IRWD Act) was enacted under Article 262 of the Constitution on the eve of the reorganisation of states on linguistic lines to resolve disputes in the use, control and distribution of inter-state rivers. Whenever any request under the Act is received from any state, and the Centre is of the opinion that it cannot be settled by negotiation, it constitutes a tribunal for adjudication.

So far, nine tribunals have been constituted, of which five were subsequently dissolved after they completed adjudication. In 1969, three tribunals were formed: (a) the Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal to resolve issues among Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha; (b) the Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal I to settle issues among Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka; and (c) the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal to deal with issues flagged by Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Later, six other tribunals came up.

Origin of the Cauvery dispute

One of the long-drawn inter-state water disputes is over the Cauvery river, which originates in Karnataka and passes through Tamil Nadu and Kerala and Puducherry. The dispute has its origin in 1807 between the erstwhile Mysore state and Madras Presidency. On the representation of the Mysore government to the British Raj, Mysore and Madras governments held further discussions, which led to an agreement on February 18, 1892. In 1910, when Mysore proposed a reservoir at Krishnarajasagar with a capacity of 41.5 tmc (thousand million cubic feet), Madras vehemently objected to it as it had its own Mettur dam project, with a storage of 80 tmc. Mutual negotiations led to a new 50-year agreement in February 1924. While Tamil Nadu contended that the pact provided for extension in 1974 and continued to be valid beyond that year, Karnataka wanted it reset, claiming it was between unequal partners.

Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal

The dispute went to the Supreme Court when Karnataka began construction of dams across Hemavati and Harangi. That was when Tamil Nadu demanded a tribunal for the first time and suspension of work on these reservoirs.

With several rounds of talks in the eighties failing to find a meeting ground, the Centre formed the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on June 2, 1990 on the directions of the SC. It gave its interim award on December 11, 1990 and the final award on February 5, 2007 - after 17 years with 577 sittings besides many legal battles in between. The final award quantified the total availability at 740 tmc and allocated 419 tmc to TN and 270 tmc to Karnataka.

After fresh rounds of legal battles, the SC set a February 20, 2013 deadline to notify the final award. Finding itself between a rock and a hard place, the Centre finally notified it on February 19 that year. The Cauvery Water Management Authority was formed in 2018 as per the final award. The same year, the SC pruned the Cauvery allocation - 404.25 tmc to TN and 284.75 tmc to Karnataka.

Mekedatu dam project

Karnataka aims to build a reservoir across the Cauvery near Mekedatu in Kanakapura taluk. It was first proposed along with the Shivanasamudra hydropower project at Shimsha in 2003 to use the water for a hydropower station and supply drinking water to Bengaluru. Mekedatu is located on the border of Chamarajanagar and Ramanagar districts in Karnataka. At this spot, the Cauvery runs through a deep, narrow ravine of hard rock.

Tamil Nadu is bitterly opposed to it, arguing it would be detrimental to the downstream interests of the farmers of its Delta districts. Following TN's strong opposition, the Cauvery Water Management Authority has not discussed the Mekedatu project at its meetings. Tamil Nadu's position is that the Mekedatu reservoir was not part of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal's final award.

In 2021, TN approached the SC arguing that a new dam at Mekedatu would violate the final award of the Cauvery tribunal as it would impede the flow of water to the downstream state.Last year, the Basavaraj Bommai government in Karnataka allocated Rs 1,000 crore for initial works on the project. After the change of guard in the state, the Congress government headed by Siddaramaiah intensified steps to build a dam at Mekedatu and this has an echo in TN with political parties urging the DMK government to exert political as well as legal pressure to stall the project.

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