The cauvery dilemma

Both north and south Karnataka are in a tizzy over water. North Karnataka over the utilisation of waters of the Mahadayi River (see article on Page:24) and South Karnataka over the utilization of the Cauvery River. This is probably the result of a skewed discourse which is framed by the limited terms of water availability. It’s an I win you lose kind of discourse - water allocated to one state is the loss of another, and the water that reaches the sea is a waste.  Is there a way to deal with these disputes other than the legal? Prabhu Mallikarjunan traces the history and outcome of the dispute and puts forth the farmer’s perspective.

Early last month Putnanje Gowda, 55, a marginal farmer of Ramandur village in Malavalli taluk of Mandya, was left high and dry when the south-west monsoon failed him.He was all set to cultivate a sugarcane crop in his three-fourth of an acre rain-fed land when nature played truant. His next option was water from the Krishna Raja Sagara (KRS) dam on the Cauvery.
The cauvery dilemma-1But tragedies too come in pairs. The rainfall deficit had also hit the Cauvery catchment area. Water in the reservoirs of the Cauvery basin - KRS in Mandya district, Kabini in Mysuru, Harangi in Kodagu and Hemavathi in Hassan - was less than normal (one-fourth the normal).

Thousands of farmers like Gowda found themselves in hot waters. And the State government suddenly had the difficult task of apportioning water for agriculture irrigation and drinking water needs of Bengaluru, Mysuru and Mandya region.

Nearly 90% of Karnataka's talukas -subdivisions of districts-recorded deficit rainfall in August, and 40% of minor irrigation tanks were running dry state-wide. In August, Karnataka’s four zones–south and north interior, the Malnad region and the coastal areas–recorded a 39% deficit in rainfall.  

To add to the woes, the Supreme Court of India struck right at that time. It asked the government of Karnataka to ‘live and let live” and release 15,000 cu secs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu for 10 days. It said the samba crops in Tamil Nadu would be adversely affected if water was not released by Karnataka.

The Karnataka government was left with no choice but to abide by the SC order and release water to farmers in Tamil Nadu, thus angering farmers like Gowda in Karnataka, whose livelihood was dependent on water from the Cauvery.

Protests erupted in the Mandya-Mysuru region on September 6, 2016. The highway connecting Karnataka to Tamil Nadu and Kerala was blocked. Cauvery Horata Samithi, a farmers’ association, called for a complete shutdown.

The protests intensified over the week and a complete shutdown (bandh) was observed on September 9.Many feared that this crisis could end up like the 1991 Cauvery riots, the worst in the history of Karnataka, when 28 people were killed and thousands fled the state. Protests became the order of the day during the ‘distress’ years of 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2013.  

“How can the State decide to go against its own farmers? If we do not cultivate sugarcane crops, we cannot get good money and livelihood is at stake. We do not know anything other than farming. We cannot even pump out groundwater as there would be no electricity when needed,” Gowda said.

Gowda did not participate in the protests but he was no less angry than those who took to the roads; and he was critical of the Congress government in Karnataka.

The year 2015 was the deadliest for Karnataka farmers. As many as 978 farmers committed suicide, the highest since the formation of the state in 1956, and second only to Maharashtra in numbers.

Surprisingly, the highest number of suicides was reported from Mandya (92). Mandya farmers are perceived to be relatively well-off because they have irrigated lands. Once considered as one of the most agriculturally prosperous districts in Karnataka, Mandya has been going through a painful phase in recent years.

The Cauvery river water tribunal was set up in 1990 after the failure of several rounds of talks between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In 2007, the tribunal ruled that Tamil Nadu should get 419 billion cubic feet of water a year and Karnataka would get only 270 billion.

The September 5 order was reviewed by the SC on September 12. It ruled that 12,000 cu secs of water should be released to Tamil Nadu until September 20. The per-day quantum was reduced, in totality, with the increase in the number of days the water had to be shared but it resulted in Tamil Nadu getting an increased share.

Violence broke out across the State on September 12. Traffic on Bengaluru-Mysuru highway came to a halt. A few passenger vehicles bearing Tamil Nadu registration plates were set ablaze, and a fleet of 42 buses belonging to a private operator was burnt on the outskirts of Bengaluru. Tamil Nadu observed a shut down on September 16.

Shops owned by Tamils, including the popular Adyar Ananda Bhavan chain of restaurants were vandalised. Educational institutions and some offices declared a holiday.

As the situation went out of control, the Police had to resort to cane charging in some places. Section 144CrPC that prohibits unlawful assembly was imposed in Bengaluru and parts of Mandya and Mysuru.

On September 20, the Supreme Court blasted the Karnataka government for not maintaining law and order. It ignored the ground realities presented by Karnataka government officials and ordered that 6,000 cu secs of water every day should be released to TN for seven days.

By then the Cauvery water issue had turned 'political'. The Congress, the BJP and the JDS, every major party, were out on the streets to win voters in rural as well as urban areas. With less than 18 months for the next state election, the urgency to align with the agitating farmers was foremost in every party's agenda.

“Unfortunately, nobody is thinking of farmers. We need a permanent solution. Both the governments have been battling for water for decades, but not finding a solution. How can the State betray its own farmers?” farmers-leader and Melkote MLA K.S. Puttannaiah told this reporter.

With the water level in the reservoirs dipping each day, the Karnataka cabinet, after coming to a consensus with major political parties, decided not to implement the Supreme Court directive, calling the release of Cauvery water ‘unimplementable’.

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s bold decision was lauded by many political analysts and he came in for high praise from the farmers for standing up for them.

Meanwhile, the South-West monsoon season had come to a close and a total of 110 of the 176 talukas were declared drought hit.

In September, southern districts located in the Cauvery basin – Mandya, Mysuru, Ramangara, Chamarajanagar had recorded 70%-85% deficit rainfall. The SC was, however, not applauding Siddaramaiah's bold step.

It made it clear to Karnataka that no one would know when the "wrath of the law" would fall on it for defying the SC. It ordered the Centre to form the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) in four days, i.e., by October 4. But a day before the order was to be carried out, the Centre told the SC that the court had no jurisdiction to direct the Centre to set-up a CMB.

Fali S Nariman, who was lawyer for Karnataka since the Cauvery Tribunal was setup in 1992, declined to argue on behalf of Karnataka until it chose to abide by the SC order. He was criticized by some for letting down the State, but he came in for praise from SC judges.

On October 3, Karnataka ended the impasse and decided to release water to Tamil Nadu as per the directions of the Supreme Court.“We will try to fulfil the drinking water needs of Bengaluru, Mysuru and Mandya and will also give water to our farmers. The farmers (in Karnataka) need not worry,” Siddaramaiah said.
The cauvery dilemma-2Pursuant to the Supreme Court’s directions, a high-level central technical team, led by G.S. Jha, Chairman, Central Water commission (CWC) visited the Cauvery basin areas of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, to gauge the ground reality in terms of availability of water and condition of crops. The expert team is expected to submit its report on October 17 to the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court.

The three-judge bench led by Justice Dipak Misra extended its October 4, 2016 order, directing Karnataka to release 2000 cusecs of water per day to Tamil Nadu until further orders.

The three-judge bench passed the order after going through the report submitted by its high-level panel which visited the Cauvery basin in both the states. The top court further asked both governments to maintain peace and harmony in their respective states. Meanwhile, the Bench, also comprising Justices Amitava Roy and A.M. Khanwilkar, will continue to hear on the question of maintainability of the appeals filed by Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala against the 2007 final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

The Central Government, in what can be termed as a setback to Karnataka, suggested to the court that they had no jurisdiction to entertain these appeals and the 2007 tribunal award was final under Article 262 of the Constitution and provisions of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. The State of Karnataka disagreed.

Meanwhile, soon after the order was passed, Karnataka's Chief Minister, Siddaramaiah said "there is no water in the State’s reservoirs. I have not yet seen the order copy. I will speak to the advocates after going through the order copy," he told the media.

Commenting on the order of the Supreme Court Made Gowda, President of Mandya Zilla Raitha Hitharakshana Samiti (MZRHS), which is spearheading the Cauvery agitation in Mandya said, “We should maintain peace until the next hearing. The court might have asked us to release 2,000 cusecs of water to test Karnataka government's patience....If they again ask us to release water tomorrow, we can reject it. There is no dharma in leaving water to them for crops, when we don't have it even for drinking”.


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