Frontline Volume 19 - Issue 19, September 14 - 27, 2002
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The crisis over the sharing of the waters of the Cauvery between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu brings to the fore yet again the necessity to evolve a permanent distress formula.


THE current round of bitter and escalating tension between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of the Cauvery river waters was "resolved" in what appears to be a short-term and unstable settlement by a hurriedly convened meeting of the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) on the night of September 8, just hours before the departure abroad by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, the Chairman of the CRA. Against stiff opposition from Tamil Nadu, the CRA resolved that Karnataka release a daily quantum of 9,000 cusecs, or 0.8 tmc ft of water to the Mettur reservoir in Tamil Nadu through the months of September and October. This supersedes the September 3 order of the Supreme Court directing Karnataka to release 1.25 tmc ft of water every day to Mettur. The Supreme Court order had said that its directive would hold "until a final decision is taken by the Cauvery River Authority". The meeting of the CRA was attended by the Chief Ministers of the Congress(I)-ruled Cauvery basin States of Karnataka and Kerala and the Union Territory of Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu Finance Minister C. Ponnaiyan. Described by the Prime Minister as a "fair and just arrangement for all parties", the CRA decision has been welcomed by all the State parties involved except Tamil Nadu, which attended both the Cauvery Monitoring Committee meeting on September 7, and the CRA meeting the next day "under protest" as Chief Minister Jayalalithaa made clear in a letter to the Prime Minister. Jayalalithaa, in an angry statement issued a few hours after the announcement of the CRA decision from New Delhi, said Tamil Nadu would once again approach the Supreme Court to demand "justice". The State was "shocked and aghast at the arbitrary treatment" meted out to it at the CRA meeting on September 8, she said.

Water being released from the Kabini reservoir on September 4 following the Supreme Court order.

According to Jayalalithaa, Ponnaiyan had told the CRA that Tamil Nadu could not accept anything less than 1.25 tmc ft ordered by the Supreme Court, to start a semblance of samba cultivation by raising nurseries. "In spite of this reasonable and cogent request" made by Ponnaiyan pointing to the pathetic situation prevailing in the delta areas in Tamil Nadu, it was "shocking" that the Prime Minister, using the Business Rules of the CRA, which mentioned that when there was no consensus the verdict of the Chairman would prevail, decided to make available 0.8 tmc ft a day to Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa said. According to her, Ponnaiyan had protested this "arbitrary" decision of the Prime Minister and pleaded that he should not be forced to take an "ad hoc" decision at the behest of Karnataka and the other participating States that came under the same political dispensation. Yet the Prime Minister read out his "prepared" statement, which showed that there was "no application of mind on the grounds put forth by Tamil Nadu", Jayalalithaa alleged.

The CRA's decision is typical of the fire-fighting approach that has in the last few years characterised efforts to resolve the dispute. It has at best postponed the crisis.

The current dispute reflects a new and not-to-be-ignored dimension to a running dispute that in the last 10 years has acquired the predictability of an annual ritual. In the past, as water levels in the Cauvery basin reservoirs would fall each year and the two State governments go into confrontation mode over the sharing of water shortages, a political crisis would threaten, various short-term conflict-resolution mechanisms would be sought urgently and pressed into service, and just as the crisis seemed to be reaching breaking point, the rains would set in. The crisis would get literally washed away. Efforts to find a permanent solution to the problem would go into low gear, until the next round of dispute came along. The political colours of the principal actors would change, but the course of a short and intense phase of conflict fell into a familiar pattern.

Chief Ministers Jayalalithaa and S.M. Krishna with Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in New Delhi on August 27.

This round of the dispute has been different. The monsoons failed to arrive in time, and when they did, were woefully inadequate, causing extensive damage to agricultural production and rural livelihoods in both States. The new dimension to the dispute this year is not only the issue of drought in the entire Cauvery basin, which has brought to the fore the urgent necessity to evolve a distress-sharing formula. Both States are paying the price of delaying a final solution to the problem. It is more than 12 years since the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was set up. In these years, the pressures and demands on river water have risen dramatically in both States, owing to the extension of the area of agriculture and growing drinking water needs. The impact of this year's drought has been particularly harsh. Compounding rainfall scarcity has been the effect on agriculture and rural livelihoods of a range of new policy measures (the lifting of food and crop subsidies, for example) that have only intensified the general economic distress experienced by those who depend on agriculture. It is perhaps for the first time since 1991, when the Interim Order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was promulgated, that there has been such widespread hardship in the Cauvery basin. This factor has sharpened the pitch of the political debate in the current confrontation, and escalated popular resentments that have already, in a situation reminiscent of December 1991 in Karnataka, spilled on to the streets.

With an order by the Supreme Court on August 3 directing Karnataka to release 1.25 tmc ft of water to Tamil Nadu from its reservoirs daily "until a final decision is taken by the Cauvery River Authority" the action shifted to New Delhi. The Bench comprised Chief Justice B.N. Kirpal and Justices K.G. Balakrishnan and Arijit Pasayat. As Karnataka's Chief Minister S.M. Krishna made all efforts to have a meeting of the CRA convened at the earliest, Jayalalithaa sharply criticised what she perceived as the Central government's susceptibility to pressures from Karnataka on the Cauvery issue. She did not attend the meeting of the CRA on the ground that it was held at such short notice. The decision of the CRA is likely to stem the angry outbursts against the court order in Mandya and Mysore districts of Karnataka wherefarmers' organisations took to the streets.

Jayalalithaa took the Cauvery issue to the Supreme Court in June 2002 amidst much political opposition, soon after she declared her government's intent to boycott the CRA meetings. Tamil Nadu's suit pressed for immediate relief from Karnataka to save its crops. Despite stiff opposition from Karnataka's lawyers, the Supreme Court gave the order to release water based on the information provided by Tamil Nadu. This indicated that there was 73.490 tmc ft of water in the four reservoirs of Karnataka after taking into account the inflows, outflows and withdrawals. The Supreme Court order has been criticised in Karnataka for more reasons than the most obvious. A section of legal opinion in the State considers the matter to be outside the jurisdictional purview of the Supreme Court.

At the Krishnarajasagar dam, Mysore, on September 6.

In Karnataka, the Supreme Court directive had a harried State government having to steer through two crises - the Supreme Court order and a new strike by the forest criminal Veerappan who abducted a senior politician of the State. Krishna had little option but to accede to the order of the Supreme Court. However, he succeeded in forging a political consensus on it. This astute course, which has brought in the State's main Opposition parties, appears to have contained for the time being the possibility of a popular outburst instigated by those opposed to his decision. Faced with a similar situation in December 1991, when the Interim Order of the Tribunal was gazetted by the Government of India, Chief Minister S. Bangarappa unleashed one of the worst episodes of conflict in the Cauvery dispute. Krishna, by contrast, declared his government's decision to abide by the court order, while promising to "protect the interests of the farmers of the Cauvery basin under any circumstances".

Krishna's consensus appeared fragile as the Congress(I) State unit, just two days after the Court order, urged the government not to comply with it. The release of water began on the night of September 4 from the Kabini reservoir. The elaborate process of consultation followed by Krishna - in addition to the Opposition leaders, he individually met and sought the support of all former Chief Ministers - could not prevent the protests against the order. Twenty busloads of farmers forcibly stopped the release of water from the Kabini dam by closing its sluices. The failure of the State administration to provide security to the dam could have led to a potentially dangerous situation.

Although the Karnataka government has consistently held that the low storage levels in its reservoirs precluded the release of water to Mettur, it may have been actually preparing itself for releasing some water as and when the pressure built up. A newspaper report quoted Karnataka's senior counsel, F.S. Nariman, as having told the Supreme Court that the State was willing to release 1 tmc ft of water as against the 2 tmc ft that Tamil Nadu's senior counsel K.K. Venugopal had asked for. It was then that the court directed that 1.25 tmc ft be released by Karnataka. The State government immediately denied this report, but with the legal correspondent of the newspaper standing by his story, the impression that the State was actually willing to release some water has been strengthened.

By contrast, in Tamil Nadu, there was a sense of quiet elation following the Supreme Court's directive. Although the water released would not have significantly helped in the cultivation of the main samba paddy crop in Tamil Nadu, the directive was a victory for Jayalalithaa. It consolidated her position in relation to the political Opposition in the State, as well as to the BJP-led government at the Centre. She was vindicated in her belief that the State would get justice from the Supreme Court, and not from the CRA, which she has been calling "a toothless wonder" and "an unnecessary mechanism". Tamil Nadu Public Works Minister O. Panneerselvam said the Supreme Court's directive would give "great joy" to the farmers of Tamil Nadu.

The Tamil Nadu government filed cases relating to Cauvery water in 1992, 1995, 1997 and 2001, praying for a directive to Karnataka to implement the Interim Order of the Tribunal so that the standing kuruvai crop in Tamil Nadu might be saved. Rainfall in October invariably saved both the kuruvai crops and the situation for Karnataka before the Supreme Court.

The dry bed of a part of the 'Akanda' Cauvery in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, in a July 2002 file picture.

Having in the past always cried "distress, even when water shortages were in actuality neither severe nor long-lasting, the two States, when now faced with a serious and very real situation of distress on their hands, have tried to establish the extent of distress in their respective positions before the CRA and the Supreme Court. By any objective measure, the situation is serious. The rainfall deficits this year in the catchment districts of Kodagu and Hassan have been and continue to be significant (see map). Data from the Karnataka Drought Monitoring Cell show that from June 1, 2002 to July 29, 2002, Kodagu district, the heart of the Cauvery catchment area, received only 777 mm of water as against a normal of 1,374 mm. The shortage of rain affected sowing in the basin districts in Karnataka according to the weekly reports brought out by the same cell. By July 24, when rains should normally have set in, there were already reports of moisture stress in the districts of Mandya, Mysore, Tumkur, Chamarajanagar and Bangalore Urban with rainfed crops drying up or remaining stunted owing to the lack of water. The gross storage in the main reservoir, K.R.Sagar, was only half its gross capacity. The live storage of all four reservoirs was around 73 tmc ft, considerably short of their total gross capacity of 114.57 tmc ft.

The rainfall and storage shortfalls affect both States, although there are obviously differing perceptions on which State has a greater claim to scarce water resources. Karnataka points to the total outflow from its reservoirs and claims that it has utilised only 30 tmc ft of water this year for its irrigation and drinking water needs, whereas it has released 33.4 tmc ft to Tamil Nadu. These figures are contested by Tamil Nadu, which claims that as on August 22, Mettur should have received 93.96 tmc ft as per the Interim Order, whereas it actually received only 25.69 tmc ft. Tamil Nadu has maintained that it is incumbent on Karnataka to release water when it has 73 tmc ft of storage in its reservoirs while an entire season's agricultural crop has been wiped out for want of water in the Cauvery delta. Jayalalithaa asked for 30 tmc ft against a shortfall of 43.1 tmc ft, as per the schedule laid down by the 1991 Interim Order. She accused Karnataka of holding Tamil Nadu "to ransom" by impounding the flows in the Cauvery in its reservoirs and only releasing the surplus it could not store. Tamil Nadu was further angered by what it perceived as Krishna's insensitivity to its drinking water needs. On June 26, Krishna turned down Prime Minister Vajpayee's request to release at least 3 tmc ft to Tamil Nadu to ease the drinking water scarcity in the towns of Thanjavur and Tiruchi, particularly Srirangam. Krishna's answer to this was that of the 4 tmc ft of water received in the Cauvery basin reservoirs in June, 2.08 tmc ft, or roughly half the amount, was ensured at the water gauging station at Biligundulu.

Indeed, the situation in the Cauvery delta could not have been worse. The kuruvai (June to September) crop is dependent on irrigation from the Mettur dam, which in turn receives water from upstream reservoirs in Karnataka. Kuruvai, which is normally raised on three to four lakh acres in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Tiruchi districts, could not be raised at all because the water that Karnataka released into Mettur was totally insufficient. About 15 lakh landless farm workers were rendered jobless. Kuruvai cultivation in the Cauvery delta requires about 90 tmc ft. However, on June 26, the level at Mettur was only 9.9798 tmc ft, which included the dead storage of five tmc ft. Throughout the month of July and August, the media highlighted the gravity of the drought in Tamil Nadu. Farmers were jobless, rice mills were not receiving paddy for hulling because there was no cultivation of kuruvai, there were fodder shortages and distress sale of cattle, and farm workers were unable to get jobs as construction workers owing to the scarcity-driven economic slowdown in the delta. Business activity dropped. Most importantly, without water, farmers cannot raise the long-term samba paddy crop on nine lakh acres from August to January.

Both States are now desperate to evolve a distress-sharing formula, the central issue to be addressed by the CMC. If an agreement can be worked out on this core issue of the Cauvery dispute, it can be ratified by the CRA. Indeed, the issue of distress-sharing is the Cauvery issue, and although both States would like to see an acceptable formula emerging, it is unlikely that this contentious issue will be settled soon. If it does happen, it will greatly help the work of the Tribunal. The process of arriving at a distress-sharing formula, which each State accuses the other of sabotaging, has been dragging on over the last four years, ever since the CRA and the CMC were set up in August 1998. The April 1992 Clarificatory Order of by the Tribunal addressed the issue of distress sharing. It said that during a period of distress, both parties could approach the Tribunal to work out a distress-sharing formula on a pro rata basis. It also said that in case a State (in this case, Karnataka) could not make good the prescribed releases in a given month, it could do so at the end of the year.

In her speech before the CRA on August 27, 2002, Jayalalithaa said that an acceptable distress-sharing formula was evolved by the CMC and the Central Water Commission (CWC), which Tamil Nadu accepted and Karnataka rejected. Karnataka claims that the CWC formula was a draft on which it has given its opinion. There is some mystery about the CWC distress formula, which all parties refer to but none has made public.

The last word on the Cauvery crisis was perhaps that of the late S.Guhan, an administrator and academic whose tireless effort to find a just and non-chauvinistic solution to the Cauvery dispute will surely be gratefully acknowledged if and when this contentious issue is finally resolved. Guhan is the author of The Cauvery River Dispute: Towards Conciliation, an authoritative and scholarly tract on the Cauvery issue published by Frontline in 1993.

In an article entitled "Seizing an Opportunity" published in the January 1995 issue of Frontline, Guhan presented with his customary clarity the requirements of a sustainable solution: "A settlement of the Cauvery dispute, if it is to be settled in the long-term, will require two conditions to be met. First, it must be fair and equitable to all the basin States and perceived as such by them. Secondly, it is necessary politically to create a spirit of goodwill and cooperation during the process of arriving at a settlement and to sustain it thereafter when the agreement begins to be implemented. The political aspect of conflict resolution is as important as the legal-technical aspect of reaching an equitable solution. In fact, the technical and political aspects are inseparable. Only an equitable solution will be politically acceptable and unless the solution is politically acceptable it cannot be implemented, however sound it might be legally and technically." A solution to the Cauvery dispute may appear unreachable at the present when the dispute appears to have hit a nadir. But the political goodwill so indispensable for a solution may yet emerge, as Guhan firmly believed.

(A scheduled Frontline interview with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa did not come off because of her indisposition. )

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