Cauvery Issue

Cauvery water row: When a breakthrough was within reach of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu

In 2003, the Cauvery Family, an initiative involving stakeholders in both states, came close to a breakthrough, but the lack of government support killed it.

As Karnataka and Tamil Nadu spar over the release of the Cauvery water yet again, experts have suggested that instead of depending on politicians to resolve the decades-long dispute, an experiment from 2003 to find a peoples’ solution to the problem must be revived.

In 2003, the Cauvery Family – a body comprising farmers, engineers, water experts, economists and politicians associated with farmers’ bodies from the two sparring states – was formed to find a long-lasting solution to the river water-sharing dispute.

The body held more than 15 meetings with farmers from both states, and its members visited Cauvery delta districts several times to apprise themselves of the water needs of farmers in the region. Its members claim that the body was close to a solution, but the initiative collapsed in 2012 due to lack of government support.

Decades-old dispute

The Cauvery water dispute dates back to two agreements made during the British Raj, which Karnataka claims favoured Tamil Nadu. After Independence the two states took the issue to court repeatedly. Despite several court interventions and the setting up of a water disputes tribunal whose final award was notified in 2013, the dispute continues. In the latest bout, Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court after Karnataka refused to release water in August, saying that the state suffered from an acute water crisis. On September 5, the apex court directed Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water from the Cauvery to Tamil Nadu.

S Janakarajan, water expert and a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai, who was one of those behind the Cauvery Family initiative, suggested that a lasting solution to the dispute lay in accommodating the interests of all stakeholders, implying that it will be difficult for states to force those most affected by the dispute to accept a legal decision unacceptable to them.

“We are not living in a dictatorial set up, we are living in a democratic set-up,” he said. “We have to resolve every issue in a democratic manner through discussions and deliberations involving the aggrieved parties and stakeholders.”

He added that present-day politicians of both states lacked the will to resolve the issue, and that the problem had been turned into an emotive issue needlessly. “[The] ego of leaders combined with lack of political will has made this murkier and murkier,” said Janakarajan.

Karnataka State Agriculture Price Commission Chairman TN Prakash Kammardi has also mooted a peoples’ solution, as did VK Nataraj, a former director at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

Kammardi said that the issue had already been politicised by political parties, and the involvement of people in general, and farmers in particular, through initiatives like the Cauvery Family could guide the two states to draft a water-sharing formula that would be acceptable to all stakeholders.

Nataraj said that farmers were not interested in politics over the issue and only sought a solution. This, he said, could be achieved by negotiations between the two state governments and those most likely to be affected by any solution.

“Heads of respective states should bury the hatchet, come to the negotiating table and work out a formula to share water during normal rain years and during drought conditions,” said the retired professor. “I am pained to say that no government, either at the Centre or in states, tried to work out a distress formula or prevailed upon the Centre to work out a national water policy as suggested by experts to resolve inter-state river disputes.”

The breakthrough that wasn’t

Janakarajan revealed that the Cauvery Family had been close to a breakthrough a few years ago, but it did not materialise because of the absence of government backing.

“We had almost shortlisted five formulas to resolve the complex Cauvery water dispute and nearly finalised one,” he said, “but lack of government support and recognition to our work stalled further developments.”

He refused to disclose the details of the winning formula, saying that the body would only make it public if the two states or the Centre asked for it. “How will we implement the formula when governments fail to evince any interest in our work and efforts?” he asked.

Karnataka State Sugarcane Growers Association chief Kurbur Shantakumar, who was a member of the Cauvery Family initiative, indicated that the body had succeeded in convincing farmers’ groups on the equitable sharing of Cauvery water.

Said Shantakumar: “We had convinced Tamil Nadu farmers on how they can get surplus 60 tmcft [thousand million cubic feet] of underground water in the Cauvery delta and how 10 tmcft of water earmarked for environmental purposes by the tribunal could be shared between two states to eliminate alleged inequitable apportioning of water between two states by the tribunal.”

Shantakumar also rued the fact that despite new methods of irrigation that involve the use of less water, farmers in both states continued to adhere to flood irrigation techniques. “We should also stress the change of cropping pattern and optimum use of water,” he said.

'Consult Bengaluru too'

Nataraj suggested that any future attempts at resolving the dispute must now even consult water consumers in Bengaluru, who are dependent on the Cauvery for their drinking water needs.

In its previous efforts to find a solution, the Cauvery Family did not consult these stakeholders. They are now crucial stakeholders in the issue, said Nataraj.

Janakarajan was on the same page. “We cannot live on with the problem and jeopardise the lives of a large population of Tamils who live in Bengaluru and Kannadigas who live in various parts of Tamil Nadu,” he said. “After all we are living in a democratic set up and we have to share both the problem and solutions.”

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