Cauvery water-sharing problem requires a political solution driven by consensus among politicians, civil society & people of the two states-an event report
Science and technology can play a crucial role in the long term, creating less water-intensive crop varieties and irrigation methods. However, in the short term, the Cauvery water-sharing problem requires a political solution driven by consensus among politicians, civil society and above all the people of the two states (Tamil Nadu and Karnataka), according to experts,
They say at this juncture of heightened political chauvinism, it is imperative to revive civil society initiative such as those of the now-dormant ‘Cauvery Family’ to foster trust and fraternity among farmers of the two States. The political bargaining has to stop and pave way for a mutually -accepted solution, experts said during a seminar on ‘Issues Relating to the Cauvery Water-sharing’, organised jointly by ORF-Chennai Chapter and Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS).
The Cauvery water dispute is now almost four decades old. Diplomacy had been the order of the day in the past. Different Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers and Ministers like M G Ramachandran and S Duramurugan have brokered truce by reaching out to their political compatriots in Karnataka to secure release of the much needed water for delta corps. What differentiates the current impasse is that the dispute has attained unmanageable proportions.
The Karnataka State Assembly, by passing an unanimous resolution to not release water, has challenged the authority of the Supreme Court, creating a constitutional deadlock. The current contention between the states has also raised questions about the role of the centre in a quasi-federal setup, observed N Sathyia Moorthy, Director, ORF-Chennai, chairing the session.
Prof S Janakarajan, Professional Consultant and past-Director, MIDS, who was a part of the ‘Cauvery Family’ initiative, painted a coherent picture by discussing the contestations, conflicts and the waning river health. Reservoirs on the tributaries such as Hemavathi, Kabini, Swarnawathi, etc, violation of earlier agreements (1892 and 1924), failure to honour the final award (Cauvery tribunal), usage of downstream river to drain flood waters, and negligence of soil health in the river bed are some of the key contestations levelled by Tamil Nadu.
Karnataka on the other hand opines that it was subject to historical injustice, the treaties signed in 1892 and 1924 were concluded by the erstwhile British province of Madras, and Mysore was compelled to agree. Further, as per the Water Boards Act of 1956, disputes arising out of any treaty concluded before the commencement of the Constitution does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Cauvery Tribunal. The State has also opposed the interim award and the final award of the tribunal. Unwillingness of Tamil Nadu to reduce cropping of water intensive crops, especially paddy, over reliance on Cauvery flow, under utilisation of ground water resources are some of the other contestations raised by Karnataka.
Commenting on the current legal situation, Janakarajan opined that the Supreme Court should have directed the special leave petition to the Cauvery Tribunal for supplementary award. Further, after gazetting of the final award, there was very little effort from the Union Government to ensure compliance by all States involved, leaving the door open for future legal strife. By entertaining the petition, the Supreme Court has created a legal conundrum.
The available water in the Cauvery basin is measured at 740 tmc ft, at 50% dependability. However, anthropogenic interventions can impact and reduce downstream flow of water into other reservoirs. Hence total water available for consumption is lesser than the measured value. Unlike other river basins, the Cauvery basin is a deficit basin i.e. water requirement from the States is higher than the basin water availability, even in years of good monsoon.
In reality, river health is declining rapidly. Deforestation and declining rainfall in upper river segments in Coorg and Wayanad are both cause and effect, he said. Return flow from urban areas and industry in the middle segment has led to severe pollution, jeopardising aquatic life and ecosystems. Sand mining, sea water intrusion, increase in ground water salinity, sinking delta are some of the concerns in the delta region.
Elaborating on the social and economic issues, Janakarajan said that majority of the farmers in both States (around 80%) are small and marginal, along with landless agricultural labourers who rely heavily on river irrigation for their subsistence and livelihood. Forced migration is on the rise in the delta regions, compounded by change in land use patterns. There is a real need to protect the welfare of farmers. Track two diplomacy involving farmers and civil society is the way forward to bring about an amicable solution, opined Janakarajan.
Sharing his views on the topic, Mr S Ranganathan, General Secretary, Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers Association, who first took the Cauvery water dispute to the Supreme Court in the Seventies, said that the soil condition in the delta region is absolutely plastic clay. First irrigation in any crop-season takes about 25 to 35 days to condition the soil for cropping. Paddy is the best suited crop in this region considering the peculiar nature of the soil, where the root system cannot penetrate beyond six inches.
Speaking on the cropping pattern in the delta region, Ranganathan said that several initiatives have been taken to improve water conservation in growing paddy. Use of high yield, less water consuming seeds, sowing, and mixed cropping are practiced. Soil condition in the new delta region is loamy and lends itself for cultivation of other crops such as oil seeds, bajra, etc. Hence paddy cultivation in the new delta region is limited to one harvest, followed by mix cropping. While, old delta is suitable only for paddy cultivation, the new delta region must be utilised to grow long and short duration crops, opined Ranganathan.
Commenting on the rural economy, Ranganathan said that 1/6th of the harvested crop is taken as wages by the landless labourers. Hence the rural economy thrives on paddy cultivation, despite the recent change in land use pattern. Agriculture in the delta region is closely entwined with rural subsistence. Fraternity among farmers of both states is the key to dispute resolution. The Cauvery Family had made considerable progress in bringing farmers of both states together, helping them resolve water sharing disputes and worked as a track two mechanism to foster political consensus. However, there has been no traction since 2012 and it is high time to reinvigorate civil society participation in dispute resolution, opined Ranganathan.
N Ram, Chairman, Kasturi & Sons, publishers of The Hindu group of newspapers, elaborated on the legal and political mess. Reading Article 262 of the Constitution along with the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, enacted by Parliament, the Supreme Court may be barred from adjudicating this case, causing a legal entanglement of sorts, he said. Farmers are not responsible for the current violence and loss of property (in both states). The issue has been radicalised by chauvinistic elements seeking to gain political mileage. Despite the frequent demand to de-politicise the issue, it will remain politicised and requires a political solution bereft of chauvinism, noted Ram.
Despite the escalating violence, State administration (in both governments) has acted swiftly in maintaining law and order and de-escalating the situation. In the past, national leaders such as Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao had taken interest and intervened in inter-State disputes. However, the current union government has loosely distanced itself from the ongoing dispute, observed Ram.
While Cauvery water forms the bloodline of the delta region, Bengaluru’s drinking water problem cannot be ignored. As per the National Water Policy 2012, drinking water assumes higher precedence and is considered to be supreme human right. Bengaluru alone might require 20 tmc ft for drinking water needs, in its current state. The water requirement is expected to go up as the city transforms into a megapolis, Ram pointed out. He said the role of media and journalists is very important in this age of rapid communication and social media. Indiscriminate reporting can stoke passions and lead to snowballing of violence in sensitive issues such as the Cauvery dispute.
This report is prepared by Deepak Vijayaraghavan, Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter