The much-awaited Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal award which was supposed to end years of conflict between the riparian states has been notified. However, even when one war has been resolved, another has just begun.
As the state government’s efforts to get more water from the Cauvery river for its drinking water purposes has failed in the Supreme Court, it is now required to strike a balance between drinking water and irrigation needs out of its share of 270 tmc feet of water.
The well-known commentator S Guhan once noted, the Cauvery dispute is somewhat different than other water disputes like the Narmada and Godavari in the sense that Cauvery is already an overdeveloped basin, where the dispute is because of the seeming distress caused due to over-development.
Karnataka had demanded 465 tmc feet water earlier. Though the Supreme Court, while hearing petitions from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, observed that drinking water should be the top priority, neither the apex court nor the Tribunal specified the quantum of water to be allocated for irrigation and drinking water purposes. The Karnataka Government informed the Centre that around 32 to 35 tmc feet water was required for drinking in the Cauvery basin areas, including Bangalore and Mysore, while the rest will be used up for agriculture. The demand for drinking water is steadily rising due to population growth.
The belated gazette notification of the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, over six years after the Tribunal declared its award clearly, has drawn mixed reactions from different quarters. The award, notified on February 20, orders Karnataka to release 182 thousand million cubic feet or tmc ft (1 TMC equals 28.3 billion litres) water to Tamil Nadu. In addition, Tamil Nadu is to get 10 tmc ft water for environmental purposes. Tamil Nadu will have to release 7 tmc ft to Puducherry. This is now meant to settle once and for all the ongoing tussle between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the waters of the Cauvery river. The Karnataka government has been opposing the notification of the award while Tamil Nadu has been pressing for its notification.
While some blame the notification for being insensitive to people or environment and biased in favour of big projects, others say the award is justified and it is up to Karnataka to now decide how much it wants to allocate for civic facilities, industries and agricultural needs.
Dr Ramaswamy R Iyer, honorary professor of Centre for Policy Research and former secretary, ministry of water resources, however, says the dispute is not over drinking water but irrigation needs. The drinking water requirement is quite small as compared to the other needs for which the state needs water from Cauvery.
He says, drinking water is basic right of the people and it is up to the Karnataka government to decide how they are going to provide it to bigger cities like Bangalore. He further explains the dispute is going on for 17 years each state has put forth its cases. How can they say the allocation is unjust? Bangalore not only has drinking water shortage, there is a whole issue of exploitation of water for industrial and commercial use. The tribunal was aware of these complexities. “Karnataka has got enough water and it is up to them to decide how much they would allocate for each purpose,” says Iyer.
Expressing concern over the Cauvery tussle between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court had directed the Karnataka government to reply on its annual drinking water usage since 2007. Karnataka uses Cauvery waters to feed Bangalore (19 tmc), Mysore (2 tmc), Mandya and smaller towns along the river basin. The court also said that there was a need to maintain a balance between the usage of water for drinking and irrigation purposes. The apex court made this observation while hearing a petition filed by the Tamil Nadu government on January 22, 2013 seeking compensation for the damages to the crops caused by Karnataka’s failure to release water as per the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal award. The Tamil Nadu government claimed that the failure to release water by the neighbouring state had resulted in damage to crops in the state’s rice belt.
Karnataka Chief minister Jagadish Shettar has taken up the case with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of only one-third of Bangalore city being entitled to Cauvery water for drinking purpose under the final ward of the Cauvery Water disputes Tribunal notified by the Centre. “Bangalore is the fastest growing metro city in the country. While assessing the drinking water requirements for the city, the tribunal has taken into consideration only partial needs of the city leaving out two-thirds. Hence, Bangalore will face a perpetual water shortage,” Shettar said in the letter written to the PM soon after the award was gazetted.
Dr Iyer, however, dismissed such claims and said, “It is not that Bangalore is sitting right in the middle of Cauvery Basin and is being denied of water. The government has to find ways to meet the drinking water needs of the cities and reduce dependency on the river. The trend in almost every state nowadays is to give priority to urban areas than pay heed to need of the farmers. Does Karnataka think that the tribunal did not take into account all these factors?”
Of the total 270.11 tmcft water allocated to Karnataka, 17.22 tmc ft (including 8.7 tmcft to Bangalore) has been earmarked for urban areas. Though Karnataka had sought 30 tmcft of water, the tribunal said it was considering the existing requirements indicated in 1990.
Himanshu Thakkar, founder of the NGO South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, says the notification speaks a lot that the Supreme Court which has been sitting on the petitions from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu challenging the final award for all this years, and has been entertaining the petition on this issue all these years, has not found it fit to either dispose or dismiss those petitions, nor asked for this notification earlier. The direction for notification that the SC now gave could and should have been given earlier.
The Supreme Court of February 4, 2013 is clear that this notification is without prejudice to the ongoing proceedings in the apex court. So there is no sense of finality as yet. The gazette notification in any case comes into force in 90 days, so sometime in May 2013, by which time Karnataka would have had its state assembly elections. “So there is a lot of electoral and power politics that this issue will see,” he adds.
A report, Drinking Water Supply: Environmental Problems, Causes, Impacts and Remedies – Experiences from Karnataka, by Dr S Puttaswamaiah, states drinking water supply in Bangalore is confronted by high dependency on the Cauvery river that provides over 87 per cent of water obtained from river sources ~ Cauvery and Arkavathy. The dependency is growing with the increased number of water supply schemes based on Cauvery water. The increased dependency has its own demerits of high cost, maintenance problem, etc., due to long distance from source. The Arkavathy river, another source, is contributing about 12 per cent of water to Bangalore, but dries up during low rainfall years. In recent years frequency of Thippagondanahalli Reservoir on river Arkavathy drying up has increased owing to low rainfall.
HD Deve Gowda, former prime minister, had told reporters that the share apportioned to Karnataka for drinking purposes in villages, towns and cities is patently unjust, unfair and irrational. Bangalore, which now has a population of one crore and growing rapidly, requires at least 20 tmc annually. But the tribunal has not even allocated 2 tmc. It states that two-thirds’ of the city is outside the Cauvery basin area and so those areas are not entitled to a share in the Cauvery water. “Its logic is also that the rest of city population (one-third ~ 33 lakh) can source 50 per cent of its requirements from ground water sources. Where is the ground water?” he asked.
Dr Mohammed Najeeb, regional director of central ground water board, feels that for every 100 litres of rainwater that gets recharged as groundwater, 136 litres is being pumped out by Bangaloreans. Central Bangalore is in a safer position with regard to groundwater when compared to the peripheral areas in the City. Hebbal, Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Yelahanka, Mahadevapura, HSR Layout and Marathahalli are areas where people looking to tap borewell water need to dig beyond 1,000 feet.
However, according to RMN Sahai, director-general, environmental management and policy research institute (EMPRI), Bangalore, with borewells dug up to a depth of over 1,000 feet, the possibilities of groundwater containing dissolved impurities are high.
With the disappearance of water bodies owing to urbanisation and other reasons, the groundwater level is depleting. Earlier, water was available within a depth of 150 to 200 ft. Today, it is available at a depth of 1,000 ft in Kolar, Haveri, Bijapur and Bagalkot districts. The groundwater is dropping to alarming levels in 106 taluks in Karnataka due to overexploitation.
Besides drinking water, Thakkar also complains, there is no stipulation that environment flow should not be reduced in any lean season. “Water storages below 3 TMC is not brought into calculation, so the whole assessment is biased in favour of big projects,” Thakkar adds. There are several other features of the notification include meagre allocation of 10 TMC for environment flows in this major river system, which comes to just 1.35 per cent of the assessed annual flow of 740 TMC (Thousand
Million Cubic Feet or Billion Cubic feet) at 50 per cent dependability (much lower than the usual 75 per cent dependability assessment for other rivers).
According to report of the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre (KSNDMC), Karnataka, facing its worst rainfall in 42 years this monsoon season, recorded a 43 per cent deficit in rainfall. Of the 30 districts in Karnataka, 12 recorded a rainfall deficit of 60-99 per cent and another 16 faced a 20-59 per cent shortfall, according to the report. Rainfall deficit or surplus is measured based on historical average rainfall data for the period.
The state requires 38 tmcft for harnessing the standing crops in both (kharif and rabi) seasons. With the tribunal notification, farmers are scared they may be denied their share of water for standing crops and the government is concerned about drinking water requirement for major cities in ensuing months.
The only ray of hope in the final award is that the State may irrigate up to 18.85 lakh acres with the lifting of the ceiling that only 11.2 lakh acres may be irrigated with Cauvery water, imposed by the Tribunal in its interim order in 1991. Experts, however, point out that the State will find it difficult to meet the increased demand from the enhanced extent of land. The 18.85 lakh acres include an area of 3.44 lakh acres under irrigation prior to the colonial rule under an agreement between then Madras Presidency and the Maharaja of Mysore in 1924, 7.24 lakh acres additional land permitted to be irrigated under the 1924 agreement and 8.18 lakh acres considered for irrigation by the State since 1974 on the basis of availability of water.
Dr S Janakarajan, an economist and currently a professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies MIDS, is the architect of the ‘Cauvery Family’, (an initiative towards conflict resolution) which he started in 2003 that has brought together farmers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu States to resolve the most vexed inter-state water dispute in the history of contemporary India through farmer to farmer dialogue. The Cauvery family still survives and the farmers of both states have met so far 19 times in the last 10 years. They are in the process of finding a lasting solution.
While politicians on both sides of the border are on a warpath, farmers, the real stakeholders speak a different language. The Committee of Cauvery Family, a forum of stakeholders of the river basin in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, says it has a solution to the problem of how to share water.
Janakarajan points out that the present crisis has been created by chauvinistic elements on both sides of the border. The Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangh, which is the recognised and competent body of farmers has not joined the political rhetoric. Similarly, it is the politicians in Tamil Nadu who speak in an aggressive voice, he explains.
Members of Cauvery Family in the Delta districts of Tamil Nadu visited the reservoirs in Karnataka for an on the spot assessment of the situation, there is a deficit of water in Cauvery. The yield and flow has not been as that of last years. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu both have problems but all the farmers have to co-exist with whatever water is available, feels the members.
Prof Janakarajan points out that in 2009 when the rainfall was deficit, the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangh had persuaded the Government of Karnataka to release water to Tamil Nadu. “The politicians may not find our views acceptable because they are more worried about electoral prospects,” Janakarajan feels.
In this entire din, neither the concerned states nor the centre has given necessary encouragement and space to the Cauvery Family experiment. The notification does not have a clear encouragement for System of Rice Intensification and water efficient cropping pattern across the basin which could reduce water requirements by over 50 per cent and increase yields by 50 per cent or more.
Janakarajan agrees that Cauvery water has been diverted for industrial purposes, urban needs and, above all that, used, polluted water is sent back into the river. Not only industrial pollution but urban waste and sewage is also sent to all the five major tributaries of Cauvery in Tamil Nadu. Finally, all this is taken down to the delta. The delta is very vulnerable now, and that is due to all these reasons.
“When a river starts in one place and flows downstream, it passes through a huge distance. You cannot stop its flow. It has to carry some water till its delta,” he says.