Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has further compounded the current face-off between India and Pakistan by his recent threat to withdraw from the age-old Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between the two countries which had been working smoothly through the years. But the raging dispute over sharing the water of River Cauvery, between two states in his own backyard should give him time to ponder over the unforeseen consequences of disturbing the IWT. Indeed, a quick survey of the Cauvery dispute should give an idea of how serious the water sharing issue can be.
The Cauvery rises in Karnataka and flows through Tamil Nadu, ultimately, emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The dispute about water sharing of the river originated in the 1890s between Madras (now Tamil Nadu) and Mysore (now Karnataka), wherein the two sides agreed on a divide.
The contention arose when, in 1910, both states started devising plans for construction of dams. The Government of India granted permission to Mysore, only for storage of 11 TMC*, but the foundation was laid to suit the earlier desired full storage. Madras was roiled. As the dispute continued, the Government of India referred the matter to arbitration under the Agreement of 1892. The arbitrator gave his award in 1914, which upheld the earlier decision of the Government of India and allowed Mysore to go ahead with the construction of the dam up to 11 TMC.
Madras appealed against the award and negotiations continued. Eventually an agreement was arrived at in 1924 which was set to lapse after 50 years. As the 50-year run of the 1924 agreement approached its end, both states and the central government started serious negotiations in the late 1960s which continued for almost 10 years. Meanwhile, a Cauvery Fact Finding Committee (CFFC) was constituted to inspect the ground realities and report. The CFFC submitted its final report in 1973. Inter-state discussions were held based on this report. Finally in 1974, a draft agreement was prepared but it was not ratified.
In 1976, a final draft was prepared based on findings of the CFFC. This draft was accepted by all states. But when Karnataka began building the Harangi Dam, Tamil Nadu once again resisted the move and went to court demanding the constitution of a tribunal under the Interstate River Water Disputes Act (ISWD) of 1956 as well as the immediate stoppage of construction work at the dam site. But later it withdrew its petition and the two states started negotiating again, which went on till April 1990 without yielding any results.
Meanwhile, upon a petition from a farmer's association in Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court directed the Government of India to constitute a tribunal and refer all disputes to it. Soon after the tribunal was set up, Tamil Nadu demanded a mandatory order on Karnataka for the immediate release of water. The tribunal gave an interim award in 1991, based on the average for the last 10 years, which worked out to 205 TMC that Karnataka had to ensure that it reached Tamil Nadu in a water year. The tribunal further directed Karnataka not to increase its irrigated land area from the existing 1,120,000 acres (4,500 km2)
Karnataka deemed this extremely adverse to its interests and issued an ordinance seeking to annul the tribunal's award. But, the Supreme Court struck down the Ordinance and upheld the tribunal's award. Meanwhile, widespread demonstrations and violence broke out in parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. But though this violence subsided after about a month, the mutual standoff went on. In 1997, the Union Government set up the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) and Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CMC). One was to look after the political and administrative aspects; the other the technical aspects.
In 2002, the monsoon failed in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu demanded that Karnataka honour the interim award and release to Tamil Nadu its proportionate share. Karnataka on the other hand stated that the water levels were hardly enough to meet its own demands and ruled out releasing any water. The issue was referred to the Supreme Court, which ordered Karnataka to release 1.25 TMC of water every day unless the CRA revised it. Karnataka complied with the order, but sought another meeting of the CRA, which revised the Supreme Court's order from 1.25 TMC to 0.8 TMC per day.
But the Karnataka government defied the CRA's order and refused to release any water, due to the large scale protests in the state. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu went back to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to comply with the Cauvery River Authority's decision and resume the release of water. By this time the dispute had already spilled onto the streets in Karnataka, which refused to obey the orders of the Supreme Court. Tamil Nadu filed another contempt petition on Karnataka and the issue degenerated into a 'free for all' with all and sundry from both states joining the protests. People from various other cross sections of society, including film actors, from both states poured out on the streets. Tamil TV channels and screening of Tamil films were blocked in Karnataka. Also all buses and vehicles from Tamil Nadu were barred from entering Karnataka.
The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal announced its final verdict in 2007, giving 419 TMC of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu and 270 TMC to Karnataka. Unhappy with the decision, both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka filed a revision petition before the tribunal seeking a review. In 2012 the prime minister in his capacity as chairman of the CRA directed Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs**of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu daily. But Karnataka felt that this was impractical due to the failed monsoon and consequent drought and filed a petition before the CRA, seeking review of the prime minister's ruling.
Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a direction to Karnataka to release Tamil Nadu its due share of water. The Supreme Court censured Karnataka, whereupon it started releasing water, but simultaneously filed a review petition before the Supreme Court seeking a stay on its order directing Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of Cauvery water every day to Tamil Nadu.
On 20 February 2013, the Indian Government notified the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) on sharing the waters of the Cauvery system among the basin States of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Union territory of Puducherry. The Tribunal, in a unanimous decision in 2007, had determined the total Cauvery basin water availability in a normal year as 740 TMC, including 14 TMC for minimum environmental flows and unavoidable wastage to the sea. The final award made an annual allocation of 419 TMC to Tamil Nadu in the entire Cauvery basin, 270 TMC to Karnataka, 30 TMC to Kerala and 7 TMC to Puducherry.
Yet, bickering continues. In August 2016, Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court, seeking direction to Karnataka to release 50.052 TMC Cauvery water as mandated in the final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal 2007. Karnataka cited a distress situation and declined to release water.
In early September 2016, the Supre-me Court asked Karnataka to consider Tamil Nadu's plea on humanitarian grounds and release water and advised both states to maintain harmony. Karnataka informed the Supreme Court that it can release 10,000 cusecs per day, while Tamil Nadu demanded 20,000 cusecs per day. The Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs per day to Tamil Nadu.
Karnataka observed a bandh to protest against the release of water to Tamil Nadu and approached the Supreme Court citing public unrest, to seek modification of the earlier order. The Supreme Court obliged by directing Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs of water. Even, this decision by the Supreme Court ignited unrest among the people of Karnataka and violence broke out in several districts of the state.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court issued several orders to the Karnataka government specifying the quantity of water to be released, but the orders were not carried out.
On September 30, 2016, the Supreme Court gave Karnataka a "last chance" and ordered 6,000 cusecs of water to be released during the first 6 days of October. On October 1, 2016, Karnataka filed for review petition over Supreme Court's latest order. The case is pending and the future remains uncertain.
*TMC stands for (thousand million cubic feet).
**Cusec is a measure of flow rate and short form of 'cubic feet per second'.
Both units are used in reference to volumetric flow rate of water in a reservoir or river.