July 04, 2020
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The Great Water Divide

The South is caught up in a complex web of views on sharing of river waters. The Cauvery issue has reached yet another flashpoint, but the states are embroiled in other disputes too.

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The Great Water Divide

THE river water disputes in the four southern states are complex, compelling and have been the breeding ground for competitive chauvinism. No side may be guilty of outright distortion of facts but neither is anyone speaking the complete truth. Like the Japanese classic film Roshomon, in which murder is retold in a multitude of variations, each outsmarting the other, the story of how the waters should be shared is the subject of several flowing interpretations. While the unresolved Cauvery issue has reached its seasonal flashpoint, the Krishna river water crisis is also threatening to take a similar peril-ridden course. Though the differences could have been smoothened out, political compulsions have come in the way and a solution looks virtually impossible. The problem has acquired deep political overtones with former Karnataka chief minister Deve Gowda now donning the mantle of Prime Minister and his dependence on Tamil Nadu's DMK and the Moopanar Congress for survival.

The conflict stems from the varying irrigation practices of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh versus those of Kerala and Karnataka. As the Supreme Court is likely to hear the Tamil Nadu Government's interlocutory application in the Cauvery water matter on July 22, one has to distinguish the Cauvery dispute from the other major river disputes like Narmada, Krishna and Godavari. Says S. Guhan, adviser to M. Karunanidhi in his previous tenure as Tamil Nadu chief minister, who has been monitoring the Cauvery dispute over the years: "While the other disputes are mainly about the inter-state utilisation of hitherto untapped surplus waters, the dispute in the case of Cauvery relates to the reshar-ing of waters that are already being fully utilised in their totality."

Since 1974, when the 50-year agreement signed between the erstwhile Mysore state and the Madras Presidency over the sharing of Cauvery waters came up for renewal, Karnataka has been demanding the need for "correcting the historical wrong". The agreement, which Karnataka perceives as forced on the princely state by a powerful colonial presidency, restrained Karnataka from constructing any new projects that would store water above the level stipulated in the agreement.

While the amount of land for irrigation in Karnataka was then roughly estimated at 2.5 lakh acres, it gradually increased in the post-independence period to 12 lakh acres. Hence, Karnataka's need grew over the years. But, Tamil Nadu, too, could ill-afford to lose water. Although its irrigation potential was only half that of Karnataka, it depended much more on the Cauvery for meeting its overall irrigation needs.

The livelihood of lakhs of farmers was at stake. This is perhaps the reason why the Cauvery issue stirs very strong emotions in both states. The net area irrigated by the Cauvery in Kerala is considered by experts to be negligible. But the tiny state, too, is getting into the act. Days before the apex court is to hear Tamil Nadu's interlocutory application, Kerala has described the 465 TMC ft (thousand million cubic feet) of water demanded by Tamil Nadu and the 425 TMC ft of water claimed by Karnataka as malafide.

Kerala now strongly opposes Karnataka's stand that Cauvery waters should not be diverted to outside states. Kerala is willing to demand only 99.5 TMC ft of Cauvery water as its share though itontributes 147 TMC ft of the river's 740 TMC ft of overall resources through tributaries of the Cauvery. Says former chief minister A. K. Antony: "As much as 20 per cent of the Cauvery water comesfrom Kerala's catchment areas, but only two per cent is made use of by Kerala. For decades, we have ignored our rightful share and it cannot be allowed to go on any longer". Kerala's position is that the distribution of resources should be on the basis of the contribution of the states to the river's total resources and not based on the existing pattern of sharing.

The legal cut-and-thrust is becoming so complicated that now even the total resources of the Cauvery is a bone of contention. In its testimony before the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, which is yet to come up for examination, Karnataka stated that the total yield during normal monsoon years was not 740 TMC ft, as claimed by Tamil Nadu, but 830 TMC ft. Tamil Nadu's figures, it pointed out, were based on the 1972-73 fact-finding committee's report, which pegs current yield at 509 TMC ft. But data for 25 years available from the Biligundlu station in Karnataka, considered by the Central Water Resources Commission as an authentic gauging station, put that figure at 565 TMC ft.

This fortnight, Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel allowed the release of 5 TMC ft of water to Tamil Nadu in response to a demand for 20 TMC ft by Karunanidhi to irrigate the standing kuruvai crops in the delta region. While everyone agrees that there should be a give-and-take policy, there is no agreement over how much water is to be given and what quantum taken. Tamil Nadu genuinely feels that negotiations are impossible; it's placing all its bets on judicial intervention resolving the vexed problem once for all. "The tribunal was the last resort, it is the duty of the Union Government and the apex court to implement the tribunal's interim award," observes S. Ranganathan of the Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmer's Association, whose writ at the Supreme Court resulted in the constitution of the tribunal over five years ago.

Interestingly, each state has a solution that it feels the other states should accept. For instance, Karnataka suggests that Tamil Nadu should move towards drip irrigation to decrease its water needs, Tamil Nadu feels that the canal system in Karnataka should be modernised to reduce its water intake. With the dispute also determining the mood of the large chunk of voters in the basin areas, political decisions are obviously influenced. It is almost certain that there is not going to be any negotiated settlement. Only a verdict handed down by a tribunal is going to solve the contentious issue.

One school of thought is that the judicial process should be expedited so as to get the tribunal to deliver its final judge-ment soon. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu feels, the apex court must grant interim relief to save the standing kuruvai crops. There is also a feeling that all cases pertaining to the dispute should be lumped together and a comprehensive judgement from the judicial body—which may hurt everyone to a degree but solve the crisis—should be obtained at the earliest.

The southern states are not bogged down by the Cauvery water dispute alone. Almost all the interstate rivers are mired in controversies. Claims and counter-claims abound and there seems to be little room to amicably settle these issues. The Parambikulam-Aliyar pact between Tamil Nadu and Kerala ended in 1988 but Kerala refused to renew it unless Tamil Nadu agreed to favourable terms. Kerala resents the Union Government's position that Kerala, with its 44 rivers and heavy monsoons, is a water surplus state. Observes former state irrigation minister T.M. Jacob: "National norms say that only water bodies with drainage areas of 20,000 sq km can be considered rivers and there is no river in Kerala that fits this category. " According to a study conducted by Desiya Vedi, an organ-isation looking into the problems of water sharing, Kerala actually donated 209 TMC ft of water from 11 rivers to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Says Cherian Philip, a lieutenant of A.K. Antony and convenor of Desiya Vedi: "Of the 36 TMC ft of water in Bharatapuzha and Chalakudipuzha, which make up the Periyar group of dams, 26 TMC ft is going to Tamil Nadu".

BUT no one in Tamil Nadu is buying this line. Says K.S. Radhakrishnan, spokesman of MDMK, the party formedby rebel DMK leader V. Gopalsamy: "What we are saying is that the west-flowing rivers in Kerala are emptying themselves in huge quantities into the Arabian Sea. Nearly 350 TMC water is flowing into the sea and we demand that by diverting them towards the east, that is Tamil Nadu, that water could be put to productive use." Of Tamil Nadu's hydel power projects, the 140 MW Periyar power station uses Kerala's Mullaperiyar river water while the Sholayar (95 MW), Aliyar (60 MW) and Sararpathi (30 MW) stations use Parambikulam water. But for the last seven years, these projects have been getting water only when there is a surplus in Kerala. "Why should they deny us what they had promised us? It just flows into the sea," complains Radhakrishnan.

While Tamil Nadu managed to get its equation with Andhra Pradesh right over the proposed Rs 600-crore Telugu Ganga scheme, Karnataka and Andhra are slugging it out over the Krishna waters. The latter has raised objections over Karnataka's 1993 decision to increase the height of the 1,680 ft Almatti dam in its northern Bijapur district by another 40 feet. Andhra Pradesh contends that this increase would allow Karnataka to utilise about 400 TMC ft of water against the 173 TMC ft allotted to it by the Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal headed by Justice Bachawat.

Karnataka refutes this argument. Says K.N. Nage Gowda, major irrigation minister: "We will not encroach into Andhra's share of the Krishna. The additional storage will be used for generation of hydel power and will subsequently flow to Andhra." But Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is not convinced. Says he: "Once the capacity is created, it is but natural that water would be released only after Karnataka's needs are fully met. As a lower riparian state, we are in a disadvantageous position." Andhra Pradesh also has problems with its other neighbours. There is a dispute over the utilisation of Vamsadhara river water with Orissa; the Krishna river surplus is a bone of contention with Karnataka and Maharashtra; and there is a the row over the multicrore Polavaram project on the Godavari with Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.

Though the United Front has a very fair number of ministers from the south, including the prime minister, there is no sign that the southern presence in the Union Cabinet will by itself resolve these issues. The animosity at the ground level is frightening. Says Philip: "If Kerala chooses, it can act in such a manner that water resources are cut off, affecting Coimb-atore and Madurai's drinking water supply and shutting down six power stations in Tamil Nadu."

The disputes have been exploited by politicians. As far as Cauvery goes, any additional water given by Karnataka is seen as a loss of face in Bangalore while any chief minister who fails to get the waters of the river released to Tamil Nadu is condemned by political rivals in Madras. Karunanidhi is confident that he will get a just deal for his state since his party and its ally, the Tamil Maanila Congress, is well represented at the Centre. There is considerable pressure on the DMK Chief Minister and AIADMK leader J. Jayalalitha has already threatened to go on a fast if the required volume of Cauvery water is not released to the state. And, rues G. Made Gowda, former MP from Mandya (Karnataka) and head of the Cauvery Hitharakshana Samithi: "Everybody wants to protect their kursi. Narasimha Rao wanted Jayalalitha's support. And now Deve Gowda wants Karunanidhi's support in Delhi."

It would only be in July-August next year that the tribunal concludes its deliberations and awards the water share. Till such time, there will be pressure on the Tamil Nadu Government to get additional water. And, of course, Karnataka politicians expect Prime Minister Gowda, who hails from the state, to resolve the issue in a manner favourable to them. Is there a long lasting solution in sight? Most observers are of the view that the UF Government is much better placed than its predecessors to resolve the crisis since it has members from the states directly affected by the dispute.

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