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The Cauvery Cauldron


The Congress is fighting hard to retain its hold on the only major state in India it has power in, and cannot afford to antagonize the farming community ahead of the Assembly elections due in two years, says R K Sudama
R K SUDAMA | Issue Dated: January 5, 2017, New Delhi
Tags : Rajendra Singh | Tamilians in Karnataka | Pro-Kannada Groups |

As predicted by the waterman of India, Rajendra Singh, water wars are being fought in India; and in South India, two major states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been locked in an intense battle over sharing Cauvery river waters for decades now. A highly emotional issue for both the states, as water is needed for both drinking purposes and irrigation, severe deficit in rainfall and growing needs of a growing population has meant both the states have witnessed an atmosphere that is fraught with tension.

Just two months ago, the two states were in open conflict – Tamilians in Karnataka and its IT city of Bengaluru were attacked, their properties torched and scores of buses owned by Tamilians burnt. In Karnataka, any vehicle with a Tamil Nadu registration plate was targeted by militant pro-Kannada groups that declared that Karnataka would not give even a drop of water to Tamil Nadu.

September saw Bengluru burning, ich hurt its brand image as an IT city and the Silicon valley of India. Software majors like Infosys, Wipro were horrified that their Bengaluru could treat Tamilians like it did.

The Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border at Hosur resembled a war zone with a complete halt of traffic between the two states. Both state governments withdrew bus services to the other state. A similar situation was faced at other border points as well.

If the protesters, both in Karnataka and to a lesser extent in Tamil Nadu, targeted people from the other state, it is unfortunate, but exactly along the lines predicted a decade and half ago by the Magasaysay award winner Rajendra Singh.

Interestingly, both the national political parties, with interests in both states, were caught in a bind as they had to pander to the local interests.

Which explains why the Karnataka government, led by the Congress, took a very hard line against giving Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu, despite Supreme Court orders saying that the latter had no water even for drinking water purposes. “Our own farmers are suffering and we do not have enough water to meet drinking water requirements, and how can Tamil Nadu even think of asking for water for irrigation?” questioned Karntaka chief minister S Sidharamaiah. The BJP, not to be outdone, chose to side with protecting Karnataka's interests. BJP senior leader and possible chief ministerial candidate in the next assembly elections due within two years, talked tough against Tamil Nadu.

So, whatever the Congress does in Karnataka, it has to always keep in mind that it is the only major state they are holding. With the bifurcation of Andhra Pradhesh and the creation of Telangana, the Congress has lost footing in both parts.

As a result, the Karnataka government did everything it could to deny Tamil Nadu, its share of Cauvery waters, saying that it was facing drought conditions because of a deficient monsoon in the state. Even after the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release Cauvery waters, Karnataka defied until the apex court came down heavily on the state.

And not without justification, as suicides in Karnataka show.

The sugar belt of the Mandya district in Karnataka has become the suicide capital of the state, with several farmers taking their own lives, unable to repay the loans they had taken in the face of successive crop failures. The farmers' associations allege that they are not suicides but are plain murders of farmers by the central and state governments. In Mandya alone, there were 151 cases of suicide in just one and a half years. “They (central and state governments) have killed the farmers,” is the unanimous verdict of farmers’ leaders in Mandya, who have been agitating for the past five months seeking water for their parched fields. The government, on the other hand, has asked the farmers to stop farming in this kharif season, as there is no water due to monsoon failure.

“Now, as water is going to Tamil Nadu, more farmers may die here,” is the fear expressed by Yearaganhalli Ramasheshayya, state secretary of Karnataka Rajya Rytu Sangha. The farmers movement has been entirely peaceful but some pro-Kannada groups joined and engaged in arson and looting, the farmers said.

A former MP and the most respected and senior farmers’ leader, 92 year old G Madegowda, president of Rytu Hitarakshana Samiti, said that the Centre and Karnataka governments have failed to resolve the issue despite an agitation here for the past five months.

Across the border in Tamil Nadu, in the southern parts of Tamil Nadu that depend on Cauvery waters for their entire farming, the farmers lament that they have lost two successive crops. Acute water shortage for irrigation in all the southern districts of Tamil Nadu has hit the farming community very hard. Now there are suicides by farmers in Tamil Nadu also.

“In the current year, no water has been coming from the Mettur dam as the Karnataka government is blocking all water to Tamil Nadu. As a result, cultivation by direct seed method is used for which regular rain water is needed. As the monsoon for the year has not set in so far, the paddy crops raised by direct seeding method is withering due to lack of seasonal rain. As the ground water is decreasing day by day, bore sets stopped functioning and no water is available even for spraying,” a farmers' leader said.

Farmers also mention that if the current scenario continues, the farmers and agricultural workers in the region would lose their livelihood. “The economic condition of the farmers in this area will move from bad to worse and our very existence is at stake. We request you to do the utmost to save the farmers and agricultural workers of the region,” Elankeeran said.

This is the tale that farmer of every region in Tamil Nadu would tell. Perpetual battle for Cauvery waters resulted in the setting up of Cauvery Water disputes Tribunal in 1990, which gave its final award on February 5, 2007. In its final award, the tribunal awarded 419 TMC ft out of 740 TMC ft to Tamil Nadu, 270 TMC ft to Karnataka, 30 TMC ft to Kerala and 7 TMC ft to Pondicherry. The remaining 14 TMC ft was reserved for environmental protection and outflow to sea.

Nearly 29 lakh acres of paddy crop in TN and an estimated 14 lakh acres of paddy and semi-dry crops in Karnataka are currently dependent on Cauvery water. Karnataka farmers have traditionally resented the fact that their TN counterparts grow 3 paddy crops a year while they have to be satisfied with 1 and, if there is water left in the dams after release to TN, a second, less water-intensive crop. “For the paddy farmer in Mandya (Karnataka) the agricultural season begins in June-July, ends by November. In Tamil Nadu where 2 or 3 crops are done,” said Madegowda, farmer leader in Karnataka.

Clearly, unless the two states resolve this issue on a longer term basis, it is en route to become one of the biggest issues India may be facing internally.

The Cauvery Timeline

1990: Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal is set up.

Feb. 5, 2007:Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal gives final award. Tribunal holds as valid the two agreements of 1892 and 1924 executed between the Governments of Madras and Mysore on the apportionment of water to Tamil Nadu.

Feb. 6, 2007: The final award makes an annual allocation of 419 tmcft to Tamil Nadu in the entire Cauvery basin, 270 tmcft to Karnataka, 30 tmcft to Kerala and 7 tmcft to Puducherry out of the total 740 TMC available in the Cauvery basin in a normal year. All states file clarificatory petitions in SC seeking greater clarity on tribunal award.

Sept. 19, 2012:At the seventh meeting of the CRA, Manmohan Singh directs Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu at Biligundlu. Both the CMs -- Jayalalithaa and Jagadish Shettar term it “unacceptable”.

Sept. 28, 2012:Supreme Court slams Karnataka government for not complying with PM’s direction at the CRA.

Feb. 29, 2013:Centre notifies the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT). 

March 10, 2013:Tamil Nadu Chief Minister says that she will strive for formation of Cauvery Water Board.

March 19, 2013:Tamil Nadu moves Supreme Court to give directions to Water Ministry for constitution of Cauvery Management Board.

May 28, 2013:Tamil Nadu moves Supreme Court, seeks Rs. 2,480-cr damages from Karnataka for not following orders of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal

June 1, 2013:Union Water Resources Secretary chairs the first meeting of the Supervisory Committee which saw Tamil Nadu demanding its share of water for June as stipulated in the award.

June 2, 2013:“Water cannot be released as and when TN demands,” says Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

June 6, 2013:Karnataka says it cannot release 134 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu between June and September.

June 12, 1013:Cauvery Supervisory Committee terms the Tamil Nadu’s plea for directions to Karnataka for release of Cauvery waters as per the award of the CWDT as not “feasible”.

June 14, 2013:Tamil Nadu decides to file contempt plea against Karnataka for its stand on the Cauvery Supervisory Committee.

June 15, 2013:Chief Minister Jayalaithaa says the Tamil Nadu government will approach the Supreme Court for the formation of the Cauvery Management Board and Cauvery Water Regulatory Authority.

June 26, 2013: Contending that the setting up of a supervisory committee had become a futile exercise, Tamil Nadu moves SC for constitution of Cauvery Management Board.

June 28, 2013:Tamil Nadu files contempt petition in the Supreme Court against Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah for his a defiant stand before the Supervisory Committee

July 15, 2013:Karnataka and Tamil Nadu clash during the third meeting of the Cauvery Supervisory Committee over latter’s share of the river waters. While Tamil Nadu sought 34 tmcft in July and 50 tmcft for August to save the Samba crop, Karnataka says that it had already released 34 tmcft between June and July 13.

August 2016:Tamil Nadu asks Supreme Court to direct Karnataka to release water to Tamil Nadu after Siddaramiah says there is no water in the reservoirs.

Sept 8, 2016:SC directs Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs a day till Sept 15. Protests break out in Karnataka

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017