The Cauvery water dispute has a long and chequered history.
Tamil Nadu lacks a perennial river and until 1974, the state had a lion’s share of Cauvery waters. This had been reduced by Karnataka expanding its consumption of water by constructing a number of dams and expanding its canal system. When the 50 year long earlier agreement ended in 1974, the issue heated up. Chauvinistic attitudes of political parties in both the states and an indifferent Centre contributed to the issue smouldering for over four decades. In the absence of agreement on the part of political leadership, the only course left was to leave take recourse to judicial remedy.
TN’s former Chief Minister M G Ramachandran maintained cordial relationship with the leaders of the Centre and the neighbouring states. Remember the huge success of his efforts to get Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra agree to providing 15 tmcft of water from the Krishna river to quench the thirst of Chennai metro? It was a rare and unique occasion to witness the Prime Minister of the country Indira Gandhi presiding over the meeting addressed by chief ministers of five states and the Union Territory of Puducherry!
DMK was represented in the three coalition governments of the 1990s. DMK supremo Karunanidhi did enjoy clout with the NDA I government. Under the UPA I, Tamil Nadu had 13 ministers in the Central cabinet handling vital portfolios including finance. Sadly, the DMK utilised this clout largely to win plum positions for the supremo’s daughter, son, nephew and other partymen. He and P Chidambaram could have exerted to sort out the Cauvery issue. They did not.
The AIADMK has not maintained cordial relationship with the NDA and UPA I & II, due to its arch rival DMK being part of these governments. The relationship was adversarial.
There was the other political factor of Karnataka electing Congress or BJP governments. Both the parties are non-entities in Tamil Nadu. BJP has no base in the state. In the present Modi cabinet, there is just a Minister of State from Tamil Nadu. Congress has been riding piggy back on the DMK or the AIADMK and had also been riven with intense rivalry among its different leaders. This situation made for the Centre being more zealous to woo its vote bank in Karnataka.
The original award given in 1991 was not acceptable to both the states. In the absence of any political clout with the Centre, time and again,
Jayalalithaa resorted to judicial remedy.
After 16 long years the final award was given by the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT) in 2007. This provided 419 tmcft for Tamil Nadu, 270 tmcft for Karnataka, 30 tmcft for Kerala and 7 tmcft for Puducherry.
The Centre, for reasons mentioned above, did not bother to notify the award in the gazette till 2013 and constitute the Cauvery Management Board. This is manifestly a serious dereliction of responsibility on the part of the Centre and its failure to resolve the decades-long issue.
We cite the earlier smooth resolution of such inter-state water disputes through the constitution of statutory authorities. The Bhakra-Beas Management Board (BBMB) was formed to ensure fair allocation of water from the Beas, Sutlej and Ravi rivers to the states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and Chandigarh, UT. BBMB supplies 28 million acre ft of water for irrigation and drinking, including 12.50 million acre ft for agriculture lands in the three states. It has 28 power generation units with installed capacity of 2865 MW. These plants generate 10,000 million units to 14,000 million units of cheap power and supply at just 20 paise per unit.
Likewise, after the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) was constituted by the Government of India, there has been agreement over sharing of water by the riparian states.
In this background the direction of the Supreme Court to the government to set up the Cauvery Management Board within four weeks should leave the management to experts who would allocate water as per the judgment of Supreme Court. Hopefully this would ensure a lasting solution to this dispute.
Farmers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka continue to raise water-guzzling crops like rice and sugarcane and insist on multiple cropping. In the context of much higher demand for pulses, oilseeds, corn and vegetables, which demand much less water, a systematic campaign to move away from paddy and sugarcane should be attempted. Wisdom demands making the best use of available water.