Policy Analysis on "The Cauvery Water Dispute"

Authored By:

Aishwarya Malewar(Research Intern)

The age-old dispute in the southern part of India which had had a major effect on the relations between the four states especially between the state of Karnataka and that of Tamil Nadu. The sustained issue within the Cauvery water dam construction was the fact that abundant water for either of the states would invite conflict with the thriving neighbour's state. The problem started in 1974 when a carefully worded British water agreement between the two states ended, leading to a game of tussle of power since then. This dispute has since played a major role in the two states political and social life.

The issue of water sharing in India has been a difficult subject since colonial times. Much of the conflicts have been shaped by the political, institutional, and the historical structure and stature of the political economy of the neighbouring states. Especially in southern India, the interstate water negotiations have been shaped by the colonial power's centralised structure as well as the historical agreement and circumstances. Even though historical processes have played a major role the intensification of the conflict has been due to recent trends. The processes modernisation like city-centric growth models and its effects like mass rural to urban migrationetchas resulted in the creation of an immense amount of pressure on the country's available water resources.

Inter-state water disputes have been a very pressing issue for years. Some other major disputes are the Ravi and Beas dispute between the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan and the Narmada dispute between the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. There are two main provisions available to this problem:

1. The primary resolution is the Inter-State River Water Dispute Act, 1956 which governs all water disputes in the country.

2. Under Article 262, the Parliament has the authority to provide the Supreme Court or any other court with the required jurisdiction in the respect of such complaints.

According to the provisions of the Water Dispute Act, if a state government requests any water dispute and the central government believes that the water dispute cannot be settled by negotiations, then a Water Disputes Tribunal is constituted for the adjudication of the water dispute. The Act was later amended in 2002 to include a recommendation of the Sarkaria Commission, which was constituted in 1983 to examine the balance of power and relations in general between the centre and state government. The amendments mandated a 1-year time frame to set-up the water dispute tribunal and also a 3-year time frame to give a decision.

The Cauvery river originated in Karnataka and flows through Tamil Nadu and Kerala before arriving at its final destination-Bay of Bengal. Unlike most rivers in the north, Cauvery is not a glaciers-fed river, but instead a monsoon-fed one. Due to this, a weak monsoon result in the Karnataka government releasing less water to Tamil Nadu which puts the heavily-agrarian state in great distress.

Since 1970's Tamil Nadu had been demanding the setting up of Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal. Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal was formed in 1990 by the Central Court Government as presided over by the Supreme Court. This same CWDT issued an interim order back in 1991 and declare an annual share of to 205 TMC (Thousand Million Cubic Feet) to Tamil Nadu. That led to widespread Karnataka protests. In 1995-96, Karnataka refused to release the share of Tamil Nadu due to bad monsoons. The Prime Minister ordered Karnataka to allow a portion of the amount. A Cauvery River Authority was established in 1997, along with a Cauvery Monitoring Committee. The Center was formed to administer and implement award in August 1998 by the Cauvery River Authority (CRA). Weak monsoons in 2002 led to disagreements between the two sides over the 1991 decision. Farmers protested, and Karnataka halted water release. The Supreme Court, however, mediated but Karnataka declined to follow the order. Which led to massive demonstrations in both states. CWDT declared its final verdict in 2007. It resulted in an increase in Tamil Nadu 's share to 419 TMC. Agreements of 1892 and 1924 were confirmed as binding. Karnataka, Kerala, dissatisfied with the final order filed pleas for review before the Supreme Court followed by Tamil Nadu. Water scarcity struck both states in 2012, and Karnataka was ordered to release at least 9,000 cusecs of water every day for a month to Tamil Nadu. Once again protests erupted. Tamil Nadu lodged charges against a dip in water supply in 2016. For ten days the Supreme Court ordered 15,000 cusecs of water to be released, and later revised to 12,000 cusecs. On March 19, 2013, Tamil Nadu moved SC to form the Cauvery Management Board under the direction to Centre. The Supreme Court instructed the Center to set up a panel to oversee the release of water in May 2013. Tamil Nadu filed a petition for contempt against Karnataka on 28 June. On 18 November 2015, Karnataka objected to Tamil Nadu's plea to release water and told the Supreme Court that Tamil Nadu's request to release 45.32 TMC was based on the erroneous premise that 2015-16 was a "normal year" and not a "distress year" On 2 September 2016 Karnataka was asked by the Supreme Court to consider taking steps to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. The Court ordered Karnataka on September 5 to transfer 15,000 cusecs of Cauvery water every day to Tamil Nadu for the next 10 days. On July 14, 2017, when ruling on the final award of the CWDT, the Supreme Court confirmed that it will take a fair view of the needs of both states' citizens. The latest verdict in the matter came on 16 Feb 2018 from a 3-member bench. The ruling given was that 14.75 TMC (Thousand Million Cubic Feet) would be additionally used by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu will get 177.25 TMC instead of 192 TMC. The court took the CWDT's findings in consideration but found a few discrepancies. The Tribunal had allocated Karnataka's share believing that as only one-third of Bengaluru falls in the river's basin and that half of the city's water requirements are met by groundwater levels the state's share was reduced. The Court observed that the Tribunal had failed to take into account the city's growing needs into consideration and thus made the changes in the distribution. This verdict is to be applicable for the next 15 years. The judgement has benefitted Bangalore and Karnataka as a whole. Although the reduction of 14.75 TMC will not have a significant impact on Tamil Nadu, it has pushed the state to take active steps in groundwater reserve conservation and replenishment.


With the growing needs of the urban landscape, such conflicts are bound to become more and more frequent in the future. According to Ramaswamy R. Iyer, a water policy expert and an honorary professor at the Centre for Policy Research, the verdict of the Cauvery Water Dispute and similar rulings only provide an immediate judicial remedy and not a long-termed, structured and sustainable solution to the problem. These conflicts should instead be resolved in a manner which produces an equitable, sustainable, and environmentally safe remedy. The government realising the same has taken steps towards the same. In 2019 a bill seeking to provide a lasting solution to inter-state water disputes was approved bu Lok Sabha. The main feature of the bill was the constitution of a single tribunal with different tribunals and setting up of stricter timelines for giving rulings. Such steps towards making the process more efficient and faster would contribute towards the main aim.




3. http://ddnews.gov.in/national/what-are-sarkaria-commission-recommendations-case-hung-assembly

4. https://www.drishtiias.com/to-the-points/Paper2/inter-state-river-water-sharing-disputes

5. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/lok-sabha-passes-inter-state-river-water-disputes-amendment-bill/articleshow/70468914.cms?from=mdr


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