Encourage Cauvery Family to find solution to India’s century-old water row

The dispute over the sharing of Cauvery River water has been simmering between the two southern Indian states Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for over a century. It took an ugly turn last week when violence erupted in Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru touted as India’s ‘Silicon City’. Those behind the violence were not genuine stakeholders but goons unleashed by parties and chauvinistic fringe organizations. Left to politicians, the Cauvery water problem will continue to fester. To find a lasting solution to it, the disputing parties should encourage initiatives like Cauvery Family which has sought a formula for sharing distress in water deficient years.

BENGALURU–India’s software hub and the capital of the southern state of Karnataka was convulsed in violence last week, forcing authorities to impose curfew to bring the situation under control.

Men ride a motorcycle past a lorry which was set on fire by protesters in Bengaluru

Men ride a motorcycle past a truck in Bengaluru, which was set on fire by protesters after India’s Supreme Court ordered Karnataka state to release 12,000 cubic feet of water per second every day from the Cauvery river to neighboring Tamil Nadu, September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Abhishek N. Chinnappa

In addition to putting people to immense hardship –  the rioting paralyzed daily life here and halted travel to neighboring Tamil Nadu – property worth billions of rupees was destroyed in stone-throwing and arson.

This and the shutdown of all economic activity for at least 2-3 days is said to have cost the economy around Rs200,000 million ($2,989 million), according to the Associated Chamber of Commerce, an industry watchdog. Importantly, it is likely to have damaged Bengaluru’s brand image as India’s ‘Silicon City.’

The violence erupted over the sharing of the water of the roughly 765-kilometer-long River Cauvery, which originates in Karnataka’s Coorg district and flows through southern Karnataka and Tamil Nadu before emptying itself into the Bay of Bengal.

On September 5, India’s Supreme Court ordered the Karnataka government to release 15,000 cubic feet of water per second (cusecs) from the Cauvery to Tamil Nadu, the lower riparian state, every day for ten days. The ruling prompted protests in Karnataka.

The protests turned violent on September 12 when the apex court rejected Karnataka’s appeal to reduce the water it would have to release to Tamil Nadu to 1,000 cusecs a day for six days. Although the court modified its order and called on the state to release only 12,000 cusecs till September 20, mobs poured into the street within minutes of the court ruling.

By the evening of September 12, Bengaluru was a veritable war zone with rampaging mobs torching buses and vehicles with Tamil Nadu registration plates, damaging public property and forcing shops, schools and factories to shut down.

The situation has improved since and an uneasy calm prevails for now.

This is not the first time Cauvery-related violence has erupted in Karnataka. In 1990, for instance, violence — far more serious than the recent one — targeting Tamils and their property tore Bengaluru apart.

Indeed, years of water distress in the region have inevitably seen protests in the Cauvery Basin in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and violence in Bengaluru.

The Cauvery dispute can be traced to the late 19th century. Agreements were reached between the princely state of Mysore and the Madras Presidency but these deals between 1892 and 1924 failed to calm the waters; Madras Presidency, being then part of the British Empire, had the upper hand in the dispute, resulting in an agreement that was unfair to Mysore, Karnataka claims.

The dispute has persisted post-independence and become more complicated with more issues and actors joining the fray. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the successor states of the princely state of Mysore and the Madras Presidency respectively, are the main players but Kerala and Puducherry have also staked claim to the Cauvery’s waters.

Additionally, Karnataka’s construction of reservoirs on the Cauvery and its tributaries without Tamil Nadu’s consent has resulted in less water flowing into the lower riparian state. It prompted Tamil Nadu to call for the setting up of a tribunal to settle the conflict.

In 1990, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was established. In a unanimous decision in 2007, it determined that of the 740 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of water available every year in the entire Cauvery river basin, Tamil Nadu would get 419 tmcft, Karnataka 270 tmcft, Kerala 30 tmcft and Puducherry 7 tmcft. The final award of 2013 clarified that of Tamil Nadu’s share, 192 tmcf should flow from Karnataka. It also provided for a monthly schedule for the water releases.

None of the parties to the dispute were satisfied with the verdict, their share falling far short of their demands. Additionally for Karnataka, the mandatory schedule is hard to follow especially when water is deficient.

In years of normal monsoons and when reservoirs are full, it has been quiet along the Cauvery. It is when the rains are less than bountiful especially in the catchment areas that Karnataka defaults, passions ignite in the Cauvery Basin and violence erupts. This was the case in 1990, 1995-96, 2002, 2012 and 2016.

Rainfall this year was more than normal in parts of southern Karnataka. But the main catchment area received 33% below normal rain. With water in its reservoirs running low, the Karnataka government was unable to release water to Tamil Nadu, throwing into jeopardy the paddy crop in the latter. The Tamil Nadu government’s complaint to the Supreme Court on the matter set off the chain of events that culminated in the ugly violence in Bengaluru last week.

The violence underscores the fact that top-down solutions are not working, even when it is the country’s apex court that is issuing orders.

Analysts are pointing to the need for bottom-up approaches that involve stakeholders on the ground. One such initiative is the ‘Cauvery Family’ that was set up in 2003 and includes farmers from the Cauvery Basin, academics and hydrologists.

Over a dozen meetings, its participants have sought a formula for sharing distress in water deficient years. Its efforts are reported to have made progress. But because of lack of support from the two governments, its work could not achieve a breakthrough.

The Cauvery conflict has simmered for over a century, frequently fraying tempers and erupting in violence in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in water deficient years. Many of those who engaged in violence last week were not genuine stakeholders but goons, unleashed by parties and chauvinistic fringe organizations. Left to politicians, the Cauvery problem will continue to fester.

The Cauvery Family’s multi-stakeholder dialogue, in contrast, has resulted in participants finding common ground and empathizing with each other’s problems. It could find a sustainable solution to a century-old dispute.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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