Who Should Karnataka Blame in the Cauvery Dispute? History Has Some Answers

In normal monsoon years, Karnataka has no problems in releasing water from the Cauvery to Tamil Nadu; the issues arise during the distress years.

Agitators take out a protest march in Bangalore during the Karnataka bandh on Saturday on the Cauvery dispute. Credit: PTI

Agitators take out a protest march in Bangalore during the Karnataka bandh on Friday on the Cauvery dispute. Credit: PTI

Is it the end of a dispute or the beginning of a fresh one? This was the question that had been haunting one’s mind ever since the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal came up with its final award, nearly 17 years after its formation, in 2007. Now nine years after the award, it is quite evident that the dispute has not found any resolution, and in fact keeps raising its ugly head periodically.

As the Cauvery river has ebbed and flowed , sometimes giving bountiful water and sometimes making people thirst just for a few drops, the two states at the centre of the dispute, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, have also reacted accordingly. A good monsoon meant no tensions between the two; lack of adequate rainfall brought out the worst among the people as well as in the politicians of the two states. One had hoped that all this would end with the final award, but that has not happened, sadly.

Though lots has been written about the award and its implications since 2007, some basic misunderstandings seem to prevail even now, leading to further tensions. One of the most basic misunderstandings, perpetuated by a section of the media in Karnataka and not helped in any way by overzealous parochial-minded politicians, is that Tamil Nadu has been given 419 TMC ft. of water, while the interim award passed in 1991, had given it only 205 TMC ft.

If this were true, everyone and their uncle in the Cauvery basin in Karnataka would have been justified in being up in arms. The claim, however, has no basis in facts.

Let me attempt to put the award and statistics in simple terms. What was the basic mandate before the tribunal, if one cuts through all the maze of legalities and politics over the issue? It was to come to some conclusion about how much water is available in the Cauvery basin, comprising of the four States – Karnataka, from where the river originates, Tamil Nadu, where it flows in the biggest area, Kerala which contributes more water to the river than it utilises, because of geography, and Pondicherry from where the river flows into the sea, Bay of Bengal.

After years of calculations by experts and arguments by lawyers before the tribunal, it decided that at 50% dependability (of the monsoon), 740 TMC ft. of water would be available annually.

The next mandate before the tribunal was how best to divide this 740 TMC ft. between the four states annually. Again, after years of argument and counter argument, and expert opinion, it allocated 419 TMC ft. to Tamil Nadu, 270 TMC ft. to Karnataka, 30 TMC ft. to Kerala and 7 TMC ft. to Pondicherry and left 14 TMC ft. for environmental purposes. It also directed Karnataka, which is the upper riparian state (where the river originates), to ensure that 192 TMC ft. is given to Tamil Nadu annually and fixed a monthly quota to be given.

Confusion must be cleared

This is where all the confusion is created and must be cleared. First of all we need to know how and from where this 740 TMC ft. is generated. How do we arrive at that figure? In simple terms, 270 TMC ft. which Karnataka is allocated plus 192 TMC ft. which it has to ensure to Tamil Nadu, comes to 462 TMC ft. This is the quantum of water, which, according to the tribunal, is the yield from the river within Karnataka annually. So out of 462 TMC ft. Karnataka has to give 192 TMC ft to Tamil Nadu.

While Tamil Nadu gets this 192 TMC ft. from Karnataka, how it manages to use 419 TMC ft. is the next puzzle. The simple answer is 419 minus 192 – which is 227 TMC ft. – is what Tamil Nadu generates from its own catchment areas within the state. If Karnataka and Tamil Nadu’s yield comes to 689 TMC ft (462+227), Kerala contributes 51 TMC ft., of which it keeps 30 while 21 TMC ft is reserved for Puducherry (7) and environmental purposes (14).

The sum and substance of it all is that while Karnataka contributes 462 TMC ft. it is allowed to use 270 TMC ft., Tamil Nadu which contributes 227 TMC ft. gets 419 TMC ft. and Kerala which contributes 51 TMC ft. is allowed to use 30 TMC ft.

On the face of it, it certainly seems like a major injustice to Karnataka, no doubt. How did this happen? The answer to this lies in history, which we cannot re-write now. It so happened that rulers like the Cholas, who ruled that part of the country, which is now Tamil Nadu and where the river flows, had the foresight to build reservoirs and check dams in the tenth century and later, to utilise the water for irrigation. On the other hand the rulers of Mysore built their first major reservoir, K.R.Sagar only in 1934.

Tamil Nadu farmers therefore had the early advantage, and when the agreements in 1894 and 1924 were signed, already over 15 to 20 lakh acres or even more was already under irrigation in that state. Karnataka in 1924 was claiming only 6.5 lakhs acres and at present it has managed to irrigate only about 15 lakh acres. This meant that about 80% of the annual yield from Cauvery was being utilised by Tamil Nadu farmers, even upto 1974, when Karnataka terminated the 1924 agreement.

With the mix of historical advantage blended with foresight as well as what is known as prescriptive right, Tamil Nadu naturally enjoys a greater share. It cannot be anyone’s argument that those who have been enjoying the water all these years should now be denied it. But going by the 1924 agreement, Tamil Nadu’s share, which was over 80%, has now come down to 57% and Karnataka, which was using about 16%, now gets 37%.

So is the award an injustice to Karnataka? Yes, it is, but more for historical reasons than a conscious act perpetrated by the tribunal in 2007. Should Karnataka accept it without protest? No, because there are certain aspects to the award which need clarification and modification, which Karnataka through a special leave petition sought from the Supreme Court in 2007 itself. In fact even Tamil Nadu and Kerala have filed similar petitions – as these two states were also not fully happy with the award – which till now, unfortunately, have not been adjudicated.

Where did the tribunal get its numbers from?

Even as politicians and some sections of the media indulge in competitive parochialism based less on facts and more on emotions, one needs to look at this issue as objectively as is possible. Is the final award unfair to Karnataka? This is an obvious question that has been dogging the minds of all fair-minded citizens in the state and outside.

Going by cold statistics, which is what ultimately has by and large played a major role in the tribunal’s final award, we get some answers.

Take for instance one of the major objections of Karnataka to the final award, which even the state’s legal and technical teams have endorsed. That is about the monthly allocation made, especially in the first four months of the water year, June to September, by the tribunal. The allocations are June 10 TMC ft, July 34 TMC ft, August 50 TMC ft and September 40 TMC ft. These allocations are seen to be worrisome, as Karnataka, which is served to a large extent only by the south west monsoons, which start in June, may find itself in a quandary if the rains are not normal or fail in any year.

This problem occurred even before the tribunal award, especially in 2002-02 and 2003-04, when successive failures of the monsoon created a major problem. And again in 2012 and this year, we have faced similar problems, leading to the Supreme Court directing Karnataka to release 10,000 cusecs per day for 10 days, triggering protests in Karnataka.

Given this problem, why did the tribunal decide to allocate 134 TMC ft. for these four months? The answer lies in the figures which Karnataka itself had presented before it. According to the state’s own data, during the 16 years before 2007, Karnataka had released on an average 134.18 TMC ft. during those four months, to Tamil Nadu, measured at Biligundlu. No wonder the tribunal took the average and allocated it monthly.

The stress of distress

So the conclusion from this is that in a normal year there would be no difficulty for Karnataka to release the quantum of water, which the tribunal has allocated. The problem comes only in distress years like in 2002-03 and 2003-04 and again in 2012 and now in 2016. So what should the distress sharing formula be?

A lot has been said about the formula. In fact, the entire dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu is mainly about what is to be done in a distress year. However, what one has to understand is that the mandated method of sharing distress is exactly what Karnataka’s experts, from both its legal and irrigation departments, had been demanding before the tribunal.

The final award points out that during distress, there has to be a pro-rata sharing of water, which on the face of it means, depending on the water availability, reducing the share to all of the states as per the percentage share allocated to them. This is what Tamil Nadu wanted. However, a careful reading of the award indicates that it has gone beyond mechanical reduction and has suggested a liberal approach wherein the regulatory body (to be set up) will have to consider the entire basin flows, including the impact of the northeast monsoon, before deciding. This is exactly what Karnataka wanted. So where is the problem here?

But yet, there is a strong feeling that the allocation for the first four months needs to be reduced so that Karnataka’s burden is lessened and it can provide for its own farmers. There is also an argument that the tribunal has gone by the 1924 parameters in allocating the water for these four months when Karnataka’s needs were limited. This is an issue worth challenging, though how far Karnataka may be able to convince the Supreme Court is a moot point, considering the cold statistics.

However, one issue which the tribunal has over-looked, and which has been challenged, is the fact that Tamil Nadu has plenty of ground water resources, which Karnataka hardly has. Tamil Nadu, according to an expert body’s conservative estimate, has anywhere in the region of 20 TMC ft. of ground water. If this had been taken into account, the burden on Karnataka would have been reduced.

Another important point which emanates from the final award is the stress on better water management. Both states have been found wanting in this regard, and this is something which needs to be taken up on a war footing. Tamil Nadu, especially, has to improve as it grows two paddy crops which are water intensive, and the techniques which continue to be adopted do not help in conserving water.

So it is time that both states get down to the task of improving water management techniques and crop patterns. Karnataka, in the meanwhile, would do well to start planning for an additional reservoir at Mekedatu to utilise the surplus water, generate power and ensure water supply to Bangalore and Greater Bangalore, without wasting time.

Meanwhile, a final figure to put the issue in a perspective. In the 16-year period between 1991-92 and 2006-07, the average annual flow at Biligundlu was 255 TMC ft. In five of these years, the flow was  over 350 TMC ft.

All that the tribunal’s final award asks Karnataka to ensure is 192 TMC ft. annually.

It is evident from the figures of the flows from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu since the award of the tribunal in 2007, that only in 2012, was the annual flow less than what the tribunal awarded. In 2012-13 it was just 100.45 MC ft. as against the required 192 TMC Ft.

It’s another matter that during the period June-August for the past seven years, including 2016, the flows from Karnataka have been less than the 94 TMC ft. awarded by the tribunal.– except for three years 2007-08, 2013-14 and 2014-15.  And it is these months of shortage, when Karnataka has not been able to fulfil it obligations due to weak early monsoons, which creates demand from Tamil Nadu and hesitation from Karnataka. As the annual flows show, ultimately Tamil Nadu usually gets more water than has been prescribed by the Tribunal annually. But, sadly,  politicians on both sides don’t want to let go an opportunity to make a hue and cry, whenever they get an opportunity.

Girish Nikam is a senior journalist and anchor with Rajya Sabha TV

  • Seshan Ranganathan

    Excellent, factual article.

    This is most important in the days of the quick byte or a stunning visual which whips up emotions to cloud reason.

    Pie charts/Bar Charts to show Contribution, retention and share of Cauvery waters and b) The position during 4 months from June would give more clarity.

    Good stuff… keep it up. Send copies to the CM’s & all legislators with coloured Charts. Who knows it may help…. or hold a public meeting to explain this in all states. And by the way… call all the reporters, particularly television media!

    Seshan Ranganathan
    Thane, Maharashtra

  • Srivas

    Thank you, Mr. Girish Nikam, for an excellent statistics based article devoid of emotions. This article should be made a must-read for all the politicians and protestors needlessly raising tensions by posturing.

  • IndianPatriot

    Balanced article, very impressed! Was already dying to look for some hard hitting data based article on this issue and I am glad, I found one.

  • Gn Nagaraj

    The article’s basic premise that the problem comes only in distress years and politicians on both sides stoke the fire of emotions is correct . but it has many important flaws and deficiencies. 1. while citing historical reasons it doesnt take into account that all rivers in upper part of basin are inaccessible for irrigation and as they near the sea they enter level area and more accessible and also rivers split themselves into various streams and are amenable for manouevering that is the so called kallanai. Hence it is not the foresight of cholas but geographical factors. upper riparian states could not use these waters till there was high level technology that was available only with modern technology in 19 th-20th centuries.
    2. it does not mention priority over to the late users over prior users in our water jurisprudence at glosses over that.issue.the late users have to suffer for no fault of their own.
    3.constitutional responsibility of the central government to intervene immediately and settle the issue on the asis of data at their command including remote sensing technology etc.
    4. no functioning of two important bodies cauvery river monitoring committee at official and experts level and cauvery authority headed by prime minister. which is actually abdicating its responsibility


    If we keep aside all the posturing by the farmers from both states , political groups and the common people , what do the technical experts from both states say ?

    How much does their opinion count for ?

    What is the role of the Centre in dousing the fire in both states ? Surely , it cannot be that this is an inter-state matter where the Centre has no role to play ?

    What has kept the Supreme Court from adjudicating in the matter when it involves the lives of lakhs of people ? The Supreme Court engages itself in so many other matters of lesser importance , can it not take up this matter and see how best both sides can be made to agree on a fair judgement ?

    Probably no stakeholder wants the problem resolved , least of all the media , whose existential sine qua non is that problems continue to fester.

  • Vijaya Baskaran

    A good response, much appreciated ! Debates are welcome, I wish the author of the article responds to your point.

  • Leo Zalki

    Thanks for the Article Girish Nikam but it would be great if you keep a references to the facts mentioned in the article.

  • Mahadeva

    rebuttal to your points:
    point 1: the problem is at the time of distress rainfall. While Karnataka has no qualms to share water during full rain year, it is despicable for TN to come begging when it clearly knows that there is no sufficient rainfall during droughts!
    point 2: kerala has got peltiful source of water which is why it never claims! While southern Karnataka is heavily dependent on Cauvery for its drinlking water needs and not to forget the irrigation needs (which is 1/3rd of what is meted out to TN farmers currently).
    point 3: Kabini is not your lap-land. It is very much in the heart of south-interior Karnataka!!
    point 4: how will we provide water when monsooons are deficit? should we come pee down the stream?
    point 5: remember the statement of a US ambassador who got sick of her experience in Chennai — let me remind you again — tamils are dark (both literally and illiterally), dirty and corrupt!!

  • Mahadeva

    An amazing amount of ignorance and on top of it communalises the issue. The basic issue is in colonial days after the defeat of Tipu, the British administrators of Madras Presidency concluded an unequal treaty in favour of Madras as against a hapless Wodeyars of Mysore. This agreement became defunct in 1974 and hence the treaty needed to be renegotiated on fair grounds. This has not happened because a lot more usage had ccome up in Tamil Nadu disporportionate to its share. This is the crux of the victimhood in Karnataka. No body has been able to correct a historical wrong.

  • Narahari Javaji

    .upper riparian states contribute more but whether they are in a position to utilize this water or not is the crux of the matter and when they are in a position to utilize that water(now karnataka is in a position) this problem will arise

  • beautifulgame

    As if there wasn’t enough hate and bad blood between individuals and communities already? It can be anyone… X vs Y or Y vs Z, does not matter. There is far too much hate, pride and greed among people today. We need to see through the farce of the powerful i.e. the bureaucrats, the politicos and the fanatic right wing idiots, in the process understand that such people thrive on hate. They feed it every now and then so that it does not die altogether. Persisting with the problem and adding fuel to it by discussing it every now and then is not what we expect from adminstrators. I do understand that the people concerned and responsible cannot bring rains, but at least don’t add to the problem/s, find solutions to make better use of resources. We need to adapt by being relevant to the current context in order to survive, because monsoons are screwed up, more so now, than ever before. With groundwater levels not improving even when there are heavy rains, we need to find a way to recharge the groundwater and/or invest in desalination plants. Water wars have been here for quite some time now. Remaining united and sharing resources is the only way out, if we have to survive. All this hate and divisive thinking will only hasten the process of self destruction… Solutions, not problems, por favor!! Love and Peace

  • sham

    From where are you getting these rainfall figures? And which International Law says lower riparian states have first right over River water? Please do not mislead readers here.

  • Omer Sheriff

    Why no one is talking about the cool drinks company soaks up the cauvery water (near bidadi), nearly half a million litres of water per day, No water to drink or for farms, but its going to MNCs for cool drink companies
    Why everyone is not solving this issues rather secretly motivating indian brothers against each other to fight