Cauvery water dispute: Economic, Social or Political?

“Water is our common present and future, it is the invaluable heritage of our children”

In 2006, reinforcing the urgent need of judicious water usage, President of Mexico, Vincent Fox Quesada opened the 4th World Water Forum in Mexico with this statement. Water conflicts have aggravated all over the world; with growing population and diversified interests, it is slowly taking shape of an economic good.

Despite the soaring GDPs, more than 20% of the Earth’s population lacks clean, safe drinking water. This world water crisis isn’t confined to one region of the planet, though the most severe cases are found in developing nations and particularly acute in Sub- Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The Indian subcontinent faces its own dilemma, where abundance of water in one state can be a concern for the thriving neighbours’ states. A perennial issue is the Cauvery Dam Dispute.

The southern state of Karnataka was long locked in a 44-year old carefully worded British water agreement with its neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu). Since its lapse in 1974, a constant tussle over water rights has become an indelible part of their political and social history. This 127-year-old conflict dates back from 1892 until today when in protest; Tamil Nadu’s ministers walked out from Rajya Sabha’s (Upper House of Indian Parliament) proceedings recently.

But what is the dispute about?

The issue of water sharing became a national problem in India after the re-organisation of the states in 1956. The river Cauvery originates in Kodagu district of Karnataka, flows through Tamil Nadu and few regions of Kerala while reaching the Bay of Bengal. Considering Tamil Nadu’s agricultural economy and past agreements; Karnataka is obliged to release water to them. The problem is; unlike rivers in the northern regions; which originates from Glaciers, Cauvery is a monsoon fed river line. Therefore, scarce monsoon seasons pushes the Karnataka government to release less water which in turn puts the Tamil government in great distress. Majority of the state earns from their large irrigation infrastructures which becomes paralysed without water.

The legal framework is as complex as the issue. Following an interim order of 1991, Water Dispute Tribunal was set up under Article 262 and The Inter State River Water Dispute Act 1956. It unjustifiably delayed its declaration until 2007 and doubled the amount of water to be received by Tamil Nadu, because of political and economic reasons.

Due to low rainfall, Karnataka government could not release the set amount over the years. Hence, using Article 136 in 2016, the Tamil government approached the Supreme Court (the apex court of the country) to intervene. In 2017 the court ordered a release of 15,000 cusecs(cubic feet per second) of water a day for 10 days, to Tamil Nadu. This led to communal protests in Karnataka; leading to 2,000 cusecs of water per day.

The latest verdict came on February 16, 2018 from a 3-member jury bench; saying that Karnataka will get additional 14.75 TMC(Thousand Million cubic feet) of the river water and Tamil Nadu will get 177.25 instead of 192 TMC water. The bench did not include any technical experts, putting a big question mark on the environmental viability of the decision. This was taken as defeat by the Tamil government.

Ramaswamy R. Iyer, Water policy expert and honorary professor at the Center for Policy Research rightly said that with the lack of adjudication for disputes, the dispute redressal only moves forward in terms of immediate need through judicial process and not a long term structured process, which often ends in judicial overreach.

This attained water is not even equitably distributed among the industries and farmers. As per reports, corporations are waiting in the wings to expand a $ 287 billion global water market into India.

 “How is it that there is always plenty of water for industries but never enough for people’s basic needs?”- G Madheshwaran,West Gonur Farmers Welfare Association, Tamil Nadu 

Unfortunately, these conflicts have no mentions of an equitable, sustainable and environmentally safe water strategy. Remedial plans like organic farming and water conservation techniques are left undiscussed.

If we will not have even enough water to fight over in the future; What is the significance of these battles at all?

I will let the readers to ponder and decide.

Photopragh: The Cauvery river. Credit: Ashwin Kumar/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0 

Shreshta Sharma Author


Shreshta is a Policy graduate from UCL, and writes about socio-political issues concerning the world today. Through her writing, she aims to spread awareness and prompts readers to question more.

Published Date

February 25, 2019

"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty."

– Mahatma Gandhi