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Inter-States River Water Disputes in India


The rivers of India play a vital role in the sustenance of lives of millions of Indians. They form the major irrigation system. They form the habitat of marine lives.

With the growing population, the demand for water has been increasing exponentially after independence. A river is merely freely running water which can emerge from one state, flows through another state and ends in third state. The uprising of Cauvery river dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has blown fire to the scenario of inter-state water disputes. Most of these disputes have been resolved on the basis of unbiased allotment by the central government. Whenever required, negotiation through appointment of water disputes tribunals is also resorted.

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Cauvery Water Dispute

Cauvery is one of the holiest rivers in South India and is also known as the ‘Ganges of the South’. It originates in the form of a spring from Brahmagiri Hill at Talakaveri, Kodagu in Karnataka and finally cascades across Tamil Nadu to meet Bay of Bengal. It is one of the longest rivers of South India crossing four states, i.e. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Pudducherry. This 802 km river has 44,000 km2 basin area in Tamil Nadu and 32,000 km2 basin area in Karnataka.

The seeds of Cauvery river conflict between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were sown during two agreements in 1892 and 1924 between the erstwhile Madras Presidency and Princely State of Mysore.

Matters of Conflict:

It has been a long time that Karnataka made it clear that the delay in development in irrigation must not lead to any reduction of its rights to utilise the river for agricultural and other development. According to Karnataka, a downstream state cannot make a claim when there is scarcity of water and inadequacy in upstream areas, i.e. Karnataka has been practicing the Harmon doctrine to define its property rights.

Whereas, Tamil Nadu’s argument rests on the fact that as per the agreement of 1924 signed between princely state of Mysore (presently Karnataka) and Madras presidency (presently Tamil Nadu), the long history of water use, farmers in Cauvery delta irrigating and producing paddy should not be denied water. The agreement also clarifies that the farmers in Karnataka can absolutely use the river water, but only up to a certain limit on the volume of water and area to be irrigated so that upstream water use does not endanger the longstanding downstream uses in Tamil Nadu.

The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT)

In order to resolve the Cauvery river dispute, Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT) as constituted on June 2, 1990 by the Government of India. It took 16 years of hearing and an interim order that CWDT announced its final verdict in 2007 whereby  allocating 419 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) water to Tamil Nadu and 270 tmc ft to Karnataka allocating 419 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) water to Tamil Nadu and 270 tmc ft to Karnataka. Apart from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the final verdict also allocates 30 tmc ft water to Kerala and 7 tmc ft to Puducherry.

The Tribunal concluded that total availability of water in Cauvery basin stood at 740 tmc ft. However, both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka filed a review petition before the Tribunal.

Problem and its solution:

Tamil Nadu withdrew its case in 1980 but demanded to constitute a tribunal so as to resolve the issue, the negotiations for which continued till April 1990 which did not yielded any fruitful results.

The tribunal was formed under the government of VP Singh as ordered by the Supreme Court. The tribunal was headquartered in New Delhi and constituted three members. Karnataka asked for 465 tmc ft water whereas, Tamil Nadu sought that the flow should be in accord with the terms of the agreements of 1892 and 1924. It also demanded a mandatory injunction on Karnataka for the immediate release of water and other relief.

The interim award given to Tamil Nadu in June 1991 due to which Karnataka was forced to accept the order led to widespread violence and demolitions in various parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The violence also forced many Tamil families to flee from Bangalore in fear of being attacked by pro-Kannada activists.

CWDT gave its final order after 16 years in 2007 ordering the allocation of 419 tmc ft of the water of Cauvery to Tamil Nadu, 270 tmc ft to Karnataka, 30 tmc ft to Kerala and 7 tmc ft to Puducherry. However, this order was not accepted by the public due to which the dispute was continued and states again filed review petition.

In 2012, the then-prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, directed Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. This directive was also given unacceptance by the chief ministers of both the two states, i.e. Jayalalithaa (Tamil Nadu) and Jagadish Shettar (Karnataka).

The central government announced the final decision in February 2013. In March Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court to direct to the Water Ministry’s constitution of the Cauvery Management Board, and also had demanded for Rs 2,480 crore compensation from Karnataka for not following CWDT orders.

Current Scenario:

Tamil Nadu on 22 August 2016 approached Supreme Court, seeking direction to Karnataka to release 50.052 tmc ft river water from its reservoirs for its third samba cultivation, as mandated in the final order of the CWDT in 2007. Karnataka cited distress situation and declined to release water.

On September 20, 2016, Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 6,000 cusecs of water from September 21, 2016 to September 27, 2016 and also directed the centre to set-up the Cauvery Management Board so as to provide a permanent solution for the dispute.

As per the final order of the supreme court, the water release limit was increased by increasing in number of days. This lead to an unrest among the people of and violence broke out in Bengaluru, Mysuru, Mandya and other parts of state.

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