With the Lok Sabha polls only months away, any inter-state dispute over the Cauvery water dispute has the potential to take more political turns than otherwise, predicts N Sathiya Moorthy.
Now that Karnataka has announced its decision not to release more waters to lower-riparian Tamil Nadu, and the latter has said that as the last resort they may have to move the Supreme Court, the Cauvery water dispute is back to square one. Or, so it seems.
In the interim, the two state governments have increased police presence along their common borders, to avoid attacks on vehicles and people travelling from one to the other — as used to be the wont in the past.
It is now agreed by most experts that the dispute — in which Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry are also stake-holders in differentiated proportions — cannot have a permanent solution on a pro rata basis but only a formula-based approach, administered by an authority that has to be unbiased, and is also seen as being one.
In a petition before the Supreme Court in August, when there were enough signs the mainstay south-west monsoon had failed the two main states and the seasonal tiff between the two began, the Tamil Nadu government reiterated the need for a ‘distress-sharing’ formula.
While both states have agreed to the idea, which Tamil Nadu had rejected in the mid-nineties, the unresolved, rather the unaddressed, issues still relate to the simplicity or complexity of working one out — and enforcing it.
Tamil Nadu wants the distress-sharing formula (DSF), originally flagged by a study team of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Chennai, and since acknowledged by federal structures, including the Supreme Court, to be worked around available waters in a year of poor rainfall.
But Karnataka wants multiple technological aspects addressed while finalising the formula.
According to experts, the solution lies in between — and is difficult to predict, as issues keep changing with seasons and years.
With the result, formulating a ‘formula’ itself is not as simple and straight as originally thought to be.
Yet, there is general agreement that ‘distress-sharing’ is still the only way out.
It is here that the implementation of any mutually-agreeable formula comes into focus.
Time was when Tamil Nadu preferred a centrally-administered arrangement as Karnataka as the upper riparian would continue to hold the key in matters of releasing Cauvery waters to the three lower riparian states.
Yet, it also clashed with the often-flagged ‘federal principles’ of the Dravidian polity in Tamil Nadu, as the Constitution has assigned rivers to the states, and central control is just not on, especially according to the tenets of the DMK, which incidentally is now ruling the state.
However, it is being pointed out how the CWRA (Cauvery Water Regulatory Authority) and CWMA (Cauvery Water Management Authority), both formed by the Supreme Court, with representation from the four riparian states and coordinated by the Centre, is the apex body to address (even if not always resolve) the seasonal disputes, almost always between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Such a scheme could still be worked out, or even the present system can continue, it is said.
One other aspect leading up to a final solution relates to Karnataka’s decision to build an additional reservoir across the Cauvery at a place called Mekedatu, and Tamil Nadu opposing it.
The Tamil Nadu fear, which remains unsaid in the case of Kerala and Puducherry (though their shares are much less), continues to be the possibility of the upper riparian holding back the waters, both in high or poor rainfall years, as the state would have more storage capacity than at present.
As Tamil Nadu is not tired of pointing out, in most years, Karnataka releases water only when heavy rains cause a flood-like situation along the Cauvery basin, and waters needed to be discharged at a faster rate than its Cauvery reservoirs and tanks filled up.
The sudden release of high-quantum waters causes floods also in the Cauvery basin all along the route in Tamil Nadu, especially after the marker Mettur dam nears its maximum capacity.
Incidentally, it is also in those years that the tail-end areas of the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu reaching up to the sea, gets water for irrigation during the south-west monsoon season.
Otherwise, the water released from the Mettur dam within Tamil Nadu does not reach the tail-end on most occasions owing to the poor speed of the flow.
Therein lies another hitch. Since the mid-nineties, Karnataka has been planning to build a dam at Mekedetu.
While Tamil Nadu had rejected the whole idea initially, it became agreeable in principle later, but wanted the new dam to be built at Billigundulu within the state, where the Cauvery waters enter the state and where the Central Water Commission (CWC) has a measuring station.
Tamil Nadu also wanted the new reservoir to be managed by the CWC or such other entity that was common to all four riparian states.
Karnataka was not agreeable to the idea, and Tamil Nady argued that it meant that the upper riparian wanted to control the flow of waters all the time.
Every government in Karnataka, including the incumbent one under Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, has since been demanding the Centre’s clearance for the Mekedatu project.
The voices become shrill in poor rainfall years.
For Tamil Nadu, too, an early solution to the vexatious issue could help build a reservoir closer to the tail-end, so that all those waters that are wasted into the sea in a heavy rain year could be stored and used when required.
Again, Tamil Nadu would require Karnataka’s permission for doing so — or, the latter sees it as a quid pro quo.
It does not stop there. Over two decades back, Karnataka drew an Rs 9,000 crore (Rs 90 billion) project to deepen all reservoirs, tanks and canals, with possible funding from the World Bank.
Tamil Nadu would have none of it and moved the Supreme Court.
Tamil Nadu’s contention was that once deepened, the five Cauvery reservoirs and very many tanks in Karnataka could help store more water than was prevailing — thus restricting the flow of even flood waters, that too in heavy rainfall years.
In the mid-nineties, then Karnataka chief minister, the late J H Patel, proposed ‘distress-sharing’ at the political/official level, at a meeting with his then Tamil Nadu counterpart M Karunanidhi.
Their parties were partners in the United Front government of then prime minister H D Deve Gowda, himself a Kannadiga and J H Patel’s immediate predecessor as CM.
As J H Patel was supposed to have quipped, ‘In Karnataka, even rivers have castes. The Krishna river in northern Karnataka was/is a ‘Lingayat river’, the dominant community in the region to which the CM too belonged. The Cauvery is a ‘Vokkaliga river’, so called because the Vokkaligas are the dominant community in these parts, and to which Deve Gowda too belonged.’
Patel reportedly told some common friends, though possibly not his Tamil interlocutors, ‘As a Vokkaliga leader, Deve Gowda has no problem if I find an early and amicable solution to the Cauvery water dispute. I cannot say the same of the Krishna water dispute with Andhra Pradesh’ where Karnataka unilaterally sought to increase the height, and hence the storage-capacity of the Almatti dam, without the concurrence of lower-riparian, (unified) Andhra Pradesh.
Today when the Cauvery dispute is back in focus, Karnataka’s powerful Deputy Chief Minister D K Shivakumar, is also the water resources minister.
Needless to say, he too is a Vokkaliga from the Cauvery basin area.
But Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is neither a Lingayat nor is he from the northern Lingayat belt.
But then the Alamatti dam issue is also not there anymore.
When J H Patel proposed ‘distress-sharing’, Karunanidhi did not see it that way.
Predecessor Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, from the rival AIADMK, had undertaken an unannounced indefinite fast on the famous Marina beach, aiming to force the Narasimha Rao government to ensure that the Congress state government in Karnataka released the required waters demanded by her government.
This was followed by massive anti-Tamil riots along the Cauvery delta in Karnataka, leading to many deaths and also destruction of properties and businesses.
In the prevailing mood of the time, the DMK sgovernment could not afford to be seen as ‘compromising’ on the state’s rights without losing face, as Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK were already charging Karunanidhi with failing Tamil Nadu farmers and the Cauvery delta, the ‘state’s granary’ when he was CM and the 50-year bilateral agreement under the British Raj came up for ‘review’.
Even there, Tamil Nadu argued that only the quantum of water was to be reviewed but Karnataka came up with an ingenious argument that the entire agreement was up for review.
Today, with the Lok Sabha polls only months away, any inter-state dispute over the Cauvery water dispute has the potential to take more political turns than otherwise. There is a pattern to it.
The irony is that even national parties like the BJP ruling the Centre and the Congress in Karnataka are divided on regional lines, with their branches in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu respectively steadfastly demanding the ‘protection of the state’s rights’ in the matter.
Inside the respective state, they would continue to blame the party in power for the mishandling of the situation.
Today, with the BJP in power at the Centre, it cannot pass on the blame to the Congress predecessor alone, as used to be the case earlier.
The party ruled Karnataka, until being defeated in the assembly polls earlier this year.
So, the BJP state unit took a pro-Karnataka stand at an all-party meeting called by CM Siddaramaiah recently.
Given the complexities of the ‘Dravidian rivalry’ in Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the AIADMK have invariably boycotted all-party meetings, called by a chief minister from the rival party.
If they attended one, that too rarely, they invariably staged a walk-out, blaming the state government for all the failures, possibly dating back to the days when Chola king Karikalan built the Grand Anicut, 2,000 years ago, a ‘granite marvel’ for its time and since.
Hence, all-party meetings are a rarity in the state as the two Dravidian majors alone have been alternating in power since 1967, barring the three occasions when the state was under President’s rule.
So, judicial review is the more acceptable route for incumbent DMK Chief Minister M K Stalin, who is already faced with enough of political issues, starting with the ‘Sanatana Dharma‘ row, triggered by his minister-son, Udhayanidhi.
Even without it, faceless sections of the Tamil Nadu youth may be upset if the state government were to ‘give away’ its rights over the Cauvery waters or any other.
As may be recalled, the unforgettable ‘Jallikattu protests’ in January 2017, during the annual Tamil harvest festival of Pongal, had a Cauvery angle to it.
Not many people in the state, and more so outside, remember it.
But one of the various triggers for the eruption of ‘Tamil pride’ that was successively being trampled upon (as seen by the propagators of Jallikattu protests) occurred in previous November.
That was when the BJP Centre’s counsel told the Supreme Court one fine morning that the judiciary had no role to play in the Cauvery water dispute as under the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, all powers were entrusted with the tribunal appointed by the Centre.
This was shocking for the whole of Tamil Nadu, and non-Tamil legal luminaries, too, as until the previous day — literally so — even the incumbent government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi had abided by past precedents and made its submissions before whichever bench the Supreme Court had constituted to dispose of whatever aspect of the Cauvery dispute, as the case may be.
The Tamil youth, going beyond their political affinities, saw the Centre’s overnight about-turn as aimed at appeasing Karnataka, where assembly elections were due prior to those in Tamil Nadu.
That settled it, and when the SC continued to be seen as granting what had become annual, last-minute sanction for Jallikattu with more restrictions than the previous year(s), something snapped in the Tamil youth.
Governments since then in the state are aware of and alive to the hidden reality, to date.
The Cauvery water dispute is in constant focus, after all — and that is saying a lot.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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