Cauvery Crisis : Dispute, Verdict and Future

Published : Feb 24, 2018 07:53 am | By: M D Sridharan

As many parts of both states - Karnataka and Tamil Nadu - depend on the Cauvery water, the dispute of sharing the Cauvery water between has snowballed in to a major political issue over the decades. The fringe groups as well as the major political parties have always used the simmering conflict to their advantage, leaving the people, especially the farmers from both sides to suffer time and again.

Considered as one of the sacred rivers of South India, the river Cauvery has a pride of place in hearts of the people of both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. “Mother Cauvery” has been virtually worshipped by the people of both states.

Cauvery is the third largest river after Godavari and Krishna in South India. Though 765-km-long Cauvery river originates in the foothills of Western Ghats at  Talacauvery, in Kodagu district in Karnataka, it flows through the majority parts of Tamil Nadu and it is the largest river in Tamil Nadu.

The river flows across the southern Deccan plateau through the delta regions of Tamil Nadu and emptying into the Bay of Bengal. Amongst the river valleys, the Cauvery delta forms one of the fertile regions in the country.

From Talacauvery, the river and flows through Haasan, Mandya and Mysuru districts in Karnataka before entering Dharmapuri, Erode, Karur, Trichy, Pudukottai, Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts in Tamil Nadu. Its tributaries also flow through Kerala and Puducherry. Thus, the river Cauvery connects four states and its people through its water.

The Cauvery basin is estimated to be 81,155 square kilometres (31,334 sq mi) with many tributaries including Harangi,  Hemavati,  Kabini, Bhavani,  Arkavathy,  Lakshmana Tirtha, Noyyal and  Amaravati. The river's basin covers three states and a Union Territory as follows: Tamil Nadu, 43,856 square kilometres (16,933 sq mi); Karnataka, 34,273 square kilometres (13,233 sq mi); Kerala, 2,866 square kilometres (1,107 sq mi) and Puducherry 160 square kilometres (62 sq mi).  The river is the source for an extensive irrigation system in both states and has supported irrigated agriculture for centuries. Cauvery has served as the lifeblood of the ancient kingdoms and today it is considered lifeline of Tamil Nadu.

The Dispute

But unfortunately “Mother Cauvery” has remained the “bone of contention” ever since serious conflicts emerged over the sharing of its waters between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.  A closer look reveals that the issue remained as perennial as the river dating back to the British era. As many parts of both states depend on the Cauvery water for irrigation purposes, the dispute of sharing the  Cauvery water between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka snowballed in to a major political issue over the years.

Everyone knows that water is the most essential source for the survival of human life.   It is really annoying that the people of both states along with fringe groups with vested interests have made the issue more sensitive by applying   ethnic and linguistic colours to the Cauvery water.  In the last couple of decades the issue has gathered more mass and year after year the political parties both at state and centre have conveniently used the issue for their advantage.

To get in to the root of the problem, we have to travel backwards and go to the last century. Actually the Cauvery water sharing dispute began in 1892

between the Madras Presidency under the British Raj and the princely state of Mysore . Unable to find a proper means of sharing the water, the two states conceptualised the idea of constructing reservoirs to store the river water, in 1910.  But, as conflicts over the construction of dams emerged, the British government intervened and accordingly, in 1924 the Madras Presidency and Mysore state signed an agreement for the use, distribution and control of the Cauvery waters.

As per the agreement in 1924, valid for 50 years, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry would get 75% of the surplus water, while Karnataka would get 23%. The remaining would go to Kerala. There were also restrictions on how much land could be irrigated. Though earlier, the Madras presidency objected to the construction of the Krishna Raja Sagar (KRS) dam, the 1924 agreement   gave the Madras presidency, the freedom to construct the Mettur dam. 

The 1924 agreement clearly stated that existing irrigation should not be impeded by the construction of new works upstream and downstream irrigation should not be reduced. Furthermore, all works must in the planning stages be approved by the downstream state government. In other words, under the law Mysore could do nothing that would curtail water supply to Tamil Nadu, the lower riparian state.


What appeared to be a smooth arrangement of sharing of Cauvery water between the southern states became a serious problem post-independence. After India’s independence, the princely states merged with the union of India. As a result parts of both the Madras Presidency and Mysore state have been re-organised.  The re-organisation of the states took place in 1956 and the states were formed mainly on the linguistic basis and accordingly the present day Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were formed.

 After the formation of states, the sharing of Cauvery water became a serious issue as people from both states organised several protests which at times escalated into severe violence.  While, Tamil Nadu constantly  opposed to the construction of dams on the river by Karnataka,  Karnataka refused to budge and  claimed that the since the river originated in the state they are not obliged by any conditions or regulations. Moreover, Karnataka pointed out that the 50 year time period for the 1924 agreement ended in 1974.

It is needless to say that Tamil Nadu was pretty much affected as the state is dependent on Cauvery water especially for agricultural purposes in the delta region. Since, geographically Tamil Nadu is a lower riparian state, the state has been pushed in to a precarious situation and Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court. Karnataka suggested that the two states could obtain 47% of the water each and the rest could be supplied equally between Kerala and Puducherry. But Tamil Nadu wanted to stick to the 1924 agreement.

In 1970, the Cauvery Fact Finding Committee found that Tamil Nadu’s irrigated lands had grown from 1,440,000 acres to 2,580,000 acres while Karnataka’s irrigated area stood at 680,000 acres, resulting in an increased need of water for Tamil Nadu. Karnataka opposed this proposal. The 1924 agreement clearly stated that existing irrigation should not be impeded by the construction of new works upstream, and downstream irrigation should not be reduced. Furthermore, all works must in the planning stages be approved by the downstream Tamil Nadu government.  But, that from 1974, Karnataka started diverting river flows into the four new reservoirs on Cauvery – Hemavati, Harangi, Kabini and Suvarnavathy while Tamil Nadu maintained its Mettur dam. 

In the year 1986, the farmers in the delta region of Tamil moved the Supreme Court demanding that a tribunal be formed for sorting out the water sharing dispute. In 1990, the apex court heard the petitions and directed the Centre to form Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) which would decide on the distribution of water between the two states.

Accordingly, CWDT after analysing various factors passed an interim order which directed Karnataka to ensure that 205 tmcft of water reach Tamil Nadu per annum. The CWDT also ordered Karnataka to stop its plan to increase irrigated land area.

Though CWDT had indeed given its interim award in 1991, in favour of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka was not willing to implement the same.  So, Tamil Nadu filed suit in the Supreme Court in 2001. Karnataka promulgated an ordinance, followed by an Act, to negate the effect of the tribunal ruling. The President then made a reference to the Supreme Court for its opinion. The Supreme Court answered this reference in November 1991, saying the ordinance and the Act were unconstitutional and beyond the legislative competence of the State.

Since then, the dispute has flared up time and again between the two Southern states.  The failure of monsoon also added up to the problem and two states faced drought situations regularly.  While, Karnataka blocked water supply to Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu retaliated by disrupting power supply to Karnataka from Neyveli.  As the war of words between leaders of political parties from both states grew, the fringe groups tried their best to stamp their linguistic loyalty and aggravated the crisis.

As a result year after year during the harvest season the border towns of both states erupted in violence with vehicles torched and shops shutdown. The movement of goods and commodities besides people came to grinding halt between the two major cities of Chennai and Bengaluru.

In 1993, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa went on a hunger strike in Chennai condemning the act of Karnataka in refusing to follow the court order.  Karnataka government stated that as the state itself was facing drought they cannot not release water.

After several years of continued law and order problems, in 1998 the centre formed Cauvery River Authority (CRA) that comprised of the Prime Minister as the Chairperson and the Chief Ministers of the four states as its members and ordered Karnataka to implement the interim order of the CWDT. Finally,   after a lot negotiation, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal gave out its final award in 2007.  Accordingly,  out of the  total available 740 tmc ft of water, Tamil Nadu was allotted  419 tmc ft of water followed by Karnataka – with 270 tmc ft, Kerala  with  30 tmc ft and Puducherry  with  7 tmc ft.

In a normal year, the CWDT ordered that Karnataka has to release to Tamil Nadu 192 tmc ft (as against 205 tmc ft in the interim award) in monthly deliveries at the interstate border, Billingundlu. This comprises 182 tmc ft from the allocated share of Tamil Nadu, including 10 tmc ft for environmental purposes.  In a distress year, the tribunal order stated that the allocated shares shall be proportionately reduced among Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The lack of clarity on the sharing of water during a distress year is one of the reasons for the dispute.  

Tamil Nadu approached the SC from time to time

While, Tamil Nadu continued to knock the doors of Supreme Court for a direction to Karnataka to comply with the interim order passed by the tribunal and fix a schedule for release of the water in different months of the year,  Karnataka continued to ignore the pleas and maintained that it is not possible for it to strictly comply with the interim order due to the insufficient rainfall.

The Tribunal also recommended setting up the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) to implement the Tribunal’s decisions. But, till date, the CMB has not yet been set up, although the final order has been notified in the official gazette on 19 February 2013.

Since then, on many occasions, the two southern states have indulged in bitter fights over sharing of Cauvery water. The general grievance of the Tamil Nadu is that over the years the total volume of water from Karnataka flowing down to the Mettur dam is becoming less and less. Moreover, Karnataka failed in releasing water on time to meet the need of cultivation of crops, particularly in the Cauvery delta of the state. Tamil Nadu wanted the annual releases to be made in a regulated manner, from week to week, from June to May.

On 30 September, 2016, the Supreme Court had pulled up Karnataka for its repeated "defiance" in flouting its orders for releasing Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu and said no one would know when the "wrath of the law" would fall on it.

Later, Karnataka had moved a review petition in the apex court against its three orders on the issue and direction to the Centre to create the Cauvery Water Management Board (CWMB), saying "grave miscarriage of justice" had been caused to it following the three apex court orders of 20, 27 and 30 September, by which it was directed to release water.

Tamil Nadu had earlier also alleged that Kerala was drawing water in excess of what has been allocated to it by the tribunal. Though several attempts have been made by Tamil Nadu to implement the tribunal’s interim order, atrocities by the fringe groups continued till 2016.

In September 2017, the apex court reserved its order on the appeals filed by Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala against the final award of the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal in 2007. Tamil Nadu had argued that the court should not leave the dispute open for Karnataka to take advantage of and should appoint the authority and frame a scheme for the allocation of water.

Finally, the Supreme Court on 16th Feb,2018, delivered the long-awaited Cauvery water sharing verdict. The court announced that Tamil Nadu would get 177.25 tmc ft water, and Karnataka would get 14.75 tmc ft more than it was allocated in the previous judgement. Karnataka's allocation now stands at 284.75 tmc ft. Tamil Nadu's share of water has been reduced to 177.25 tmc ft from 192 tmc ft. The SC added that 20 tmc ft of ground water in Tamil Nadu had not been accounted for.

The Supreme Court also said that Karnataka can expand its irrigation area. Bengaluru will receive 4.75 tmc ft. There has been no change in allocation for Kerala and Puducherry. It was also announced that the Cauvery Management Board would be constituted. The Supreme Court declared that the order will be applicable for the next 15 years.

While reading out the verdict, Chief Justice Dipak Misra said that no state can claim ownership of Cauvery water for rivers are national property. The Supreme Court added that the share has increased for Karnataka because of an increased demand for drinking water and for industrial activities.

Normally, when it comes to the sharing of river water, first priority will be given to irrigation purposes and then comes the drinking water needs of the people and finally the industrial needs. But, in the 2018 verdict, the Supreme Court increased the share for Karnataka citing an increased demand for drinking water and for industrial activities, while the farmers in Tamil Nadu were eagerly awaiting the release of water.

The Supreme Court declared that out of the 14.75 tmc ft water reduction in   Tamil Nadu’s share,  10tmc ft will be given to Karnataka for industrial use and the balance 4.75tmc ft for Bengaluru’s drinking water needs.

Further, the Supreme Court has suggested that TN should use more of its ground water resources, which according to them are in the region of 20 TMC.  In reality, nobody knows how long the farmers of Tamil Nadu can sustain on the ground water yields. The court also recommended Tamil Nadu to adapt better water management and avoid water intensive paddy crops.

Again, while Karnataka hailed the latest Supreme Court's verdict on water allocation from the Cauvery river, Tamil Nadu called it "highly unfair" for the people of the state. As the Cauvery water is crucial to agriculture in the delta regions of Tamil Nadu that the century-old dispute is likely to continue.

In order to assert Tamil Nadu's rights over the Cauvery waters, Tamil Nadu government convened an all-party meeting after a gap of 11 years, in Chennai.  Chaired by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palanisamy, as many as 35 political parties and 14 farmers’ associations took part in the meeting. It was unanimously decided to take an all-party delegation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to exert pressure on the centre to set up a Cauvery Management Board (CMB) and a Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC) to ensure release of 14.75 tmc ft water within the six-week time frame set by the Supreme Court in its verdict on February 16. Besides, a resolution on consulting experts to examine all legal options to file a review petition before the Supreme Court was adopted.

The parties also condemned the fact that every time Tamil Nadu sought justice, the state had to face the reduction of share of water. The parties urged that is not acceptable and the Tamil Nadu government should not give room for such act in future. The parties also cautioned the government to act with “utmost care” in the Cauvery issue.

Is court verdict a final solution?

With every verdict, there is simmering on one side either from Tamil Nadu or Karnataka.  So what is the solution? Because of the fear of political implications, both states constantly resort to litigation.  And whenever there are legal battles, emotions continue to run high in both states on the issue. After a while, the tempers cool down in both states until the next hearing and the dispute will cease to make headlines. So far, the Karnataka government has been releasing water during excess rainfall and not adhering to the award of the tribunal, both interim and final, when the nature fails.

Since it is essentially a federal dispute and more importantly deals with the sentiments of the people, any judgement by the court will inevitably favour one state and alienate another.  Either of the state will be perceived to have failed in the process and the opposition parties in that state will rake-up the issue further and play to the emotions of its people in the state to garner political mileage. On the other hand the ruling party of the state will again lead to appeal.

People of both states are only experiencing such reactions for almost close to a century now. Therefore, the matter really has to be dealt with by a professional body comprising of representatives of both States. It is time to take constructive measures like setting up a strong authority, something like water security board as suggested by noted agricultural scientist M S Swaminathan to judiciously use the Cauvery water.  If not the dispute is likely to drag on and on and may even continue into the next century.


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