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  • Sujin Lal

The Never-Ending Turmoil in the Cauvery Delta





Cauvery water has been a heated issue between the two riparian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for decades. The Cauvery Delta provides a lifeline for lakhs of farmers on both sides of the border. Oftentimes, both states have their differences in water sharing, and this leads to violent conflicts and protests in both states, leading to considerable economic loss and loss of life. However, the issue should be looked at as much more than a dispute over water allocation; it is also about historic wrongdoing and politicians using the conflicts to fuel their agenda.


Despite numerous agreements and interventions, disputes over water resources persist, often escalating into violence and tragic loss of life. The water-sharing conflict can be traced back to the colonial period. The erstwhile state of Mysore planned the construction of a dam in Kannambadi to increase its agricultural capacities, which was viewed as a threat by the Madras presidency as this would mean that it would get less irrigation water which would affect its agricultural revenue. Foreseeing this, the British government objected, and an agreement was signed between the two parties in 1924. The agreement however was seen as unfair as it reduced the dam's capacity. The Presidency also got a favourable allocation of the water through this agreement effectively giving a temporary halt on further expansion of agriculture for almost half a decade.


The 1970s saw the dispute become mainstream as relations between the states soured. The issue also garnered political traction, as leaders like M. Karunanidhi and J. Jayalalitha used the dispute to push their agendas. What followed was a period marred by conflicts, agreements, disagreements, background deals, and a lot of court battles, leaving both states in an endless cycle of blame games. The original 1924 agreement was set to expire in the year 1974. The then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi, to resolve the issue before the agreement elapsed, reached out to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi assured Karunanidhi that a tribunal would be created, but she did not take any immediate action as her party just went through a vertical split at the national level and didn’t want to jeopardise her position in Karnataka, which largely supported her.


Eventually, the Supreme Court intervened in 1990, and the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) came up with a fair water-sharing agreement. The CWDT, however, has not been able to come up with a water-sharing formula. The first major episode of violent protest erupted after the Tribunal’s order in 1991. The most recent episode happened in 2023 when both states faced drought and Karnataka refused to release the court-ordered amount of water. Despite interim orders and final awards issued by the tribunal, the fundamental issues underlying the dispute remain unresolved, perpetuating a cycle of violence and instability. Over the years the protests have become violent, often targeting civilians from other states and attacking their businesses, forcing the police to crack down on the protestors. Precious lives have been lost and, in some cases, farmers have even committed suicides putting a lot of pressure on both governments.


A distress year is a year that has rainfall that is lower than the stipulated average, and finding a fair formula for water sharing during a distress year is a big challenge. Besides this, a more comprehensive approach to water management and irrigation practices should be implemented. The Cauvery is a rain-fed river, and any variation in rain patterns would mean less water in both states. Karnataka has seen an increase in its total cultivated area in the delta region, most of which are water-intensive crops such as paddy and sugarcane.


Growing demand for water in urban centres like Bengaluru has also put a strain on the resource. The states should give the farmers confidence and prioritise more sustainable farming practices. The government can also incentivize crops that consume less water and invest in better irrigation infrastructure. The Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA), a regulatory body that manages the storage and apportionment of water, lacks any ‘actual authority’. When the authority tries to enforce an order, the farmers on both sides protest.


Water being a state matter according to the Constitution leaves little room for the Central Government to intervene. The issue also has political consequences as politicians, over the years, have tried to take advantage of the situation and used it to garner popular support. Any progress can only be made if the states are ready to cede power to the water management authority. A praise-worthy example is the Krishna River Management Board, which has been effectively managing the river, which flows through four states. This never-ending turmoil is not looking like it will subside any soon. Only through determined efforts and genuine dialogue can the governments reach an agreement beneficial for both states.


About the Author

Sujin is a final year MA Public Policy student at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy. His areas of interest include Electoral Politics, Border Conflicts, Migration and Water Conflicts. He is currently doing his capstone with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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