Unraveling the century-old Cauvery river dispute: A saga of water sharing and legal battles

Considering the petition of Tamil Nadu, the apex court is taking up the matter for hearing on 25 August, 2023.

ByMahesh M Goudar

Published Aug 25, 2023 | 11:39 AMUpdatedAug 25, 2023 | 11:39 AM

Cauvery Water Regulation Committee recommends Karnataka release 3,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu till 15 October. (Flickr)

The century-old Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has once again come to the fore.

As Karnataka is facing severe drought-like conditions, it released only 26.7 thousand million cubic feet (Tmcft) of water against the demand of 86.36 Tmcft till 22 August. This irked Tamil Nadu, which has now approached the Supreme Court.

Considering Tamil Nadu’s petition, the apex court is taking the matter for hearing on Friday, 25 August.

The Cauvery river is a significant source of water in southern India, flowing through the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and the Union Territory (UT) of Puducherry, with Kerala also receiving a share of its waters.

The Cauvery originates at Talacauvery in the Kodagu district of Karnataka. The river meanders through fertile plains, sustaining agriculture and communities along its course.

The river has historical and cultural importance, having been mentioned in ancient texts, and is revered by locals.

The Cauvery’s journey concludes in the Bay of Bengal, making it crucial to the region’s ecology, economy, and social fabric.

Disputes over water-sharing have arisen between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu due to the river’s resources being vital for irrigation, industries, and drinking water.

Karnataka’s former secretary to the Minor Irrigation Department and irrigation expert Captain S Raja Rao recalls the century-old dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery river.

The 1892 Agreement

The first Cauvery agreement apparently was arrived at before the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were formally formed. The deal was signed in 1892, during the British Colonial era.

“Before the Cauvery dispute, there was another row. The British objected to lake and river rejuvenation works that were done in the erstwhile Kingdom of Mysore,” Capt Raja Rao told South First.

“The British made an agreement in 1892, through which they restricted all the works, such as lake rejuvenation, on all rivers that flowed across the border of the Kingdom of Mysore,” he explained,

“The restrictions were horrific. In effect, the British restricted the kingdom from taking up agricultural activities, drawing water, reviving lakes, and rivers for around 16 miles from the boundary within the territory. It was a dreadful agreement because it even restricted expanding agricultural land and provided less opportunities for irrigation,” he said.

Related: SC to hear Tamil Nadu water plea for standing crops on 25 August

The 1924 Agreement

The 1924 Agreement allowed the construction of the Krishnarajasagar (KRS) dam in the Kingdom of Mysore and the Mettur Dam in the erstwhile Madras Presidency.

Recalling the factors that led to the 1924 Agreement, Rao said, “When Mysore’s King Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar came up with a proposal to build a water reservoir at the Kannambadi village with a storage capacity of up to 41.5 Tmcft of water in 1910, the Madras Presidency objected to it and refused to give consent.”

“The then British government of India accorded permission to the kingdom to build a reservoir, but reduced its storage capacity to 11 Tmcft. However, the Madras Presidency continued to object to the project,” he said.

The British opted to negotiate under the clauses of the 1892 Agreement. “This was the first time the Cauvery water dispute came up for negotiation during the British era,” Capt Rao stated.

“The then government appointed HD Griffin as the arbitrator. The proceedings began on 16 July, 1913, and the award was given on 12 May, 1914. The award upheld the decision of the government and permitted Mysore to continue with the construction of the dam with a capacity of 11 Tmcft,” he explained.

However, the Madras Presidency yet again appealed against the decision, Capt Rao said, which led to the 1924 Agreement between it and Mysore.

The 1924 Agreement allowed Mysore to construct the KRS Dam across the Cauvery. It also allowed Madras to build the Mettur dam.

“As per the agreement, Mysore was allowed to store water in the KRS dam only when the river flowed above a stipulated level or mark mentioned on the gauge. If the water level was was less, Mysore was not allowed to store water, but mandated it to release water downstream,” he added.

“There were no high-tech gauge meters to measure the water flow back then. The British used manual gauges, fixing a stick with markings in feet to measure water levels. In 1927, the British fixed the quantum for each level,” he explained.

Capt Rao also said that under this agreement, Mysore was completely restricted from expanding the irrigation area.

“In the end, it was said that this agreement was valid for only 50 years — till 1974,” he pointed out.

As per the 1892 and 1924 agreements, the approximate Cauvery water allotment between states stood at 75 percent to Tamil Nadu, 23 percent to Karnataka, and the rest to Kerala.

Related: SC sets up bench to hear TN plea for release of Cauvery water

After Independence

After the reorganisation of the states in 1956 and the fixing of state boundaries based on linguistic lines, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were formed.

Redrawing of the state boundaries led to parts of Kerala and Puducherry landing in the Cauvery basin. Thus, they both became stakeholders in the Cauvery river.

“The pre-Independence conflicts between Mysore and Madras were resolved through British arbitration. Post-Independence, water division between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu became contentious,” Capt Rao said.

“In the 1960s, Tamil Nadu opposed Karnataka’s dam construction in the Cauvery basin, and the negotiations failed. In 1974, Karnataka argued that the 1924 Agreement limited water supply to Tamil Nadu for 50 years. The debate intensified as Karnataka believed it had the right to manage the river’s water since its origin is within its boundaries,” he explained.

“Tamil Nadu argued for status quo to support its agriculture. The dispute escalated due to dams and the expansion of agricultural land in Karnataka, affecting downstream water supply. It led to tension,” he said.

In the late 1970s, a series of discussions took place involving the two states and the Union government, chaired by the then irrigation minister Jagjivan Ram.

“These discussions led to the creation of a final draft, which was based on the findings of the Cauvery Fact Finding Committee (CFFC). Remarkably, this draft found acceptance among all states, and the Union government formally announced it in Parliament,” Capt Rao recalled.

“However, a change in circumstances unfolded as Tamil Nadu came under President’s rule shortly afterwards. Consequently, the previously agreed-upon agreement was set aside. The subsequent government led by the AIADMK under the leadership of MG Ramachandran took a different stance. It rejected the draft agreement and emphasised that the 1924 Agreement had been intended solely for extension, not for a comprehensive review,” he said.

“The AIADMK government insisted on returning to the terms outlined in the agreements of 1892 and 1924. In pursuit of a resolution to the issue, multiple meetings were held between the two states throughout the 1980s. Regrettably, these discussions proved unproductive, as a middle ground could not be reached. The deeply entrenched differences between the two parties hindered the efforts to find an amicable solution to the ongoing problem,” he explained the contentious issue.

Related: Karnataka to file appeal in SC over release of Cauvery water

Thanjavur farmers approach Union government

Farmers from Tamil Nadu were the first to object. They approached the Union government seeking its intervention.

“In 1986, a farmer’s association from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu approached the Union government stating that Karnataka was building reservoirs in the Cauvery basin, and hence they are not getting sufficient water,” Capt Rao said.

As it was interstate water issue, the government should intervene and resolve the dispute by stopping the reservoir building works and serve justice to Tamil Nadu, the farmers demanded.

“This was the first official objection from Tamil Nadu on the Cauvery river after independence. This was done independently by the farmers and the government was not initially part of it,” he pointed out.

“When negotiations failed, the Tamil Nadu government approached the Supreme Court in 1987 on behalf of the farmers. In 1990, the Supreme Court directed the Union government — headed by VP Singh — to set up the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT),” he traced the origin of the tribunal.

“The Union government had brought the Interstate River Water Dispute (IRWD) Act in 1956 to resolve such disputes. This act was chalked out based on the International Helsinki Rules — the model for the whole world to resolve interstate water disputes. In accordance with the IRWD Act and following the apex court’s order, the Union government constituted a separate tribunal for the Cauvery dispute,” he said.

The government also appointed Bombay High Court’s retired Chief Justice Chittatosh Mookerjee as the chairman of the tribunal, and Patna High Court retired judge NS Rao and Allahabad High Court’s retired judge SD Agarwala as its members.

Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry presented their demands before the tribunal. Karnataka sought 465 Tmcft of water, Tamil Nadu sought 566 tmcft (as per the agreements of 1892 and 1924), Kerala 99.8 Tmcft, and Puducherry 9.3 Tmcft.

In response to Tamil Nadu’s plea and under the Supreme Court’s guidance, the tribunal issued an interim award on 25 June, 1991.

The award mandated that Karnataka guaranteed an average inflow of 205 Tmcft of water annually to Tamil Nadu, based on a 10-year calculation excluding extreme years of drought and floods from 1980-81 to 1989-90.”

Related: Karnataka govt under fire for supplying Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu

And interim order — and riots

The award also outlined specific weekly and monthly water flow requirements from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu for each month of the year. Additionally, the tribunal prohibited Karnataka from expanding its irrigated land area beyond the existing 11.2 lakh acres.

Stating that the interim order received severe backlash from both states, Rao said, “After the interim award, Karnataka witnessed the worst anti-Tamil riots, resulting in numerous fatalities and the displacement of thousands from the state.”

Violence broke out in parts of Bangalore (now Bengaluru), Mandya, and Mysore (Mysuru), and continued for approximately a month. This led to the closure of schools and educational institutions across the state. Even offices and shops belonging to Tamils were set on fire.

Reciprocating incidents of violence were reported in Tamil Nadu.

“The Karnataka government vehemently rejected the interim award and introduced an ordinance with the intention of annulling the tribunal’s decision. However, the Supreme Court invalidated Karnataka’s ordinance and upheld the tribunal’s award. Subsequently, the Union government officially recognised the tribunal’s award on 11 December, 1991. Between 1992 and 1994, sufficient rainfall brought a temporary truce,” Capt Rao said.

In 1995, Karnataka experienced a severe deficit monsoon, rendering it incapable of fulfilling the requirements outlined in the interim order. Tamil Nadu approached the apex court, requesting the immediate release of at least 30 Tmcft of water. The Supreme Court did not entertain the request. The CWDT examined the case and recommended that Karnataka release only 11 Tmcft, which the state rejected.

Subsequently, Tamil Nadu returned to the Supreme Court, seeking an order to enforce the tribunal’s order. In response, the Supreme Court advised the intervention of the then-prime minister PV Narasimha Rao to find a political resolution.

Rao convened a meeting with the chief ministers of both states and proposed that Karnataka release 6 Tmcft of water instead of the tribunal’s specified 11 Tmcft. Karnataka agreed to the proposal.

“In 1998, the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) was established, with the prime minister as its chairperson and the chief ministers of the three states and the UT as its members. The CRA was entrusted with facilitating the implementation of the interim order and subsequent related directives. Additionally, the Cauvery Monitoring Committee, comprised of engineers and other experts, was formed to assess on-ground realities and report to the CRA,” Capt Rao said.

Related: All-party delegation to meet PM over interstate water disputes

Cauvery tribunal final award in 2007

After 17 years, the CWDT delivered its final decision on 5 February, 2007. Considering the total availability of water in the Cauvery river basin, the tribunal allocated 740 tmcft of water to the stakeholders.

As per the tribunal award, Karnataka was allocated 270 Tmcft against the demand of 465 tmcft, Tamil Nadu was allocated 419 Tmcft against the demand of 512 Tmcft, and Kerala and Pondicherry were awarded 30 Tmcft and 7 Tmcft, respectively. The tribunal also reserved 10 Tmcft for the environment and 4 Tmcft for the sea.

As per the final tribunal award, Karnataka had to release 192 Tmcft of Tamil Nadu from its Biligundlu site. This included 10 Tmcft meant for environmental purposes. The total water flowing from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu would be 217 Tmcft.

“The Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments vehemently opposed the order. Both states also witnessed huge protests and they filed revision petitions before the tribunal,” Capt Rao said.

The tribunal did not give any kind of solution for the utilisation of Cauvery water during surplus and distress year. This is the main reason the Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu persists.

“After the 2007 tribunal final verdict, the CRWD once again came to the fore in 2012 and 2016 as Karnataka failed to release the required amount of water to Tamil Nadu due a failed monsoon. Tamil Nadu approached the Union government and the Supreme Court on both occasions. Considering the plea, the Union government and Supreme Court directed Karnataka to release water to the neighbouring state,” Capt Rao recalled.

Karnataka cited drought and did not comply with the orders.

Related: Kerala headed for drought-like situation after 4 years of heavy rains

2018 SC verdict

With petitions of both state governments pending before it for about a decade, the apex court announced its intention to resolve all pending cases and confusion within a month from 9 January, 2018.

When the court delivered its final verdict, the water allocation stood as follows: Karnataka was allocated 284.75 Tmcft, which was 14.75 Tmcft more than the 2007 verdict; Tamil Nadu was allocated 404.25 Tmcft, 14.75 Tmcft less than the 2007 verdict; Kerala was allocated 30 Tmcft, Puducherry was allocated 7 Tmcft, 10 Tmcft for environmental purposes and 4 Tmcft to the sea.

The ruling also required the establishment of the Cauvery River Management Board (CRMB) within 40 days by the Union government to ensure strict implementation of the tribunal’s award and the court’s verdict.

“Following the orders of the Supreme Court, the Union government set up the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA) on 1 June 2018. In mid-June, the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC) was constituted,” Capt Rao recalled.

While Tamil Nadu was unhappy with the Supreme Court verdict, Karnataka welcomed it. Since then, there was no dispute between the states over water allocation.

Tensions flared up between the two states only during distress years (drought years) as neither the tribunal nor the Supreme Court provided a formula for water utilisation during surplus and distress years.

The long wait

Karnataka-based Capt Rao then ventured into the territory of opinions, saying that the Cauvery dispute was not yet resolved because the apex court and the tribunal had not issued a final report under Section 53 of the IRWD Act. Until then, the dispute would remain unsolved, he said.

“Advocates representing the Karnataka government miserably failed on all occasions while arguing before the tribunal and the apex court,” he added.

“The legal team of our state should present the case properly. The 1924 Agreement allowed Karnataka to construct the Mekedatu dam, but our advocates are not fighting the case effectively. However, the state government should tread cautiously in the coming days.”

Capt Rao also pointed to the apex court’s delay in the final verdict, referring to its 2018 order.

“The matter would have been solved long back when the tribunal gave its final verdict in 2007. The apex court, instead of accepting petitions of both the states, should have directed them to appeal before the tribunal,” he opined.

“Instead, it took 11 years for the apex court to give its final verdict. The highest court of the land should hasten the hearing process of such disputes,” Capt Rao added.