Kaveri water dispute –Water economics and challenges to policy interventions


Compiled By Zulfiqar Sheth


“…. Rivers are not human artifacts; they are natural phenomena, integral components of ecological systems, and inextricable parts of the cultural, social, economic and spiritual lives of the communities concerned. They are not pipelines to be cut, turned around, welded and rejoined…..” – Ramaswamy R. Iyer, water policy expert

Our economics text books reflect largely the current thinking that – growth is most important, for this exploitation of natural resources must be maximized. However, this thinking is causing serious damage to nature as well as the poor and marginalized (mining destroys poor farmers livelihoods and makes rich miners richer… etc).

 The demand for water of India’s rivers has grown as a part of post-Independence India’s economic growth. Consequently, inter-state and intra-state disputes over water have arisen, but none have been finally resolved by political or judicial means available under the Constitution of India. One of the oldest disputes concerns the water of the Kaveri (also spelt “Cauvery”) river which flows from Karnataka into Tamil Nadu. Its waters have been the subject of dispute since the 19th Century. As on date, with a failed monsoon, a political-judicial battle is raging between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka regarding sharing of scarce water. The genesis of this conflict rests in two agreements in 1892 and 1924 between the erstwhile Madras Presidency and Princely State of Mysore. The 802 kilometers (498 mi) Kaveri river has 44,000 km2 basin area in Tamil Nadu and 32,000 km2 basin area in Karnataka.

What is the root cause of the dispute?

After the reorganization of states in 1956, Kodagu (Coorg), where the river originates, became a part of Karnataka as did parts of the Hyderabad State and the Bombay Presidency. Similarly, the Malabar region of the Madras Presidency became Kerala and Puducherry came under the Union government. Thus, not only did the quantum of need and generation of Cauvery water in the catchment areas under the respective states change, it also mean two new parties in all water-sharing arrangements—Kerala and Puducherry. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, however, remained the major parties.


While the 1924 sharing agreement was to end in 1974, in 1959-60, Karnataka demanded that several clauses of the agreement be changed. With the dispute revived, the Cauvery Fact Finding Committee was formed, and it submitted its final report in 1973—in which it had noted that the agricultural land in Tamil Nadu that was dependent on Cauvery was far larger than that in Karnataka. On the basis of this report, a draft agreement was drawn in 1974, but was only ratified in 1976.

When Karnataka again started talking of a dam in Kodagu, Tamil Nadu moved the courts, demanding a Tribunal be set up under the Inter-state Water Disputes Tribunal Act 1956. It later withdrew the plea, but in 1986, a farmers’ association from the state moved the SC with the demand for a Tribunal. Following directions from the apex court, the VP Singh government at the Centre formed the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT) in June 1990. In June 1991, after SC directed the CWDT to provide interim relief to Tamil Nadu, the tribunal ordered Karnataka to release 205 tmc ft to the lower riparian state, but Karnataka refused to implement the order—it even brought an ordinance to nullify the order, but the SC struck it down. In 1998, the Cauvery River Authority was formed to ensure implementation, and in 2002, it ordered Karnataka to release 9,000 cusec of water every day to Tamil Nadu. Refusing to comply, Karnataka went to the SC. Between then and 2007, when the CWDT’s final order came, many attempts to resolve the issue, including the ones initiated by the governments of the two states, failed. In February 2007, the CWDT announced its final order, allocating—out of the 740 tmc feet of water available in the river annually—270 tmc feet to Karnataka, 419 tmc feet to Tamil Nadu, 14 tmc feet to Kerala and 7 tmc feet to Puducherry, reserving the remaining 14 TMC ft was reserved for environmental protection and outflow to sea.


Reasons of dispute – water economy and challenges to policy interventions

  • Nearly 29 lakh acres of paddy crop in TN and an estimated 14 lakh acres of paddy and semi-dry crops in Karnataka are currently dependent on Cauvery water. Karnataka farmers have traditionally resented the fact that their TN counterparts grow 3 paddy crops a year while they have to be satisfied with 1 and, if there is water left in the dams after release to TN, a second, less water-intensive crop.
  • Agriculture experts have pointed to the refusal of farmers in both states to move towards cultivating less water-intensive but profitable crops even in the drier years. “Almost all irrigated areas are growing paddy. In unirrigated areas, ragi is the predominant crop. If the Kharif ragi could be grown under irrigated conditions instead of paddy, there would be saving in water without any economic detriment to the farmers…,” a Fact Finding Committee reported on the cropping pattern in Karnataka. “Further,… there is scope for intensive research and introduction of short-term varieties (of paddy),” the report said.
  • The one of solutions can be- water intensive crops should be restricted. Sugar cane growing should be completely banned as it consumes maximum water. Where two crops are grown only one should be rice and the other some millet which consumes less water.
  • Changing water-needs, cropping patterns, increasing climate uncertainty, all have caused the states to try and appropriate a greater share of the river’s water.
  • Eighty percent of the water-supply in Bengaluru is met by Cauvery water. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have both been urbanising fast—the requirement of their cities is only burgeoning. Meanwhile, both states have shifted from water-frugal crops like millet to water-intensive cash crops like sugarcane (in Karnataka) and samba rice (in Tamil Nadu). With great local variance in rainfall, despite a normal overall monsoon, Cauvery water reservoirs in both states are short of water—by 30% in Karnataka and 49% in Tamil Nadu.
  • A way forward to more permanent dispute resolution mechanism may be one that continually evaluates needs and usage patterns to work out solutions—needs to be instituted. Besides, usage needs to be calibrated relative to availability to prevent unjustified drawing. For instance, areas which depend on rain-fed rivers must cap cultivation of water-intensive crops; that would mean Tamil Nadu must bring down samba cultivation while Karnataka reduces sugarcane acreage irrigated with Cauvery water. [1]
  • Pricing water appropriately is the best way to achieve this, including in cities, to dissuade wasteful usage.

About the river Ramashwami Iyer once said that, “….the economists think of it as a commodity like any other, left to market forces. What is common to all these perceptions is the reduction of the river to the water that it carries. And an instrumentalist or utilitarian view of the river.”

When we are discussing water disputes in India with respect to present ongoing Kaveri dispute, we should also focus on Sardar Sarovar Project and Narmada Bachao Andolan. Since the struggle of people affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and other projects still continues, I feel I must recount what Iyer said “The present…official and industry thinking seems to be that land should be had for the asking. The average administrator…engineer and expert think of the peasantry, the boatmen, the fisherfolk and others, particularly tribal communities, as backward, needing to be brought into the mainstream…They have no understanding of the pain of the displacement that will remain in spite of the rehabilitation package, however good it may be. From the perspective of development as currently understood, Polavaram and other similar projects are symbols of development. In that view, the disappearance of traditional societies and their centuries’ old relationship with nature will seem inevitable and necessary transition to modernity. A person holding such a view will have little time or patience for the agony and anguish experienced by the dispossessed…”

Lastly I want to quote following from the book “Towards Water Wisdom: Limits, Justice, Harmony”   By Ramashwami R Iyer.

“In the Indian context the problem of water has been a “crisis of gross mismanagement” and in the international context, “a crisis of rapacity.”

“The theory that ‘development’ entails ‘costs’ and that this is a ‘sacrifice’ that some must accept in order that others might benefit must be recognized to be disingenuous and sanctimonious; it must be firmly abandoned. Pain and hardship imposed by some on others cannot be described as a sacrifice by the latter…‘Stakeholder consultation’ is another misleading and sanctimonious formulation. Both the beneficiaries of big projects (farmers receiving irrigation in the command area, industries and cities getting electricity, etc.) and those lands, livelihoods, and centuries-old access to the natural resource base are being taken away are lumped together as ‘stakeholders’ who must be consulted. In truth, the beneficiaries are stake-gainers whereas the project-affected groups are stake-losers, and the primacy of the latter over the former needs to be recognized…”

Points for Discussions

  • What are the main reasons of Kaveri water dispute? And possible solutions to resolve the dispute.
  • Has water become a commodity in India? Up to what degree?
  • On the name of modernization and economic development, lands, livelihoods, and centuries-old access to the natural resource base are being taken away from the poor (stake-losers). Do you agree? How we can improve the situation?
  • In Kaveri basin, farmers have shifted traditional crops like millet to cash crops like sugarcane. Do you think this is one of the reasons of dispute? Is this same trend going all over country? Why?
  • Do you think India should adopt water pricing concept and make mandatory for all big businesses and industries?
  • Damages caused by our idea of growth that says “Growth is most important, and for this exploitation of natural resources must be maximized”
  • Role played by state, center, and judiciary in resolving Kaveri dispute.

[1] http://www.financialexpress.com/fe-columnist/cauvery-water-row-all-you-need-to-know/377752/

River image credit – http://images.jagran.com/Cauverydamn_B.jpg

Map image credit – wiki-commons – wikipedia

Download full document in PDF -> kaveri-river-dispute-and-economics-of-water-and-policy

(Zulfiqar Sheth is a doctoral fellow at Department of Economics, Aligarh Muslim University. Can be reached at shethzulfi@yahoo.com)



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