The long-standing dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of the waters of the Cauvery river is back on the boil after a gap of several years — thanks mainly to the poor monsoon. Karnataka is facing its worst drought in decades, and flows into the Cauvery river basin have been 41 per cent less than normal. As a result, it has tried to deny water to Tamil Nadu, the lower riparian state. When the Cauvery River Authority asked Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of water daily till October 15, as per the interim award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, Karnataka protested and asked for a review of the situation on the ground by a central team. After studying the report of the team that visited both states, the Cauvery Monitoring Committee has, in its latest order, asked Karnataka to release 8.85 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of water between October 16 and October 31. Meanwhile, Karnataka has claimed it is “physically impossible” to release any more water, prompting the Supreme Court to observe that “agitations” against release of water “don’t serve any purpose” and may “spoil a good case”. Clearly, Karnataka’s government has been found relatively wanting in its handling of the situation.
That’s partly because of the relative political strengths of the two state governments. In Chennai, the AIADMK government of J Jayalalithaa enjoys firm popular backing. The BJP government in Bangalore, on the other hand, is led by Jagadish Shettar, a placeholder chosen by the powerful former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa to hold charge till Assembly elections are held in less than a year. Mr Shettar has been both indecisive and short on strategy. Opposition parties have stood by and watched the administration bungle things, before stepping forward to take electoral advantage. Yet, while Karnataka could have handled its case better, it is doubtful if that alone would have helped.
The reality is that neither political posturing – Tamil Nadu has demanded over five times the water that it has been allocated – nor the instrumentality of law can bring about a lasting solution along with peace. Good sense and sound agricultural practices can. When water is scarce, cultivation of a water-guzzling cash crop like sugarcane, no matter how lucrative, has to be curbed. The water economy can also be hugely improved by proper management of reservoirs and water bodies so that rain water is effectively harvested. Also, in a distress year, cultivating a third crop simply may not be practicable. The best people to negotiate a compromise based on sound knowledge of conditions prevailing on the ground are farmers and independent experts. Civil society organisations like the Cauvery Family, which has equal membership from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, have done a lot of groundwork. Authorities in both the states and at the Centre have to take a call at some point in time on bringing reasonable voices from farming communities into the official deliberative process, so that those affected – and sensible enough to realise that conflict helps nobody – can help shape a compromise that is minimally dependent on ethnic mobilisation.