The Cauvery River water dispute has its own historical connotations, considering that it goes back to the 1870s when drought and famine created complex issues in water distribution between Madras Presidency and the ruling entities of the Mysore state. The first Cauvery agreement was signed in 1892, wherein the basic principles were invoked, allowing Mysore to deal with the irrigation works and ensuring practical security against injury to the cardinal interests of Madras.
The dispute has persisted post-Independence and become more complicated with more issues and actors joining the fray. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the successor states of the princely state of Mysore and the Madras Presidency respectively, are the main players, but Kerala and Puducherry have also staked claim to the Cauvery’s waters.
The latest Supreme Court direction to Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs of water per day to Tamil Nadu has resulted in near breakdown in law and order in Karnataka where buses have been burnt, calls for bandh issued, public transport between Chennai and Bengaluru disrupted and people publicly attacked.
The shutdown of all economic activity in the region has cost the economy around `25,000 crore during the last week, according to the Associated Chamber of Commerce. It has also damaged Bengaluru’s brand image as India’s ‘Silicon City’.
This is not the first time that Cauvery-related violence has erupted in Karnataka. In 1990, for instance, violence—far more serious than the recent one— targeting Tamils and their property tore Bengaluru apart. Indeed, years of water distress in the region have inevitably seen protests in the Cauvery Basin in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and violence in Bengaluru.
Essentially, the sharing of water is a property dispute. River Cauvery originates in Karnataka’s Coorg district and flows through the southern part of the state and Tamil Nadu before emptying itself into the Bay of Bengal. Karnataka says it is the exclusive owner of all the water that falls in its geographical area. Tamil Nadu claims it is the joint owner and so is entitled to partake of its share.
Notwithstanding that law and order is a state subject, the Union government is bound to get involved during major systemic breakdowns of the type when water-sharing disputes between two states reach a boiling point.
From first indications, it appears that democratic methods to resolve inter-state differences were not effectively pursued. Central agencies, which have high-level representatives in both capitals, also failed to grasp the impact of early signs of discord leading to mass violence that ensued in Karnataka.
A closer look at the incidents of violence shows that things are usually quiet along the Cauvery in years of normal monsoon, when the reservoirs in Karnataka are full. It is only during periods of deficient rains in the catchment area that Karnataka defaults and violence erupts in the Cauvery Basin.
This year, with water in its reservoirs running low, the Karnataka government was unable to release water to Tamil Nadu, throwing into jeopardy the paddy crop in the state. The Tamil Nadu government’s complaint to the Supreme Court on the matter set off a chain of events that culminated in agitation.
The violence underscores the fact that top-down solutions are not working, even when it is the apex court that is issuing orders. That Tamil-speaking people settled in Karnataka for generations are threatened and business establishments run by entrepreneurs tracing their familial ties to Karnataka are targeted in Tamil Nadu show politicians manipulate a water dispute by mixing it up with emotive issues of linguistic identities, which goes against the interests of the people of the two states.
The Union and concerned state governments must first ensure that law and order is restored, and a strong signal is sent out that dispute will not be allowed to be made a plaything in the hands of chauvinists. As the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal has stipulated, the issue should be left in the hands of technical experts and not politicians who are hostage to the emotions of a parochial fringe.
The fact is that those who engaged in recent violence are not genuine stakeholders but goons let loose by politicians and their fringe organisations. The Centre and states must not let them operate with impunity but put them down with a heavy hand. Simultaneously, they must also evolve mechanisms to involve genuine stakeholders in the process of finding an amicable solution. The people whose interests are most involved are the farmers of Cauvery Basin. They must be educated and encouraged to evolve a formula for sharing distress in water-deficient years, find a common ground and empathise with each other’s problems.
The writer is a former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat