Cauvery: give priority to drinking water

I am a Kannadiga who lives in Karnataka but with years of exposure to Tamil Nadu and the wonders of its art, culture and temple architecture. I wish both states well in sharing the Cauvery water.

There are four major players in the dispute relating to sharing of the Cauvery river water: the Central government which has so far played no role; the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments, both of which have stuck to history; and the Supreme Court, that is trying to resolve the tangle. The Court is assisted by a technical committee that seems particularly ignorant in the matter of water and has made wrong inferences which it has conveyed to the Court.

The river originates in Karnataka and flows into Tamil Nadu and Puducheri. The sharing of waters between the two large states was decided by the British Indian government. The then Madras Presidency was an imperial presidency. The imperial government favoured its Madras Presidency and not the vassal princely state of Mysore where the river originated.

The British Indian government brokered two "agreements" in 1892 and 1924. These agreements gave a large proportion of the river water to the down stream Madras Presidency. After the Mettur dam in the Madras Presidency was constructed, there was abundance of water there in the delta whose farmers near the river and its canals grew four paddy crops a year! It was required since paddy cultivation in India uses flooding.

After the independence and the creation of Karnataka, the relationship between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka was the one between two elected governments.

Karnataka is one of the driest states in India. Its duty was to see that farmers got enough water for their crops. But it dutifully obeyed the old agreements and had to be satisfied with a minority share of the water.

The premier city in Karnataka was (and is) Bangalore, which by the 1980s had become a major public enterprise hub; by the 1990s, it was a growing educational hub and later, the Indian "Silicon Valley."

As the fastest growing Indian city, its population shot up. Water had to be assured to the growing population. The only source was bringing water from the Cauvery from a distance of 130 km and then pumping it up 3,000 feet. This required large quantity of electricity.

Mandya district is contiguous to the Cauvery and uses its water to grow sugarcane. Like paddy, it is a water-intensive crop. Little was done to send water to the dry districts. Despite the river originating and flowing through a good part of the state, Karnataka was unable to use much of it to satisfy its farmers.

The "technical committee" has tried to implement old imperial agreements imposed by the British. It ignored developments since and the need to guarantee drinking water to Bengaluru. It advised the Supreme Court that Karnataka should cede control over the dams it has built, the canals and waters that flow through them to an independent Cauvery Management Board.

Dry months

The supply of drinking water to Bengaluru in the coming dry months must take priority over any other use. If Tamil Nadu or Karnataka farmers run out of water, their governments must give them drought relief.

There has been no attempt at wider use of available water by changing cropping patterns in the Tamil Nadu delta region and the Mandya district in Karnataka. There has been no attempt either to charge higher tariffs, justified by cost, for drinking water in Bengaluru which could reduce the demand.

There is no major effort in either state to save water, recharge aquifers, enforce rain water harvesting all over and not give free electricity as they do to extract ground water. This has led to steep fall in groundwater levels at the cost of future generations.

The Union government also has to make paddy cultivation less attractive in line with the falling demand, with lower minimum support prices. This will also reduce mounting stocks, some rotting, with government.

All the four parties must move from history to the present situations. They must give top priority to drinking water over irrigation. For a long-term solution, the two states must look objectively at agricultural practices, and conserving water with urgent projects.