Current Affairs for IAS - Cauvery Water Dispute and Analysis

Comprehensive knowledge of politically and economically relevant Current Affair is very crucial and necessary for UPSC IAS Exam. Here we provide the analysis on latest Cauvery Water Dispute and recommendations.

Updated: Feb 28, 2017 14:07 IST

Cauvery River tributaries

The 124 year long, unsettled dispute of the Cauvery waters is taking a toll on the peace and harmony of two South Indian States- Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The simmering differences between the neighbouring states over the past century have disreputable turned them into sparring partners.

Current Issues and Events


The monsoon, which started on a hopeful note this year has suddenly narrowed at the end of monsoon season leading to the shortage of water in reservoirs across the Cauvery. Therefore, the Karnataka state was not able to fulfil its obligation to supply water to Tamil Naidu in the months from June to august as mandated by the Cauvery tribunal. As a result, Tamil Nadu placed appeal in the Supreme Court on the way out which stirred the emotions leading to violence and destruction of public property in both the states.

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The recent surge has proved to be very challenging to solve as the complexities shift from agricultural stress to social identity exertion in the form of hideous regionalism. Stirred emotions often lack reason as seen in Cauvery’s case, it is turning out to be less about water and irrigation and more about linguistic chauvinism and regional identity.

History and background

The river Cauvery the largest in Southern India rises near Mercara in the Coorg and move towards the western Ghat and takes an easterly course passing through the States of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu before joining the Bay of Bengal.

The Cauvery basin is estimated to be 81,155 square kilometres with many tributaries, including the Shimsha, the Hemavati, the Arkavati, Honnuhole, Lakshmana Tirtha, Kabini, Bhavani River, the Lokapavani, the Noyyal and the Amaravati River. The river basin covers four states and Union Territories, as follows: Tamil Nadu, 43,856 square kilometres; Karnataka, 34,273 square kilometres; Kerala, 2,866 square kilometres, and Pondicherry, 160 square kilometres. The river is the source for an extensive irrigation system and for hydroelectric power. The river has supported irrigated agriculture for centuries and served as the lifeblood of the ancient kingdoms and modern cities of South India.
                                    Cauvery crisis- timeline


The Mysore Government while restoring their old irrigation works also wanted to build a number of new irrigation projects. This caused considerable anxiety to the then State of Madras, who were dependent on the river Cauvery for their irrigation purposes.

After a lot of discussions and correspondence, an agreement was finally reached on 18th February 1892 covering inter- State Rivers.


In the year 1910 the Government of Mysore formulated its proposal for a reservoir on the Cauvery. As difference and conflict arose in respect of this project, then the Government of Madras appealed before the Secretary of State.

But the Secretary of State came to the conclusion that there was a prima facie case for interfering the award on the ground of error and different options were given to the Mysore Government in respect of the dispute regarding the sharing of the waters. Ultimately, after negotiations, another agreement was signed in 1924.


After the re-organization of States in 1956, fresh disputes arose between the States of Tamil Nadu and Mysore/Karnataka when, according to the State of Tamil Nadu; the State of Karnataka unilaterally started construction of the irrigation projects on the tributaries of the Cauvery.

The construction of the aforesaid projects was objected by Tamil Nadu, on an apprehension that this will cause a danger to the existing irrigation system in Tamil Nadu.


In August 1971 the State of Tamil Nadu filed a Suit before the Supreme Court of India to direct the Government of India to constitute a Tribunal as per the provisions of the Interstate Water Disputes Act of 1956 and to restrain the State of Karnataka from proceeding with their irrigation projects which were under construction.


In the meeting of the Chief Ministers of the States of Tamil Nadu,

Karnataka and Kerala which had been called by the Union Minister for Irrigation and Power, it was decided that a Committee should be constituted to collect factual details in respect of the yield and utilisation of water in the Cauvery basin.


Tamil Nadu had filed a Writ Petition under Article 32 for a writ of mandamus directing the Union of India to refer the dispute relating to the utilisation of the Cauvery river water for adjudication by the Tribunal to be constituted under the Interstate Water Disputes Act 1956.

As a result, the Supreme Court directed the Central Government to fulfil its statutory obligation and notify in the official gazette the constitution of an appropriate tribunal for the adjudication of the water dispute.


The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) announced an interim award and Karnataka was ordered to release water to Tamil Nadu. In a move to nullify the interim awards, Karnataka government passes an Ordinance.

However, the Supreme Court intervenes and strikes down Karnataka's ordinance and upholds the interim award of the CWDT.


Centre constitutes Cauvery River Authority to ensure the implementation of the interim award of CWDT.


Cauvery River Authority directs Karnataka to release 9,000 of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu.


After 16 years, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal gives the final award. Tribunal holds a valid the two agreements of 1892 and 1924 executed between the Governments of Madras and Mysore on the apportionment of water to Tamil Nadu.


Centre notifies the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT). The Central government was mandated to constitute the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) simultaneously with the gazette notification of the final award of the Tribunal.

Meanwhile, Union Water Resources Secretary chairs the first meeting of the Supervisory Committee, which saw Tamil Nadu is demanding its share of water for June as stipulated in the award.


The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal meets in New Delhi to hear applications filed by the Centre, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala seeks clarification on the final award it had passed, the quantum of water for each State.


The Supreme Court asks the Karnataka State to consider taking steps to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu to help the State continue to exist as an entity.

The Cauvery Supervisory Committee (CSC) orders Karnataka to release 3,000 cubic feet of water per second (cases) for the rest of the month of September.

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Major causes of dispute

With the increase in the erratic nature of the Southwest monsoon, often the same old story of the monsoon - deficient year is being repeated in which Tamil Nadu faces extreme water scarcity during the summer months and rushes to the Supreme Court citing resolution for the crisis faced by its farmers and the court orders release of some water from the Karnataka reserves, and finally results in protests erupt in Karnataka.

The reason for this vicious cycle of sporadic litigation and ad hoc adjudication is that

-->The two States continue to avoid any mutual engagement to share the shortfall during distress years.

-->There is no permanent, independent mechanism to ensure peaceful negotiation between the states as had been suggested many times by The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

-->A major problem in implementing a concrete solution is the absence of a ‘Cauvery Management Board’ and a Regulatory Authority, which the Tribunal had wanted to be created to oversee implementation.

-->Although, the Union government had set up a Supervisory Committee comprising officials from the Union government and representatives of both States, but both the states always seek the appellate advice from the Supreme Court itself.


Recommendation and way ahead

1.Ideally, a comprehensive distress-sharing formula should come from a technical body constituted of experts on geospatial sciences. In the longer term, experts will have to devise a sustainable agricultural solution for the Cauvery basin, as the river does not seem to have the potential to meet the farming requirements of both sides.

2.In a world of depleting water resources, fewer crop seasons and lower acreages, a resort to less water-intensive crops and better water management hold the key to watershed management systems.

3. Nonpolitical initiatives, such as the ‘Cauvery Family’, a body covering farmers of both States, could help disperse the wave of aggression that gathers over the border whenever the Cauvery crisis erupts.

4. An efficient and dynamic model that calculates and explains with transparency the quantum of water to be shared, especially in a distress year encompassing conservatory practices like afforestation in the western ghat region and better monsoon monitoring system.

5. As suggested by the Supreme Court, a water-sharing dispute should be handled in a scientific and responsible manner by a legally constituted technical body. The board should be in coherence with the mechanism prescribed by the Tribunal in its final order for implementing its award. It will be consisting of irrigation engineers and agronomists and will have independent members as well as representatives of the basin States.


It is of supreme importance for both the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to accept the spatial and temporal conditions as gifted and understand that both lie in water scare region feed by perennial rivers governed by the code of nature. Even if the tribunal or the Supreme Court itself commands water to be released into a certain state, there can be an evident and a fair supply side constraint.

The entire struggle to formulate a permanent body to resolve the water dispute shows that apart from permanent mechanisms, technical panels and seasonal adjudication, a spirit of accommodation is required among the basin States.

It is time for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to take a hard look at their agricultural economies: the area under cultivation, the number of crops per year and the water-intensive nature of the crops. Unless these are adjusted to suit the water availability, such disputes will keep surfacing.

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