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Insights into Editorial: Is the Supreme Court verdict on Cauvery fair?

Insights into Editorial: Is the Supreme Court verdict on Cauvery fair?



The sharing of waters of the Kaveri River has been the source of a serious conflict between the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Recently Supreme Court pronounced its verdict in Cauvery river water dispute. While the Supreme Court awarded additional 14.75 TMC of Cauvery water to Karnataka, it reduced the share of Tamilnadu. However, Puducherry and Kerala’s allocation remain unchanged.

Cauvery River

River rises on Brahmagiri Hill of the Western Ghats in south-western Karnataka state. It flows in a south-easterly direction for 475 miles through the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Before emptying into the Bay of Bengal south of Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, the river breaks into a large number of distributaries forming a wide delta called the “garden of southern India.” The river is important for its irrigation canal projects.

In the upper course, at the Krishnaraja Sagara, the Kaveri is joined by two tributaries, the Hemavati and Lakshmantirtha, where a dam was constructed for irrigation.

Upon entering Tamil Nadu, the Kaveri continues through a series of twisted wild gorges until it reaches Hogenakal Falls. There the Mettur Dam was construted for irrigation and hydel power.

The Kaveri’s main tributaries are the Kabani (Kabbani), Amaravati, Noyil, and Bhavani rivers.

Cauvery River water sharing: a dispute since British Raj

The 122 years old Cauvery water sharing dispute has been a bone of contention between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu since the time of the British Raj. Cauvery river water dispute started in 1892 between Madras Presidency and the Princely state of Mysore. Madras disagrees to Mysore administration’s proposal to build irrigation systems, arguing that it would impede water flow into Tamil Nadu.

Later in 1924 an agreement was reached and allowed construction of the Krishnaraja Sagar dam in Mysore. The agreement was to be valid for 50 years.


The issue of water sharing became a real problem after the re-organisation of the states in 1956.

Karnataka’s argument was that the 50-year time period for the 1924 agreement had ended in 1974, and hence the state was not obliged to stick to the regulations.

Between 1960 and late 1980s, Karnataka built four dams on Cauvery – Hemavati, Harangi, Kabini and Suvarnavathy.

Tamil Nadu, the lower riparian state, argued that this put them in a precarious situation approached Centre for setting up Cauvery Tribunal in 1986. After the SC direction, Centre had setup a Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal (CWDT).

In its first interim award, CWDT asked Karnataka to release 205 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu every year.

In 2007, CWDT passed the final award and allotted 30 tmc to Kerala, 270 tmc to Karnataka, 419 tmc to Tamil Nadu and 7 tmc to Puducherry. 

Since 2013, several petitions are filed in SC, seeking direction to the state of Karnataka to release water to Tamil Nadu.

On 16 February 2018, clearing all the pending cases and the confusion, SC awarded Karnataka 14.75 tmc ft of Cauveri water from Tamilnadu’s share.

This means that the annual water release obligation of Karnataka reduces to 177.25 tmc ft, compared to 192 tmc ft as per the tribunal award.

Allocation for Bengaluru

The court acknowledges the need for a higher share of Cauvery water for Bengaluru, which now has more than 10 million inhabitants. 

In its verdict, the SC has granted the global status to Karnataka’s capital city of Bengaluru; hence it will get more Cauvery river water.

Keeping in mind the global status that Bengaluru has attained, an additional 4.75 tmc ft has been awarded to it in order to implement the existing water supply schemes. The remaining 10 tmc ft can be used to expand agricultural activities.

What are the takeaways from the SC order?

The court makes it clear that the contentious 1924 agreement had lapsed.

By upholding the approach of the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, while slightly modifying its award, the Supreme Court has boosted the prospects of a viable water-sharing arrangement among the riparian States. 

It has highlighted that no single State has primacy in accessing water resources and that rivers are national assets. 

This is a significant recognition of the principle of equitable distribution of inter-State rivers. 

It is Centre that should create a legal and technical framework to implement the Tribunal’s award.

What are some of the grey areas in the order?

It treats the dispute as a water-sharing dispute rather than as a river-sharing dispute.

Factor like changing rainfall pattern, rainwater harvesting, the potential of soil water capture, catchment degradation and local water systems are hardly given any attention.

Prime among these unresolved issues is the framing of a deficit formula for sharing water, and construction of hydel project (Mekedatu Hydel Project) on the common boundary of the river.

Increasing of 10 tmc ft allocations for Karnataka on the basis of Tamil Nadu having access to additional groundwater in the Cauvery basin should have been based on full assessment. 

Way Forward

Both the parties should see this order as a fair and scientific adjudicative process. They should pose no further impediment to the smooth implementation of the order.

Centre should comply with the court’s direction and set up the Cauvery Management Board and Water Regulation Committee as part of the scheme.

Finally, the test of the efficacy of the judgment in resolving the Cauvery dispute would be in the effectiveness of the implementation mechanism and achieving equitable water distribution in deficit years.