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Insights into Editorial: On the Cauvery issue

Insights into Editorial: On the Cauvery issue


We are having more than 80 per cent of Indian rivers are inter-state rivers. According to the Central Water Commission, there are 125 inter-state water agreements in India. Many of these agreements are more than 100 years old and had been executed without seriously considering socio-economic, political and geographical factors.

These treaties have now become permanent sources of problems for many states. Continuous redrawing of state boundaries during the British regime and after Independence have kept the disputes alive.


Cauvery, the ‘Dakshina Ganga’:

Cauvery, Ganges of the south, and the fourth largest river of southern India has been the economic backbone of the states through which it flows, making its impact felt most strongly in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In these two states, the river is almost the Mother Goddess, entwined with the identity of the people there.

It is celebrated in music and literature and sung praises of in prayer and legends. Yet this same holy river has been the bone of contention between the two states for decades.

Cauvery water dispute case is a classic example showcasing complicated scenario of river water management and governance in India. When there is shortage, when developmental projects grow, and riparian States do not enjoy equal access to the source, inter-state problems are bound to rise in sharing.



The centre recently, constituted the Cauvery Water Management Authority in compliance with a Supreme Court order to address the water dispute involving the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

A notification by the Water Resources Ministry said the authority will be headed by a chairman and it will have two whole time and as many part time members. While the whole time members will be appointed by the centre, the other two will be nominated by it.

Besides this, the four states will nominate one representative each as additional part time members of the committee.


Central Government on Cauvery issue:

As mentioned above, Centre had submitted a draft Cauvery water management scheme in the Supreme Court which proposes for an independent authority.

The new authority is to monitor implementation of the Cauvery Tribunal’s final award. It will be a two-tier structure, with an apex body charged with the power to ensure compliance with the final award, and a regulation committee that will monitor the field situation and water flow.

The powers and functions of the authority are fairly comprehensive. Its powers would extend to apportionment, regulation and control of Cauvery waters, supervision of operations of reservoirs and regulation of water releases. The draft makes the authority’s decisions final and binding.


Lesson from international treaties:

  • The water distribution agreement proposed by the World Bank in 1960 continues to be the basis of the Indus Water Treaty. The permanent Indus Commission regularly exchanges information and ensures cooperation between India and Pakistan on the use of river waters amicably.


  • The US-Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission has been successfully implemented since 1884 with the changing course of the rivers, the Rio Grande and Colorado.
    • This treaty has been amended more than seven times since its inception, based on the changes in irrigation uses, river boundaries, flood control, population growth, urbanisation, etc. The sharing of water during surplus and drought years is based on a five-year cycle of water flow data.


For Cauvery river, Supreme Court Recommended that Speedy establishment of Cauvery Water Management Board which should include eminent water technologists and agriculture specialists in the management board to help

  • Ensure greater economy and equity in the sharing of the Cauvery water
  • Look into the water efficiency measures involving recycling of water


Local Governance and People’s Participation:

Demand management: There is a need for the basin states to reduce the demand for water by adopting

  • Cropping patterns which are suited to local areas based on soil testing and adapting less water-intensive crops.


  • Drip irrigation and other water-saving techniques, paying attention to crops which are in demand in the market and which can enhance the income of farmers per unit of water.

Supply augmentation:

  • Make rainwater harvesting mandatory as Tamil Nadu is a rain shadow region and water becomes available largely during the north east monsoon period. There is a large scope for water harvesting and storage.


  • Set up a Water Security Board in order to derive maximum benefits by following transparency in allocation and distribution.

Urban Planning:

Urbanization has altered both quantity and quality of our water resources, it is important that proper urban and water planning are taken into consideration. For instance, In Chennai, most of the apartments and Townships are constructed in wetland and lake modified areas.


Next Steps should be:

For effective settlement of these disputes, equitable sharing of benefits is more important than equitable distribution of water. The principle of downstream benefit-sharing is crucial for the successful implementation of these treaties.

Further, water-sharing principles will have be based on the size of the river basin, population growth, historical claims, efforts taken by the state governments for water conservation, rainfall and changes in cropping patterns, scientific use of water, priority for agriculture, allocation for industry and power generation, flood control and domestic uses.

These issues should be given due importance in negotiations. Therefore, it may be necessary to have independent or mutually agreed third parties revisit disputed treaties bi or multilateral negotiations hold the key.



The Indo-Bangladesh treaty can be the model for the resolution of the Cauvery dispute. The bone of contention between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is about sharing water during the scarce period. This dispute is alive for more than 200 years.

It started between Mysore and Madras in 1807, which led to an agreement in 1892 and 1924. The linguistic re-organisation of states in 1956 triggered new problems.

There is an immediate need to constitute a permanent dispute settlement body like the JRC, JCE of Indo-Bangladesh treaty, the Indus Commission, the US-Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission etc. for the Cauvery dispute.

The Cauvery Management Board proposed by the Supreme Court may act like these bodies. The states can even re-negotiate the existing treaty, involving mutually agreed third parties like World Bank to arrive at a permanent settlement.

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.

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.

It is time that water issues are de-politicised and political parties learn to see reason and respect the rule of law without getting carried away by electoral considerations. The Central government has got a golden opportunity on Cauvery to set a new, healthy trend.