Tamil Nadu Waging Water War
CHENNAI: Water sharing has always been a headache to upper and lower riparian settlements along a river anywhere. There are innumerable instances of such international and inter-regional disputes on rivers. The problem in our country is that such disputes get politicised, leading to bitterness between people. Thirsty for its irrigation needs, Tamil Nadu is almost waging a no-holds-barred battle with its neighbouring States. Though river water disputes tribunals have pronounced their awards indicating the share of river waters between States, the awards have not indicated a formula as to how the water should be shared in a distress year due to the failure of monsoon.
With a considerable deficit in the rainfall over the catchment areas of the Cauvery basin during the current monsoon season, the plight of the thirsty delta farmers of Tamil Nadu has intensified. Storage in the Stanley Reservoir (Mettur dam), the mainstay of the State, is painfully low at 35 tmc (thousand million cubic feet) against the full capacity of 93 tmc. Hence the Tamil Nadu Government has not opened the gates of the dam so far, though the usual date for release of water is June 12 for the ‘kuruvai’ (short-term) crop, which has almost been abandoned this year, except for raising it on 3.1 lakh acres utilising the meagre groundwater potential in the delta areas.
As per the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’s final order in 2007, Tamil Nadu should have received 94 tmc during June-August this year, but the actual yield at Mettur is only 33 tmc. No wonder, delta farmers are keeping their fingers crossed about sowing the long-term ‘samba’ crop.
Faced with such a piquant situation, the Tamil Nadu Government has moved the Supreme Court seeking its intervention and to direct Karnataka to release the TN quota of water as per the tribunal’s order immediately to save the farmers. The apex court, which heard the petition on Monday, directed Karnataka to release 15,000 cubic feet of water from its reservoirs daily for the next ten days to enable the delta farmers to start their ‘samba’ operations. When the petition came up for admission last week, the court had implored the Karnataka Government to “embrace of the principle of live and live” and take steps to alleviate the agony of the neighbouring State.
Karnataka has already started increasing the release of water to Mettur and, as expected, the farmers of the upper basin have taken to streets against this release. Karnataka’s contention is that there is a deficit of 80 tmc in the combined storage of its four Cauvery reservoirs – Harangi, Hemavathi, Kabini and Krishnarajasagar – due to the failure of the south-west monsoon. Hence they have instructed the farmers to depend less on irrigation and go for dry crops. It further contends that the Government is under compulsion to meet the drinking water needs of several towns and cities like Mysuru and Bengaluru. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is naturally upset over the apex court directive, and is contemplating the next step in consultation with the State MPs and Opposition leaders.
Unfortunately, the Centre has done precious little to resolve the dispute between the two States. The Modi Government is being accused by Tamil Nadu of remaining a silent spectator just like the previous Manmohan Singh regime. The Centre’s failure to constitute the Cauvery Water Management Board as suggested the Cauvery River Water Dispute Tribunal on the lines of the Krishna and the Godavari, is another lag. On her part, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa has been writing letters to Mr. Modi on this issue, apart from seeking a restraint on Karnataka from going ahead with its proposal to build a new dam across the Cauvery at Mekhadatu. Tamil Nadu’s apprehension is that if Mekhadatu dam materialises, it would further reduce the inflow into the Mettur dam. A petition against this is also awaiting the apex court’s final word.
The latest irritant in the running battle between Tamil Nadu and Kerala is the latter’s proposal to build a dam across the Siruvani, a tributary of the Bhavani river which is again a tributary of the Cauvery. Tamil Nadu fears that this proposal, for which the Union Environment Ministry‘s committee has accorded permission to conduct an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the dam coming under the Attappady Valley irrigation project, would enable Kerala to impound more waters of the Siruvani which would be detrimental to the interests of farmers of the western districts of Coimbatore, Tirupur and Erode. The Siruvani, which is also a drinking water source for Coimbatore city, is an inter-State river which originates, runs and merges in the Bhavani within the Kerala boundary. As per the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, any new project across the Siruvani could be undertaken only with the permission of Tamil Nadu. The State Assembly unanimously passed a resolution last week urging the Centre to restrain Kerala from going ahead with the dam proposal until all the cases on the subject have been finally dealt with by various courts.
It may be recalled that Tamil Nadu was permitted by the Supreme Court two years ago to raise the level of the Mullaperiyar dam to benefit the farmers of the central western districts like Theni and Madurai. This proposal was contested by the Kerala Government pointing out the danger to lives and property of people downstream if the dam level were to be raised to 142 feet from the existing 136 feet. After getting the opinion of an experts committee on the issue the apex court had rejected Kerala’s contention. The matter has not been closed because, the Kerala Government is toying with the idea of a new dam on the Mullaperiyar, which is a westward flowing river.
With Andhra Pradesh, too, Tamil Nadu is waging a battle over the former’s proposal to build a check dam across the Palar river. Tamil Nadu’s apprehension is that once this project is through, the districts of Vellore and Dharmapuri would be deprived of their irrigation rights.
a Senior Journalist and Prime Associate from Chennai