After 17 years of deliberation and unimplemented awards, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal passed a disappointing verdict where not only were the four states unhappy but also disappointing those who were looking for a broader direction. In its verdict, Tamil Nadu (TN) gets 419 tmcft (wants 566), Karnataka gets 270 tmcft (465), Kerala will get 30 tmcft (100), and Puducherry 7 tmcft (9.3). It is impossible for most to question the veracity of the verdict since one would like to believe that the Tribunal has access to data regarding irrigation areas, water requirements, rainfall data, projected needs, and geographical and demographical data.
The tribunal's charter has been hard given that neither state is willing to adhere or capable of implementing any verdict. Additionally, a wrong verdict on Cauvery may have international repercussions for India while dealing with China, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. If it overtly supports international laws that favor lower riparian states, Pakistan and Bangladesh will demand similar shares of Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputa waters. If it supports upper riparian positions, it will empower China to deny India water of rivers from areas that it controls-70% of all river water in India originate in Tiber and cross through Chinese held territory.
Karnataka disputes the award as many times before (as has TN) because it gives them a lower percentage of their claim (against 58%) compared to TN's claim (74%). Some hard-liners in Karnataka have said that the state does not need to give any water to TN because the river originates in that state. Farmer organizations say that each tmcft can irrigate so many more hectares of land and thus each tmcft matters. Karnataka also bemoans that TN gets water from Karnataka collected during the South West monsoon that it gets and also the North West monsoon and hence insists that TN should not get too much of its share. Karnataka has also expanded the use of Cauvery water to include Bangalore and several industrial uses which were not part of the original discussion but says that these are important for its own growth. Some of these are dubious self-serving arguments since this is the format that has been followed for hundreds of years.
TN disagrees with the verdict citing its historic irrigation patterns of Cauvery dating back to Karikala Chola nearly 2000 years ago. Hard-lines cite a 1892 Agreement between the erstwhile state of Madras Presidency and the Mysore State that would be later used as a basis for an arbitrator to that allowed a 11 tmcft reservoir (Krishnarajasagar Dam) for Karnataka and a Mettur Dam for Tamil Nadu to hold 80 tmcft (a ratio 13% for Karnataka and 87% for TN). TN also says that Cauvery is the only river and the only source of water. It has also taken the excess water off Cauvery stored in Veeranam (or Veera Narayana Puram) Aari to provide drinking water for Chennai but argues that the excess water storage has always been stored in Veeranam for the last 1,200 years. These arguments are also misleading argument since TN does have the Palar system (also originating in Karnataka but large feeds from Andhra Pradesh), Vaigai, and other smaller streams which is greatly mismanages.
Even the said arbitrator of 1914, Sir H.D. Griffin, admitted that it is "impossible to arrive at a settlement satisfactory to both the parties" as he found claims "were found inadmissible in whole or in part" from both parties. Griffin said that the erstwhile Madras Presidency's claims would make Mysore state's "impossible" and those of Mysore would end up "seriously impairing the interests of Madras." He regretted that there was a "lack of the spirit of compromise."
Griffin could have written about these statements today and may have said the same things. Only now, a handful of extremists in either state are holding the rest of their states' population hostage. In the 1991 riots, extremists killed scores of Tamil residents, injured hundreds, and destroyed crores worth of property. Both sides have defied earlier Tribunal and Supreme Court verdict only to apologize unconditionally but unfortunately with no consequence imposed on them.
Not only did the states and their leaders challenge the Constitution with impunity by defying and not implementing court orders, they also have set a bad example for the rest of the nation to abuse legal process. With the court not challenging or sufficiently repudiating these leaders, there is now talk of supremacy of the Parliament over the Judiciary whereas the Constitution envisaged an equal standing of the Executive, Legislature, and the Judiciary.
Even the Legislature had seen the gradual deterioration of the situation prompting the Parliament to amend the Water Disputes Act of 1956 in 2002 granting the verdict of the tribunals "final and binding" and equating their "order or decree" to have the "same force" as those of a Supreme Court. The amended law also excluded the judicial review of a tribunal verdict. While making a verdict beyond judicial review may itself be challenged since the Constitution did allow for a balance to ensure a fair process of enquiry, the amendment is an admission by legislators themselves that the endless reviews and standoffs is debilitating the nation. It was also admission that their peers in TN and Karnataka did not want to be seen as the one who will be held responsible for a verdict that can never be satisfactory. Since most politicians want to ensure that they serve out their term to milk as much profit for their "investment" they have made in electoral process, postponed of a final resolution is the best decision for them.
At the same time, the verdict itself lacked credibility, transparency, and vision. Firstly, while the whole verdict deserves a more detailed study, preliminary details released do not reveal a decision process and the Tribunal's adherence to a process of decision making. Secondly, it is not clear how the Tribunal arrived at the said figures-no details were disclosed on the parameters used to arrive at such a solution. Thirdly, the verdict did not stress the need for better water management, usage awareness, application restrictions, optimization recommendations, directions for management, etc. Fourthly, the verdict did not institute caps on irrigated areas, crop limitations, standards of pollution, and directions for monitoring. Fifthly, the Tribunal has made no recommendations on how the states could store more water to be used better by both nations.
A lack of bigger picture verdict, transparency, and coherent articulation of parameters has now increased skepticism and cynicism that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in New Delhi has sided with its regional ally the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to keep itself in power. While it is completely understandable that people feel so given the democratic infirmity over the issue, there is no justification for the protests sponsored by the government of Karnataka. Thankfully, unlike the 1991-92 strikes, there has been no loss of life or property but just loss of revenue for the state and the nation.
Instead of indulging in idle strikes for political gain, the two states need to urgently undertake several measures that will help share precious but fast dwindling water resources to preserve humanitarian purposes. Firstly, they need to enforce the mandatory requirement for rainwater harvesting-Bangalore has been extremely lax in enforcing rainwater harvesting regulations while Chennai has achieved near 100% target. Rainwater harvesting will not only reduce water dependency of Bangloreans, but also recharge ground water tables that are already at the lowest levels.
Secondly, lakes and tanks were built hundreds of years ago by ancient kingdoms where there is a natural overflow system that carries water from one area to another. Most of these tanks have been built over, often illegally and with political collusion, by gradually choking off rainwater flows or willful destruction of catchments. These practices must be stopped and these reservoirs and tanks need rejuvenation. By increasing storage, there is more water that can be used more judiciously.
Thirdly, because there is lack of regulation of crops being grown optimally, more farmers are opting for the more lucrative sugar cane in lieu of rice or a sensible crop rotation. This has increased demands for water and greatly reduced production of staples like rice and pulses but increased sugar production to a point of a glut.
Fourthly, there is no awareness of water usage in India. Despite limited availability, people continue to waste water to maintain large lawns, wash cars in a wasteful manner, and continue to use water in a non-frugal manner. Respective governments need to improve the awareness of water and advocating better usage.
Fifthly, there needs to be better water management plans in urban areas. Israel for example uses good water only for drinking and bathing purposes and all water is then reclaimed and then used for irrigation, toilet, and non contact purposes. Some Australian provinces now are in such great shortage that they are offering reclaimed sewerage water for drinking. To avoid such drastic measures, the state has to encourage large reclaiming projects where water may then be bought by government and industry for agricultural and industrial usage. In fact, it should drive to get river water to be used only for drinking and human contact purposes.
Sixthly, agricultural practices need vast overhaul where wasteful irrigation and open gutter water transportation practices must be discouraged. Drip irrigation or a native pot irrigation must be encouraged and the government must control what crop is planted well by providing farmers enough information about soil data, crop plantation advice, and market information.
With these six simple steps, India can not only ration its water but can increase effectiveness of usage dramatically. More importantly, it can reduce regional tensions and eliminate enmity to a great extent. Most importantly, increased understanding will also help conserve more water by building more check dams and storage systems to grow more food and manage drought years better. There is no point losing a lot of water to the sea just because the two states cannot agree with each other.