A river on fire
Communication, based on sound scientific information, involving farmers as well as other stakeholders, is the only way to solve the Cauvery dispute. Political mandate, too, is important.
17 Sep 2016
0 mins read
Cauvery river at Hogenakal, Karnataka. (Source: IWP Flickr Photos via Claire Arni and Oriole Henri)

River Cauvery has been in the epicentre of agitation and violence in the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu--both fighting over their share of the Cauvery water. Thanks to the deficit monsoon this year, the Cauvery basin reservoirs in both these neighbouring states are only filled half as much as they should be![1].

The water levels in the main reservoirs in the Cauvery catchment area of Karnataka--Krishna Raja Sagara (KRS) dam in the Mandya district, Kabini in Mysore, Harangi in Kodagu, Hemavathi in Hassan--and Tamil Nadu--Mettur dam in Salem and Bhavanisagar dam in Erode--together have been found to be filled 46 percent less than the normal[1]. Now, the available water not only needs to be shared between the farmers of both states, but also has to meet the increasing water needs of the urban areas as well as for hydel power[1, 2].

After being asked by the Supreme Court recently to release 12,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu, violence broke out in the streets of Bengaluru, Karnataka. Karnataka feels Tamil Nadu’s claims of agony in the absence of water are fake[3]. Efforts are underway to arrive at an amicable solution for both states.

The fight between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over sharing the Cauvery water is not new. It is perhaps one of the most unique and contested disputes that has posed a challenge to the people as well as the political, legal, constitutional processes involved.

This article Interstate disputes among riparian states: The case of the Cauvery river from Peninsular India published by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) provides a brief overview of the geohydrology of the Cauvery river basin; the history and the background to the conflict; the constitutional, legal, political and international processes involved; the attempts that have been made to resolve the conflict till now and the lessons learnt.

The unique case of Cauvery’s divided water

The Cauvery, an interstate river, travels through three states, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and the union territory of Puducherry, of which Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are the most dependent on its waters. Disputes between the two states have often resulted in anxiety, stress and in a few cases, even violence.

An analysis of the Cauvery dispute shows that it is very different from other interstate disputes in the country such as that of the rivers Krishna, Godavari or Narmada in that the dispute is over sharing the water in a river basin that has already been utilised to its maximum potential. For example, the total quantum of water available in the basin varies from 671 tmcft to 750 tmcft. In the 1970s, the Central Fact Finding Committee had arrived at a figure of 671 tmcft of water in the basin. With Kerala and Puducherry claiming around 50 tmcft, the remaining 600-plus tmcft remains to be shared between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

The demands made by the four riparian states total to around 1,150 tmcft, almost double than that of the availability. A majority of these needs are for irrigation. Industrial and drinking water supply requirements are estimated to be less than 100 tmcft [4].

Both states take a strong stand on their right to the Cauvery water. Tamil Nadu has a much earlier history of using the Cauvery water for irrigation. Karnataka, the upper riparian state, came into the scene later but has a strong stand on its entitlement to using the Cauvery waters. Tamil Nadu uses Cauvery water to cultivate 25.8 lakh acres of land while Karnataka used it only to cultivate about 4.42 lakh acres till 1971, which was expanded later. This was because the 1892 agreement on interstate rivers and the 1924 agreement related to irrigation development during the colonial period placed restrictions on the upper riparian (Karnataka in this case) from conducting new works upstream and expected permission from Tamil Nadu in case new construction works were started. Karnataka later violated this agreement by constructing four dams across the tributaries of the Cauvery without getting clearance from the Planning Commission, the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the government of India saying that it was discriminated against in the past. This has fuelled the conflict between the two states.

The response to this dispute

Water is a state subject but the union government can intervene in case of interstate rivers. The Inter State Water Disputes (ISWD) Act was enacted in 1956 as per the provisions of Article 262 of the Indian Constitution, which was amended later in 2002. This Act provides legal mechanisms to resolve these disputes.

The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was constituted on June 2, 1990 as per the provisions of the ISWD Act 1956 to resolve the disputes. This Act bars the intervention of the Supreme Court in resolving the disputes once the tribunal is constituted. Another legal window for addressing interstate water disputes is the River Boards Act of 1956. However, this has never been used in India due to the resistance from the states.

Experts warn that no Indian or International laws provide ownership or rights over flowing waters. No one state can own the Cauvery. States have use rights, but there is no hierarchy of rights. There is an equality of rights, but no entitlements to equal shares.

The intensity of the conflicts between the states has been growing over the years. For example, the period between 1924 and 1974 saw sporadic conflicts. In the later phases, between 1974 and 1990, the distrust was intensified and has been growing since. After 1990, a number of judicial and state interventions were attempted--the significant ones being the formation of Cauvery River Authority (CRA) and its monitoring committee headed by the prime minister and the chief ministers of the riparian states involved. However, it has not been functioning effectively. The Cauvery Water Tribunal did help in arriving at some solution with an interim order in 1991 and the final award in 2007.

The final award states the shares of the four contending parties as: Kerala-30 TMC, Karnataka-270 TMC, Tamil Nadu-419 TMC and Pondicherry-7 TMC. However, this has not helped and the states have gone back to the Supreme Court by filing Special Leave Petitions (SLPs) and bypassing the tribunal. The admission of the petitions by the Supreme Court has now taken the dispute to square one. It is still uncertain now as to how long it will take to arrive at an amicable solution.

The way out of this dilemma

Legal and political efforts have not helped to arrive at a solution. Later, it was realised that one of the important elements that has been missing from the efforts to solve the crisis is the active participation and communication between farmers from both the states. Filling that gap, Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) initiated a Multi Stakeholder Dialogue (MSD) in 2003.

The MSD included farmers as well as academicians, retired bureaucrats, people from NGOs, lawyers, leaders of farmers organisations, people from the media and concerned citizens. The processes included visits to the sites, individual and group meetings and documentation. The Committee of the Cauvery Family, that evolved from MSD, was consecutively formed that has met 17 times so far in different parts of the basin in both states to get first hand information on the situation. Though the efforts have not helped in reaching a solution, they have provided valuable lessons that include the understanding that constructive and sustained dialogues are the only viable alternatives when other efforts fail. Sound research is a necessary precondition for taking forward any dialogue and that the efforts need active and sustained state support and political mandate.

The article ends by highlighting that the dispute is unique and complicated than others due to high levels of politicisation and emotional attachment to the issue in the two states. 
The paper concludes thus:

  • The farmers as well as political leaders need to understand the importance of continued negotiation and dialogue to solve the dispute. Confrontation won’t help.
  • Sharing of data and agreeing on a common data is an important prerequisite for negotiated settlements.
  • It is important to use various route like the legal processes, institutional paths as well as social dialogue to resolve the conflict.


1. Mallikarjun, Prabhu (2016) Why there is no option to sharing Cauvery water. Indiaspend, September 12, 2016. Accessed on 16th September 2016.

2. Saldanha, Adison (2016) Cauvery issue: Bengaluru wastes nearly 50% water supply from the river. Accessed on 16th September 2016.

3. Ghosh, Deepashikha (2016) In Cauvery water dispute, karnataka sked to share less for more days. NDTV, September 12, 2016. Accessed on 16th September 2016.

4. Anand, P.B (2004) Water and identity: An analysis of the Cauvery river water dispute. BCID Research Paper 3, University of Bradford, UK.

Please download a copy of the paper from below:

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