Karnataka’s ongoing legal and political battle with Tamil Nadu over the sharing of Cauvery river water has put the former in a Catch-22 situation, which has been further exacerbated by severe rainfall deficit leading to more than 80% of the state reeling under drought.
The issue of sharing water from the Cauvery river between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has political and emotional ramifications. If Karnataka does not release water to Tamil Nadu, it will be seen as violating the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA) order and the state will not be able to defend itself strongly in the courts. If it does release water, the state government, especially the ruling Congress, will find itself facing repercussions come 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
The fundamental issue lies in the absence of a well-defined distress formula for water sharing, especially during severe drought conditions like the one Karnataka is experiencing.
Despite grappling with a severe drought, Karnataka is obligated to release water to Tamil Nadu based on the recommendation of the CWMA, which has called for the release of 5,000 cusecs of water for a period of 15 days, even as natural flow averages 3,000 to 3,500 cusecs to Tamil Nadu, explained government officials overseeing the situation.
The Karnataka government finds itself in a precarious situation, with farmers and pro-Kannada organisations calling a Bengaluru bandh on September 26, demanding that the state cease water release to Tamil Nadu. The bandh, from 6am to 6pm, coincides with protests by farmer groups and the opposition BJP in Karnataka.
The state had previously filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the recent order of the Cauvery Water Management Authority and Regulation Committee, but the court refused to intervene.
“They (TN) initially sought 24,000 cusecs, then 7,200 cusecs. We said we can’t even give 5,000 cusecs as there is no water. The apex court did not accept it, and the matter is coming up before the Court on September 26. We will place our argument more forcefully,” news agency PTI quoted CM Siddaramaiah as saying.
The demand for a scientifically determined distress formula, as per officials from Karnataka’s Water Resources Department, arises from the fact that the current allocation for states during distress years is considered ‘ad hoc’.
Neither the Cauvery tribunal nor the Supreme Court has clearly outlined a formula for such situations during droughts or years with deficient rainfall. It is learnt that the Cauvery Water Management Authority is currently in the process of devising an allocation formula. They factor in the average rainfall over the past 30 years and the storage levels in reservoirs before determining water allocation during distress years, an irrigation official explained.
The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’s formula, modified by the Supreme Court in 2018, prescribes 45.95 TMC of water in August and 36.76 TMC in September during a normal monsoon season.
Krishna Byregowda, Karnataka’s Revenue Minister, spoke to News18 on the severity of the drought situation and the extent of crop damage due to the severe rain deficit.
“We have declared 195 talukas (of the total 227 talukas in Karnataka) as drought-hit areas in the state and estimate close to 30,000 crore as crop losses in this season due to this,” the minister said.
While Siddaramaiah said his government will not stop the ongoing protests by farmers, he added that parties like the BJP and JD(S) are using the issue for their political gains.
Another pro-Kannada activist, Vatal Nagaraj, under the banner ‘Kannada Okkuta’, has called for a statewide bandh on September 29.
Former prime minister and JD(S) supremo HD Deve Gowda on Monday called it a curse that Karnataka happens to be the upper riparian state in the Cauvery basin and is always obliged to fulfil the demands of the downstream state. Expressing his support to the bandh, he underscored how the state is facing its lowest rainfall in 123 years during August and September.
Appealing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to intervene in the water sharing issue between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, he said the combined storage available as of September 23 in all four reservoirs of the Cauvery basin in Karnataka is only 51.10 TMC (thousand million cubic feet), whereas the requirement for standing crops and for drinking water is 112 TMC.
“I have made an appeal to the Prime Minister about the prevailing situation. In my letter to the Prime Minister, I wrote that the Jal Shakti ministry should file a review petition and a committee of experts should be sent to Karnataka to study the water and standing crop situation. I sincerely hope the Prime Minister will raise the issue and certainly take action so that further damages won’t take place as far as Karnataka is concerned,” he said.
The Cauvery Water Management Authority endorsed the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee’s recommendation on September 19, compelling Karnataka to release 5,000 cusecs of water for 15 days. The Supreme Court later upheld this directive, despite Karnataka’s initial refusal, citing drought conditions.
Several water experts and the Congress-led Karnataka government suggest that the Mekedatu Balancing Reservoir, which has been another bone of contention, has a storage capacity of 67 tmcft.
“Mekedatu could offer a solution to this recurring water crisis especially when reservoir levels dip alarmingly due to insufficient rainfall. Political parties like the BJP and JD(S) should see it as a move to help our farmers and not create a political contest or standoff ,” said a Congress leader who did not want to be named.