When it came up in 1963, the Bhakra Nangal Dam was a marvel for many Indians. While inaugurating the mega-structure, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called dams the “temples of modern India”. The new nation would reap cosmic miracles at the altar of such temples, he seemed to suggest.
Most of India had already been putting their faith in dams for at least a century before its importance was so publicly proclaimed.
Understanding the conflict The Cauvery River Basin had a head-start on this front, and its exploitation through such dams and irrigation projects has led us to the precipitous situation we find ourselves in today. The Water Resource Information System (WRIS) lists as many as 100 dams and 57 irrigation projects in the Cauvery Sub Basin.
One way to understand the ongoing water-sharing conflict between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is by mapping such projects in various historical phases, along with data on the Cauvery sub basins.
Historian S Settar of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS) categorises the dispute into four phases. Data analysis of the periods of dam construction can give a clear picture of how the dispute in the Cauvery basins has shifted from disagreements over proprietorship of the river to water sharing and (mis)management.
The eponymous river originates at Talakaveri, Karnataka, and as it glides eastward covering Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, it is crisscrossed by 21 tributaries and seven main distributaries. The entire region is further dotted by tanks, canals, reservoirs and dams.
While most media reports claim that disputes over the Cauvery waters are a century old, what is certain is that the conflict has been concomitant with two centuries of rapid transformation in the economic and political climate of the Indian sub-continent.
Until the end of the 19th century, much of the upper Cauvery was unchecked and unutilised, given the steep terrain and poor soil conditions. (See interactive map below: the Cauvery Basin is shown in green, with Upper Sub Basin depicted in a dark shade, and the Mid Sub Basin and the Lower in progressively lighter hues). During this period, the delta region reaped the benefits of an unobstructed Cauvery; romanticised eloquently in regional literature over centuries.
Problems crop up Things began to change in the 1800s as the British and the Dewan of Mysore initiated various tank restoration and irrigation projects. Major dams were yet to enter the picture. Yet, those in the Lower Sub Basin — the British in Madras and the farmers in the delta — were already concerned about developments in the Mysore region. The agreement of 1892 marked the resolution of the first phase of conflict, which was a skirmish in comparison to the war that was to follow. The agreement required the Mysore government to seek the consent of its counterpart in Madras if any fresh projects were undertaken or if projects more than 30 years old were restored.
The second phase — from 1892 to 1934 — was marked by the involvement of the colonial governments in damming and diverting the river’s flow to various parts of the sub-basin, and the resultant haggling by the Madras and the Mysore governments over the consent to and sanctioning of the various projects.
Of the 100 dams in the Cauvery basin, 13 were constructed between 1892 and 1934. (See map: blue dot). Eleven of these are now in Karnataka, and two in Tamil Nadu. Karnataka’s Krishna Raja Sagar dam, the cynosure of the current conflict, and Tamil Nadu’s Mettur dam, were constructed during this period. But the 1892 agreement was seen as restrictive, and did not sate the thirst for maximum utilisation of water resources the basin had to offer. In 1901, nearly 384 Tmcft was being utilised by Tamil Nadu and 26.46 Tmcft by the Mysore region.
After a lot of back and forth between the Arbitration Committee set up by the 1892 agreement and the then colonial Government, a new agreement, the Kannambadi-Mettur Agreement, came into being in 1924.
In contrast to the previous agreement that restricted the construction of dams and irrigation projects, the new agreement provided a framework for such development in both States. Both agreements had maintained that no work upstream could harm existing irrigation systems downstream. Now, with multiple States claiming the waters of the Cauvery, each attempted to outdo the other in tapping the river’s exhaustible resource.
Sixty-two of the 100 dams in the Basin were completed between 1924 and 1990 (See map, red dots represent construction in third phase). Of these, 33 dams are in Karnataka, 27 in Tamil Nadu, and one each in Kerala and Puducherry. More than half the 57 irrigation projects in the region were started in this period. Of all the 57 projects, 29 were implemented in Karnataka, 25 in Tamil Nadu, two in Kerala and one in Puducherry.
Over the decades, the deities residing in the modern-day temples on the Cauvery began rewarding their patrons. As per the Cauvery Tribunal report, by 1971, Tamil Nadu was utilising as much as 500 Tmcft of the Cauvery waters and the Mysore region was utilising over 100 Tmcft. This was a stark increase over the 411 Tmcft that was utilised by both the regions in 1928.
Rise in acreage A Down to Earth article notes that before the construction of the KRS dam, net irrigated area in Karnataka’s Cauvery basin was about 60,750 ha. It shot up to over 1 lakh ha after the construction of the dam. Simultaneously, the Tamil Nadu government undertook other projects downstream and pushed for intensive cultivation practices and increase in crop acreage. A Planning Commission report notes that from around 8 lakh ha in the late 1970s, areas in the Cauvery Basin in Tamil Nadu irrigated over 20 lakh ha between 2003 and 2006.
The Tribunal and after Since 1990, after the setting up of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, the dispute moved to the courts, and involved the Centre as well. While major dam constructions waned during this period, the frenetic pace of the growth in the 20th century left the States quarrelling over the basin’s management.
The Tribunal determined the total availability of water in the Cauvery basin at 740 thousand million cubic (Tmcft), made an annual allocation of 419 Tmcft to Tamil Nadu, 270 Tmcft to Karnataka, 30 Tmcft to Kerala and 7 Tmcft to Puducherry. Such precise sharing of resources is of course only possible if all variables are perennially constant. Even though the Tribunal has guidelines for a “normal year” and a “water year”, only a radical shift in our attitude toward water management will help us understand that sucking the river dry will leave us with no river to fight over.
While each party accuses the other of violating the spirit of the various agreements and demands water they claim is rightfully theirs, the Cauvery is no gift that will keep giving infinitely.