Nationalization of Cauvery River is not good for Tamil Nadu

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, December 2002 (ID. 2002-12-02)
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CMC - Cauvery Monitoring Committee

CRA - Cauvery River Authority

CWDT - Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal

tmcft - thousand million cubic feet

Cauvery River flows through four states (to be precise, three states and a union territory), namely, Karnataka State, Kerala State, Tamil Nadu State and Pondicherry Union Territory. Sharing the river water equitably bas become a contentious issue between these four riparian states, especially between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The upper riparian state of Karnataka thinks that the water belongs to them and refuses to allow water to flow to the lower riparian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Pondycherry, except when there is heavy rain and none of the states really need the water. Farmers in the Cauvery Delta (Thanjavur (Tanjore or Thanjai), nearby districts and Pondycherry) have used Cauvery River water for samba and kuruvai rice (paddy) cultivation for over two millennia. Karnataka's refusal to share the water equitably has led to severe hardship to Tamil Nadu farmers. Tamil Nadu had to go to the Indian Supreme Court several times to gets its rightful share of water. 

Under these circumstances, some well-meaning Tamil leaders, who genuinely care about Tamil Nadu farmers, are asking the Indian Government to nationalize the River so that it would come directly under the control of the Indian Government. Right now the upper riparian state of Karnataka thinks that Cauvery water belongs to it and so it has the right to decide whether or not to release water to the three lower riparian states of Kerala, TamilNadu and Pondycherry. The three lower riparian states believe that Cauvery River belongs to all four riparian states and the water should be shared equitably. In spite of Karnataka's stand and arguments to the contrary, the Indian Supreme Court supports the view that the river belongs to all four riparian states. In fact, it is the opinion of international bodies like the United Nations that when a river flows through more than one country, the water belongs to all riparian countries and shall be shared equitably.

What will happen if the Indian Government were to nationalize Cauvery River? Cauvery water would not belong to any of the four riparian states but would belong to the Indian Government. It can distribute the water in anyway it chooses. Supreme Court cannot tell it what to do. Currently Tamil Nadu is able to take the matter with the Supreme Court and get justice every time. If the Indian Government nationalizes Cauvery River, then the Supreme Court would have no authority to overrule Indian Government decisions whether they are fair or not. 

Can TamilNad expect the Indian Government to be fair to it in distributing Cauvery water? One can reasonably predict the future by studying the past. Has the Indian Government been fair to Tamil Nadu in the past? No, absolutely not. Year after year, at every stage, Indian Government had consistently been unfair to Tamil Nadu in the Cauvery River water issue. Irrespective of which political party was ruling India and who the Prime Minister was, the Indian Government had consistently been unfair to Tamil Nadu on the Cauvery issue. From Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Congress Party, when Cauvery issue raised its head in 1971, to the current Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there have been about half-a-dozen Prime Ministers belonging to various political parties and coalitions of parties. All through these years Indian Government's decisions have always been against the interest of Tamil Nadu. In each instance it was the Indian Supreme Court that came to Tamil Nadu's rescue (see Appendix-I). Given this background, how can we expect that Tamil Nadu would receive its fair share of Cavery water if it is nationalized and the Indian Government becomes the sole arbiter of the distribution Cauvery water? At least now Tamil Nadu can go to the Supreme Court for justice but if nationalized that door is shut to Tamil Nadu once and forever. So nationalization of Cauvery River is not in the interest of TamilNadu.

(Please note that linking Ganges and Cauvery Rivers is a different matter. The author had not studied the proposal and so cannot comment on it now.)

A Chronology of Betrayal by the Indian Government

Cauvery River water dispute started between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in the early 1970s. Tamil Nadu Government asked the Indian Government to form a tribunal to resolve the dispute. Indian Government refused. So the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi filed a lawsuit with the Indian Supreme Court to form the tribunal. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi interfered and made Tamil Nadu withdraw the suit. Had the suit proceeded and a tribunal was formed and the Indian Government implemented the verdict of the tribunal, the issue would have been resolved many years ago and Tamil Nadu farmers would not be suffering these many years. It was Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's interference that scuttled it.

The dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu continued and Tamil Nadu farmers suffered (because of the Prime Minister's interference in 1971). Since the government was doing little, in 1986, a Tamil Nadu Farmers Union filed a lawsuit with the Indian Supreme Court, requesting the formation of a tribunal to resolve the dispute. The then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran joined the union's suit later that year. The Supreme Court heard their petition and ordered the formation of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) in 1990.

The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, headed by Justice N. P. Singh, passed an interim order in June 1991, directing Karnataka to release 205 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water to Tamil Nadu every year. Karnataka refused. Again the Supreme Court came to Tamil Nadu's rescue. It upheld the tribunal's interim order, and asked Karnataka to release the water. What was Karnataka's reaction? Mobs of Kannadigas, with the active connivance of some police officials and politicians, went on a rampage against Tamil speakers living in the state. (Kannadigas - People whose mother tongue is Kannada, the dominant language of Karnataka.) According to independent reports, dozens of Tamil women were raped, tortured and sometimes murdered. About 50 Tamil men, women and children were brutally murdered. 90,000 Tamils fled Karnataka and they lost over three billion rupees worth of properties [Reference 1]. In spite of pleadings from Tamil leaders, Indian Government refused to send the army to protect them.

In spite of the Supreme Court ruling in 1991, Karnataka refused to implement Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal's interim order of 1991. Karnataka also disobeyed the tribunal's April 1992 and December 1995 interim orders. Indian Government did not step in to enforce these orders. Since Karnataka was refusing to implement the tribunal's interim order and the Indian Government was not enforcing the interim order, Tamil Nadu appealed to the Supreme Court in 1996. The Supreme Court asked the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) to look into it. CWDT asked Karnataka to release 11 tmcft of water but Karnataka refused. Indian Government did nothing to enforce the order. Tamil Nadu complained to the Supreme Court and it asked the then Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao to act. The Prime Minister asked Karnataka to release just 6 tmcft of water, thus slashing tribunal's order by about half. Karnataka obeyed the Prime Minister's order.

Karnataka refused to release water in the following year. Tamil Nadu went to the Supreme Court again in 1997 requesting the court to direct Karnataka to implement the tribunal's orders. The Indian Government (which did not do anything to get the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal's interim orders implemented) interfered in the court case. It sent its top lawyer Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee to the Supreme Court. He asked the Supreme Court to suspend its hearings because the Indian government had devised a scheme to implement the award. The Supreme Court suspended the hearing. Thus, once again, justice for TamilNadu was postponed because of Indian Government interference. (NOTE: We want to point out here that the Indian Government did not do anything effective to implement the interim order from 1991 to 1997. Now that Tamil Nadu had taken the matter to the court, it interfered to prevent the court from directing Karnataka to implement the interim order. We remind you that Indian Government did the same thing in 1971 to prevent the Supreme Court issuing a verdict on the formation of the tribunal. India Government did not want Tamil Nadu get a fair, just deal (which the Supreme Court was expected to issue based on legal merits)).

What was the Indian Government scheme that it promised to the Supreme Court? Indian Government constituted the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) in August 1998. Cauvery River Authority is chaired by the Prime Minister of India, with the Chief Ministers of the four riparian states (Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry) as members. Its role is to come up with a water sharing arrangement between the four states. It was assisted by the Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CWC). Decisions were to be made by the CRA and not by the CWC.  CRA was ineffective in coming up with a water sharing arrangement. In February 2002, Tamil Nadu again asked the Supreme Court to order Karnataka to release water per Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal's interim orders. Indian Government interfered again and filed an affidavit supporting Karnataka and seeking dismissal of Tamil Nadu's suit. Can we expect a fair deal from the Indian Government if Cauvery River is nationalized and the Indian Government becomes the sole arbiter of who gets how much water?

In June 2002 Tamil Nadu filed a lawsuit again with the Supreme Court pleading that it direct the Indian Government to ensure that Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal's orders are implemented. Supreme Court ordered that the Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CWC) make a recommendation on releasing water to Tamil Nadu. CWC met on August 9, 2002 and recommended that "Karnataka may release water to Tamil Nadu in accordance with the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal award of April 3, 1992 on pro-rata basis keeping in view the distress situation''. Look at the recommendation. It does not mean anything. It does not say how much water should be released. The only reason for the August 9 meeting of the Monitoring Committee seems to be just to satisfy the Supreme Court order in paper but not in spirit. What is the purpose of meeting if no specific recommendation is to be made? Karnataka did not release any water saying that the Monitoring Committee did not specify how much water is to be released.

Cauvery River Authority (CRA) met on August 27, 2002. By then, Tamil Nadu farmers in the Cauvery Delta were in a dire state, with crops dying. CRA did not ask Karnataka to immediately release the water in order to save the crops. Instead CRA decided to meet again around September21st to make a decision. That meant Tamil Nadu would not be getting any water for another three weeks thus ruining the samba and kuruvai rice (paddy) crops in the Cauvery Delta. An angry Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms. Jayalalithaa Jeyaram walked out of the CRA meeting. We have heard the saying that Roman Emperor Nero played fiddle even as Rome burned. Here Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was taking his sweet time to convene the CRA again even as samba and kuruvai rice crops (paddy crops) were dying in TamilNadu, bringing gloom and doom to the livelihood of Tamil Nadu farmers.

Chief Minister Jeyalalithaa knew that waiting until September 21st would ruin Tamil Nadu farmers. She approached the Indian Supreme Court yet again. On September 3, the Supreme Court asked Karnataka to release 1.25 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water everyday to Tamil Nadu until the Cauvery River Authority makes a decision. This would save samba and kuruvai rice crops until the CRA meets and makes a decision. While the Indian Prime Minister decided to leave Tamil Nadu farmers "dry to die", the Indian Supreme Court gave some interim relief so they may save their crops because law was on Tamil Nadu's side. Supreme Court said, "we feel that it is appropriate that some interim arrangements are to be made (until the CRA makes a decision)".

What happened next tells a lot about Indian Government attitude towards Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu pleaded with the Indian Government on August 27, 2002 that it convene the Cauvery River Authority soon to make a decision because Tamil Nadu paddy crops were dying. Indian Government said, "No, CRA will meet only around the 21st of September". Now, on September 3, the Supreme Court had ordered Karnataka to release 1.25 tmcft of water everyday until CRA makes a decision. Karnataka did not want to release the water. Only way to stop releasing the water until September 21 and at the same time not disobey the court was to convene the CRA immediately. It asked the Indian Government to do so. The Indian Government which refused to convene CRA on an urgent basis in spite of Tamil Nadu pleading with it, now rushed to convene the CRA. "Rush" is the correct phrase. Within 23 hours of the Supreme Court order in favor of Tamil Nadu, Indian Prime Minister decided to convene the CRA. The Cauvery River Authority met on September 8, not around September 21 as originally scheduled, because Karnataka wanted it so. The Cauvery River Authority (CRA) decided to slash the Supreme Court order of 1.25 tmcft of water everyday to 0.8 tmcft everyday (less than two-third of what the Supreme Court ordered). Again, we see the Indian Government doing everything to help Karnataka at the expense of Tamil Nadu farmers.

Karnataka refused to release even the 0.8 tmcft of water and the Indian Government did absolutely nothing. Tamil Nadu went to the Supreme Court yet again. Only a threat of contempt of court on the Karnataka Chief Minister forced Karnataka to release the water.

Going through the above chronology of events we find a definite pattern. Karnataka refuses to release water to Tamil Nadu (water that is legitimately due to Tamil Nadu). Indian Government stays aloof and does nothing. Tamil Nadu goes to the Supreme Court. Many times, Indian Government enters and tries to get the court case dropped. If the case is dropped, Indian Government does nothing effective to get Karnataka release the water to Tamil Nadu. If the case is not dropped, the Supreme Court rules in favor of Tamil Nadu EVERY TIME. (This shows the legitimacy of Tamil Nadu's position.) Then the Indian Government comes in and reduces the amount of water the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release. In summary, Tamil Nadu never got a fair deal from the Indian Government irrespective of which political party is ruling India and who is the Prime Minister. But for the Supreme Court, Tamil Nadu would never have received reasonable quantities of water from Karnataka.

If Cauvery River is nationalized, Indian Government will make the decision as to who gets how much water and when. Given what had happened in all these years from the 1970s to today, can Tamil Nadu really expect that it would get its fair share of water from the Indian Government? In all these years it has always been the Supreme Court that came to the rescue of Tamil Nadu (because the law is on its side). If Cauvery is nationalized, the Supreme Court cannot interfere in Indian Government decisions.

Spelling of Tamil Names: Sometimes Tamil names are spelled differently by different people. Here are some alternate spellings of names used in this article.

Cauvery - Kauvery, Kaveri

Pondicherry - Pondycherry


1. Cauvery Water Dispute and Karnataka Massacres: Part 1 (by Thanjai Nalankilli)

FIS021126X    2002-a1d

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