Cauvery · Inter State Water Disputes

Cauvery: Is there will for way forward? Will constitution of CMB help?

Above Map of Cauvery basin from Indian Express, Sept 22, 2016

Higher demands than availability is the key problem in Cauvery basin. transparent, participatory, democratic, rule based management of demands over supply is the key need. Unfortunately, we do not have that. Greater misfortune is that the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal Award of Feb 2007, even as it is significantly flawed, is yet to be implemented since the Special Leave Petitions of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, admitted in the Supreme Court, remain pending for over nine years now. The Supreme Court, in the meantime, (through its orders of Sept 5, 12 and 20) deals with the issue in a manner, that seems ad hoc in absence of clarity as to how all the relevant factors have been taken into account. 

At the heart of this situation is the refusal of the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Centre, including its water resources ministry and central water commission, and also the judiciary, to work towards changing the unsustainable water intensive cropping pattern in Karnataka (sugarcane and paddy) and Tamil Nadu (multiple paddy crops). There are multiple ways of reducing the agricultural water needs, including better cropping patterns, use of water efficient methods like System of Rice Intensification, working towards increasing soil moisture holding capacity and rainwater harvesting. Sewage water treatment and recycle at local level, conservation of lakes, ponds and wetlands, reducing transmission and distribution losses, ensuring effective water pollution control, stopping unsustainable sand mining from riverbeds[i] and protecting the catchment forests are some other possible measures.

The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal award has unfortunately not helped matters much[ii] by use of limited rainfall data, estimating water availability at 50% dependability (when many other tribunals and most irrigation projects are based on 75% dependability), neglecting to account for the groundwater use in the Cauvery basin (when it is increasingly clear that groundwater is and will remain India’s water lifeline in foreseeable future) when it is known that increased use of groundwater has direct impact on surface water availability in the downstream areas in Cauvery basin.


As a recent report by the Central Water Commission[iii] shows, the rainfall in the Cauvery basin is constantly declining in recent years (1971-2004), compared to the data used by CWDT. Moreover, as recent research by Indian Institute of Science[iv] shows, the water flow in the Cauvery river is also showing declining trend, a number of reasons are responsible for this, including higher temperatures leading to higher evapotranspiration rates, higher groundwater withdrawal and climate change. Recent analysis[v] of rainfall data of coffee growers in Kodagu district in upper Cauvery basin shows that number of rainy days are also on decline as also the forestry practices which are changing for the worse[vi] in this Cauvery catchment area that contributes maximum water to Krishna Raj Sagar Reservoir. Construction of large number of small hydropower projects in Cauvery basins in Karnataka[vii] would also have significant adverse impact, but there is no assessment of that.

The Award also failed to allocate resources necessary to ensure that river continues to flow and perform all its roles right upto the delta, there is no real seriousness behind the token 10 TMC (Thousand Million Cubic Feet) that the Tribunal has allocated for environment flows. As Nityanand Jayaraman writes in an excellent piece on Cauvery dispute[viii], “The possibilities of a de-escalation of conflicts over Cauvery’s water are remote given that two principal stakeholders – the River Cauvery and future generations – are not represented in all the negotiations in the tribunal and the Supreme Court. What is being referred to as a water-sharing formula is little more than a loot-sharing formula for divvying up the booty.” Amidst all the din, it was good to see an excellent report celebrating the Cauvery River in National media[ix], something all concerned need to, including judiciary and the state.

The beautiful Cauvery, shackeled in many small hydel projects at the gaganchukki falls, Karnataka. Photo: SANDRP
The beautiful Cauvery, shackeled in many small hydel projects at the gaganchukki falls, Karnataka. Photo: SANDRP

The biggest lacunae in the CWDT award is the absence of specific formula for water sharing in distress years. That absence was supposed to be taken care by the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) that the CWDT award recommended. However, the CMB is yet to be formed due to pendency of the SLPs against the CWDT award even after the CWDT award was published in the Gazette in Feb 2013, that too following a Supreme Court order.

So in May 2013, through another order, the Supreme Court asked for creation of a Supervisory Committee as an interim measure, in absence of CMB. The Supervisory Committee is supposed to decide the water sharing during distress years. So when Tamil Nadu went to the Supreme Court in August this year, one expected the Court to refer the matter to the Supervisory Committee and in fact ask, why is the Supervisory Committee not doing what is expected of it. Instead, on Sept 5, 2016, the Supreme Court directed Karnataka to release 15000 cusecs (Cubic feet per second) water for ten days, amounting to approximately 13 TMC. The SC order mentions that Karnataka had offered to release 10 000 cusecs (for 6 days) and Tamil Nadu had demanded release of 20 000 cusecs, and 15 000 cusecs sounded like a mean of the two figures. But can water release directions be such arithmetic balancing act?


On ground, Cauvery basin has till date (till Sept 19, 2016) has 26% rainfall deficit as per IMD[x], when Tamil Nadu has 11% rainfall deficit, indicating higher deficit in upstream Karnataka. As the latest weekly reservoir level bulletin dated Sept 15, 2016 of CWC[xi], the live storages in the four main reservoirs in Karnataka is 0.853 BCM (Billion Cubic Meters, 30.97% of live storage capacity) compared to 1.451 BCM (42.19% of live storage capacity) in the Tamil Nadu reservoirs in Cauvery Basin. Thirdly, it may be remembered that Tamil Nadu has much lower rainfall in South West Monsoon, it gets much better average rains in the following North East Monsoon, but Karnataka does not benefit from the second monsoon. Fourthly, as was mentioned in the Supreme Court order of Sept 12, 2016, the outflow from Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu was about 1250 cusecs, and it already had over one BCM of water in live storage then, which could have been used, if necessary for any emergency needs of the farmers. Considering all this, may be the situation could have been more sensitively handled and Karnataka could have been asked to release 10 000 cusecs that if offered, while the Supervisory Committee decided next course of action. This may have been more prudent course of action considering that water is such an emotive issue in Cauvery basin.

There is no doubt that the Karnataka government and leadership should not have allowed the massive damage to public property and should have taken pro active steps against any such eventuality.

Mettur Dam

The Cauvery Supervisory Committee had on Sept 19, 2016 recommended 3000 cusecs of water release by Karnataka from Sept 21 to 30. However, news just coming[xii] says that the Supreme Court on Sept 20, directed Karnataka to release 6000 cusecs water from Sept 21 to 27, the next date of hearing. The logic of this enhanced release from the apex court is not clear even if one reads the SC order of Sept 20, 2016. However, this over ruling of the decision of the Supervisory Committee by the apex court does not help in creating confidence in the expert body that the Supervisory Committee is.

As Mint reported on Sept 21, 2016[xiii]: “A bench comprising justices Dipak Misra and U.U. Lalit agreed that pro-tem measures by the court in issues of such seriousness are not desirable.” Wish this is taken seriously by everyone, including the SC.

The SC order of Sept 20, 2016 also asks Union of India to constitute the Cauvery Management Board as required under the CWDT award within four weeks and also notify the constitution. Karnataka government is already opposing this[xiv]. “The Supreme Court order to constitute Cauvery Management Board is uncalled for. The order was issued despite neither Tamil Nadu or Karnataka seeking it,” Karnataka Chief Minister said after meeting Union Water Resources Minister Sushri Uma Bharati.

Cauvery Basin Map (Source: WRIS Basin report cover)
Cauvery Basin Map (Source: WRIS Basin report cover)

In fact, the Supervisory Committee should have pro-actively decided about the releases, knowing the rainfall deficit in the Cauvery basin this year. The Committee also needs to make public all information related to its functioning, including all the information and submissions available to it, the minutes and agenda of its meetings and also its decisions. We hope that the Cauvery Management Board that the apex court has now directed to be constituted as per the CWDT award will function in such a transparent and pro active manner.

Chapter 8 of volume V of the CWDT award titled “Machinery for implementation of Final Decision/Orders of the Tribunal” says in para 15: “The mechanism shall have to be independent in character comprising of technical officers from the Central Government and representatives from the Governments of the party States on the lines of Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB), to achieve objective of the distribution of waters as per equitable shares determined by the Tribunal.” The CMB is under the control of the Union Ministry of Water Resources, with chair-person and one full time member being irrigation engineer and second full time member member being an agriculture expert. In addition, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry are to appoint a part-time member each, again an irrigation engineer.

CMB is thus an engineering dominated mechanism, let us see how far the Union of India is able to set it up in four weeks as directed by the Supreme Court. Its constitution as directed by the CWDT award certainly sounds very incongruous in 21st Century water resources management in a deficit basin like Cauvery.

In conclusion, as Vishwanath of Bangalore, famous as zen rainman also says, if there is a will there is a lot that can be done to arrive at solutions that would avoid the violence Karnataka has seen this monsoon. In Cauvery basin itself, the Cauvery family experiment[xv] saw farmers of both states coming together with experts and academics to find a shared solution that included working for better cropping patterns and adopting water efficient methods like System of Rice Intensification. The trouble is, there seems no will for such solutions in the state, or the judiciary. The solutions will need to come from elsewhere!

Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP (

PS: An edited version of this has been published at:


[i] For an excellent piece on political economy of sand mining in Tamil Nadu, see:

[ii] Why the Cauvery award is flawed, Feb 6, 2007, by Himanshu Thakkar:














4 thoughts on “Cauvery: Is there will for way forward? Will constitution of CMB help?

  1. It is true that TN is demanding its share of water as per CWDT award from Karnataka on monthly basis though it has adequate water in Mettur reservoir for more than one months needs. It is mainly due to trust deficit between both states and TN wants to keep supreme court under pressure for delaying its verdict on Jayalalita’s unaccountable wealth acquisition case.

    When south west monsoon fails, normally north east (retreating) monsoon is better than normal. Can TN give back the excess water released to TN by Karnataka if the rains are good in next three months? May be TN wants to generate more hydro electricity by keeping higher level in Mettur dam from the water released by Karnataka without depleting its storage.

    The proposed Mekedatu dam in the upstream of Mettur dam in Karnataka is a good solution to create carry over storage during the year with good inflows in Karnataka for releasing to TN during the deficit/distress water year. This project should be announced as national project by the GoI and implement the CWDT award strictly by constituting CMB (with powers to sue and to be sued by the states/victims for damages/compensation) to assuage feelings of both Karnataka and TN. SC role should be limited only to decide the compensation as per the terms of CWDT award and not giving directions for water release.


  2. Two good points from the above article by Dr.Thakkar:

    1.The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal award has unfortunately not helped matters much[ii] by use of limited rainfall data, estimating water availability at 50% dependability (when many other tribunals and most irrigation projects are based on 75% dependability), neglecting to account for the groundwater use in the Cauvery basin.

    2.CMB is thus an engineering dominated mechanism

    Point 1 will definitely be an obstacle for CMB.
    Point 2 challenges Dr Mihir Shah Committee recommendations for 21st century Institutional structure.

    With CMB of 20th century in place, it definitely will not be transparent. Engineers barely know anything about SRI, and CMB being dominated by surface water engineers, it will be weak in groundwater management.

    I am curious where does the office of CMB will be located? In Karnataka – it will invite the wrath of Tamilnadu, if it is in TN – it will be viewed with suspicion in Karnataka. Either way, the engineers of this Board will be chased and will have to move constantly under security….! After error after error by the government, another error by another government in the offing…!


  3. SRI is not a recent cropping technique but more than one decade. Indian farmers are not so foolish in failing to adopt this cropping technique widely if it is giving better yield/acre. SRI is suitable where irrigation water’s (both ground and river water) pH is between 6.5 to 7.5 and not alkaline. Most of the water available in India (except fed by Himalayan and western Ghat rivers) is alkaline. Alkaline/sodic water (SAR index and RSC index) usage in the agriculture lands is turning the field soil in to alkali soils which impeds the plant roots spreading deeper and wider in to the soil limiting the uptake of nutrients for better growth. In SRI rice cultivation, roots spread deeper and wider in the soil which is tested by the strength required to pluck a plant.


  4. I am surprised to see the suggestions like this. I was thinking Himanshu ji will give some suggestion to solve the problems without any dam. Most of the time Dam projects are projected as root cause of all the problems. “”CMB is thus an engineering dominated mechanism, let us see how far the Union of India is able to set it up in four weeks as directed by the Supreme “” is interesting statement .
    Dam is Engineering solution, perhaps he can give some non engineering solution for water storage.
    I found no workable solution or opinion in the article except some sarcastic comments on Govt. functioning.


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