During ‘Cauvery Dialogues’ organised by Save R Rivers, experts discussed who should take lead in the fight to save the river, citizens or government institutions.

Conversations on Cauvery Moving beyond water-sharing for a sustainable futureTwitter: @divya_krthk
news Environment Monday, June 11, 2018 - 11:49

Even as the centuries old dispute over the Cauvery river water sharing has been laid to rest by the Supreme Court, discourse over the river itself has never been more important in recent times. While the political and legal aspects of the issue have been discussed at length over the course of the past few decades, the ecological and conservation narratives need a far more spirited conversation. A panel discussion held by the Save R Cauvery campaign in association with The News Minute on Friday attempted to dive deeper into how the river and its ecosystem may be understood even if it means taking drastic steps to protect it.

The panel of experts comprised educationist and noted water expert, Vishwanath Srikantaiah, President, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Studies in Water, S Janakarajan, Retired IAS officer and former UN Expert on Environment, PM Belliappa and General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers Association, Mannargudi S Ranganathan, discussed how we should save the ecosystem of the Cauvery including the river, the catchment area and the western ghats.

One of the central questions posed to the panel was: Who should take the lead in taking those drastic steps? And should the farmer in TN also not care about how the whole river is maintained and if the water is being used responsibly by all?

Sharing the responsibility to save the river

While Vishwanath Srikantaiah believes that citizen action must take a larger role in saving the river. Urging the centre to take more responsibility in the matter, Vishwanath said, “It starts with a corpus. Let’s call it the Cauvery Protection Fund. It brings in money from the users as well as the state. Both the union government and the state governments have to invest in protecting the catchment. Unless we create an institution, the long sustainability of the project will vanish. Let’s start with urban consumers. Bengaluru city is entirely dependent on the Cauvery. It costs Rs 65 to get 1,000 litres of water to the city but it is given at Rs 7 per litre. If the Bengaluru citizens can pay Rs 1 per 1,000 litres per day, you will create a Rs. 140 crore corpus and this should be invested to protect the forests of Coorg. This can start with industries and urban area and slowly passed on to sugarcane farmers.” 

On whether farmers in Tamil Nadu will be open to bearing these costs, “We are with you to fight for it. We are of the same family. It was supported by [both] sides.”

Meanwhile, Janakarajan said that government institutions should take the lead in the long-term maintenance of the water. While scientific studies have pointed to a change in farming practices helping to sustain the river long term, Janakarajan disagreed on the onus on farmers and agriculture in the region.

“What one does with the quantum of water allocated is one's own business,” opined Janakarajan.

However, on whether the farming community's consumptions of water is economic and sustainable, Vishwanath said, "Agriculture does not happen in a vacuum. The government sends powerful signals through minimum support price, through the public distribution system, procurement price. The signals they are sending is grow rice. Grow sugarcane. And that consumes a lot of water. One should never argue that stop cultivating paddy. The delta land in Tamil Nadu is the most glorious place for paddy and paddy should be cultivated. But should sugarcane be cultivated in Karnataka, in Mandya for example? How can we start replacing paddy itself with aerobic rice, with SR method of cultivation with better varieties that consume less water? These are key challenges. Karnataka itself has taken up the challenge of pushing millets as much as possible. It's not easy to find replacement for paddy, sugarcane through millets.”

Belliappa also pointed out that there need to be concerted efforts to the problems, going beyond water sharing. “The problem is how do you deal with a deficit? I’m concerned because the Cauvery has nurtured civilisations over centuries. Something needs to be done. We have not addressed the sustainability of the river. You need a sustainable Cauvery project. This does not conflict with anyone. You are going to protect the interests of farmers in Karnataka as well as Tamil Nadu. this project needs to be funded by both sides and the central government. You need to set apart about 100 crores where you start implementing a sustainable project. It involves protecting the river, the water quality, the catchment area, regeneration of the Brahmagiri hills and so on. It’s a win-win situation for both sides. Kodagu needs attention. It is being harvested by people who see the commercial value of it. It is short sighted and selfish with total disregard for the benefit of both the states. If Cauvery dries up, there is nothing left,” he said.

Heart of the issue

Speaking about the basis for claiming responsibility of the river itself, Vishwanath Srikantaiah explained the two central doctrines that the courts had to straddle in order for a just plan for sharing the water. “There is the doctrine of prior appropriation where a state where a state which has first established a right to the usage of water stakes its claim based on that right of historical usage. The more radical doctrine and luckily was never followed was the hormones doctrine. This comes from a Secretary of State in the United States who argued that any nation or state which gets a particular amount of rainfall is entitled to the entire rainfall and has no obligation to share it with a downstream state. The tribunal as well as the Supreme Court was carving out a path between these two doctrines.”

On the heart of the issue following the final order of the apex court, Janakarajan said, "As years pass by, things have changed. Agricultural conditions, economic conditions, social conditions, ecological conditions have been subjected to quite a lot of changes. Therefore, one cannot stick to what you used to get some hundred years ago. The legal cycle has taken a complete course of 40 years. Now with the latest Supreme Court verdict, they have constituted the Cauvery Management Authority. I want to see if CWMA is functional. There are limits to dialogue and the whole nation is watching whether we'll be in a position to bring this dispute to a close. We have to wait for one full year. We also have to go beyond the dispute.”

Saving Kodagu

The Cauvery flows from the Brahmagiri hill in Talakaveri in Kodagu district, Karnataka. The river originates in the form of a spring at a height of 1276 metres above sea level. Emphasising the need to protect this catchment area, Belliappa said, “It's not a surprise that there is a dispute over water sharing. That is a life stream. Let's accept that. We are talking of river Cauvery as though it has descended from nowhere. The area from where Cauvery comes is of no concern to anybody. Cauvery doesn't come as rain. Cauvery comes from the Brahmagiri Hills in Kodagu. Over the 40- 50 years of the dispute, has anybody thought of Kodagu? Now if you do not protect the catchment if a river, how do you expect the river to survive? What we are seeing today before us is a very legal administrative solution. Whether this will deliver the goods, we have to wait and watch. The only way you can resolve the issue permanently, for all time to come is to protect the area from which the river arises.”

On the first steps to protecting the river, Vishwanath said, “The institutions of governance that we have created needs modification to fit the 21st century problems we have. For me, each one of the major tributaries of the Cauvery and the Cauvery itself should have a river basin institution monitoring the catchment conditions on a real time basis, monitoring the groundwater health and providing inputs for action is the way to go.”

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