Dispute
The Supreme Court has junked Tamil Nadu government's plea seeking a stay on Karnataka’s efforts to build a dam across a tributary of the Thenpennai river.
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The Supreme Court on Thursday junked Tamil Nadu’s plea to grant a stay on Karnataka’s efforts to build a dam across a tributary of the Thenpennai river. What’s more, the Tamil Nadu government’s reluctance to expressly request the central government to constitute an interstate river water dispute tribunal might have cost it the case.

Thenpennai river or South Pennar river originates in Karnataka and flows through Krishnagiri, Thiruvannamalai, Villupuram and Cuddalore districts of Tamil Nadu before merging with the Bay of Bengal. 

What is the dispute?

Markandeya river is a tributary of Thenpennai river which joins the main river after travelling for around 30 kilometres inside Tamil Nadu, near Krishnagiri reservoir. 

The rights of the riparian states in using Thenpennai water is put down in an agreement entered into between the State of Madras and Mysore, the predecessor states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, in the year 1892. The agreement specifies how to use, control and distribute the waters of the inter-state river. This agreement was modified in 1933.

The Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board has been constructing a dam of 500 Mcft storage capacity across the Markandeya river in order to meet the drinking water requirements of Malur, Kolar and Bangarpet towns and 45 villages along the river’s route. 

About the project

The Markandeya dam project, near Yargol village in Bangarpet taluk, was approved in 2007 at an estimated cost of Rs 240 crore. Of the Rs 240 crore, Rs 160 crore is to be pitched in by the government of Karnataka and Rs 79.92 crore is to be granted by the Central government. 

The government of Karnataka began the construction in 2013 and is 75-80% complete, as per the affidavit filed by the counsel of the government of Karnataka. 

The contention between TN and Karnataka

Among the contentions that the government of Tamil Nadu put forward was that the construction of a dam across Markandeya river would severely impact the flow of water into Tamil Nadu, thereby adversely affecting the livelihood of farmers living in Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Thiruvannamalai, Villupuram and Cuddalore districts. 

The counsel for Tamil Nadu also stated that as per the clauses of the 1892 agreement, Karnataka is not supposed to take up any new irrigation works without previous consent from Tamil Nadu. 

Meanwhile, the government of Karnataka contended that it has not violated the terms of both agreements —  1892 and 1933 — and that as per the 1933 agreement, there is no requirement to get consent from Tamil Nadu if a dam is being constructed for the supply of drinking water. 

“... but the consent of the Madras Government will not be required under the agreement of 1892 for the construction of any anicut (dam) if there is to be no irrigation under it.” The counsel for Karnataka also stated that 75% of the river basin and the catchment area lies in Tamil Nadu and hence the dam across Markandeya river will not affect Tamil Nadu. 

Centre, meanwhile, stated in court that both the state governments had not requested for the setting up of a water dispute tribunal to sort out the issue. 

The SC order

The Supreme Court stated that there is no reason for the court to order a stay on the project since it is around 75% complete and construction has been going on for a few years, with the sanction and permission from all concerned authorities. The court also said that Tamil Nadu, even in its petition, has not sought a direction to set up an Interstate river water dispute tribunal. 

“We repeatedly asked Mr Naphade, learned Senior Advocate to show any communication where the plaintiff (government of Tamil Nadu) had invoked the power of the Central Government and sought constitution of an Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal to consider the present controversy. Mr Naphade accepted that there was no such express communication but submitted that the request ought to be inferred from various communications addressed by the plaintiff (government of Tamil Nadu) to the Central Government,” reads the order. 

In effect, the court meant that the project has been going on since its approval stage in 2007 and since it began construction in 2013 and no efforts have been taken by either of the states involved —  Tamil Nadu and Karnataka — to request the Centre to set up a separate tribunal. And because of this, the court can now do nothing but to allow construction of the dam across Markandeya river. However, Tamil Nadu can request the central government to intervene and set up an interstate river water dispute tribunal within four weeks of the order for further action. 

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