If the finance departments of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Puducherry thought they would save lot of money by scaling down their Cauvery cells on the technical and legal sides, their prayers have not been answered. The four riparian states, especially Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, had fought an expensive legal battle from 1970s till early this year, when the Supreme Court ratified the final award of the Cauvery Water Tribunal. Expensive Delhi lawyers were hired and teams of engineers were maintained by the two states in Delhi to assist the lawyers as the dispute meandered its way through both the tribunal and the Supreme Court.
Though they are minor regions having small shares of the total water in the Cauvery basin, Kerala and Puduchurry necessarily became parties as the two main disputants always added these two in the numerous petitions and submissions, along with the central government. But a new project of Karnataka has brought the dispute again into focus, with strong political motives attributed to Narendra Modi.
Even as the Supreme Court said a monitoring authority of the centre and four states will ensure the implementation of the water quota allotted by the tribunal, a new row has erupted after the Central Water Commission permitted Karnataka to prepare a detailed project report on the Mekedatu project on the border with Tamil Nadu.
The name Mekedatu is given to the gorge from which the Cauvery spills into Tamil Nadu through the Hogenakkal Falls.
Karnataka, which does not have dams in the last stretch of the Cauvery river beyond the Krishnarajasgar Dam near Mysore, wants to build a balancing reservoir in the pristine hills, whose waters would be used for drinking water and electricity generation. The stretch of the river is known more for the fat mahseer fish which thrives in the undisturbed Cauvery valley, and attracts fishing and camping enthusiasts from round the world. Karnataka's argument is that it would be generating electricity after diverting the stored water into an underground powerhouse, and then the water would get back into the river as it enters Tamil Nadu. Karnataka would also draw its share of water for drinking purposes in Bangalore and other urban areas out of its quota from the reservoir.
The explanation is simple on the surface, but Tamil Nadu is crying foul. Tamil Nadu assembly passed a resolution opposing the Mekedatu reservoir on the ground that every dam built on the Cauvery in Karnataka -- there are four of them - have been used to impound water meant for Tamil Nadu, and are not released in bad rainfall years ever since the first dam, Krishnarajasagar, went up in 1920s. The bigger storage dam is at Kabini, a tributary of Cauvery which originates in Kerala. Tamil Nadu says at least the water released in Mysore and Chamarajnagar districts travels through Mandya and Ramnagar districts without further impounding. Mekedatu is a red rag, especially as Tamil Nadu parties see a Narendra Modi plot to woo voters of Karnataka towards BJP.
The project is also the favourite of Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy and water resources minister D K Shivakumar of the Congress, who represents the Kanakapura constituency in Ramanagara district. They feel the dam would be a big feather in their caps, apart from meeting the thirst of Greater Bangalore, which is spreading into neighbouring districts. The BJP has been weak in the southern Karnataka districts in Cauvery basin like Mandya, Ramanagar, Mysore, Hassan and Chamarajanagar, and is accused by Tamil Nadu parties of trying to whip up the sentiments. But the traditional rivals of these districts - Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) -- have come together in the coalition government headed by Kumaraswamy. If BJP claims credit for Mekedatu, bigger credit is claimed by the two coalition partners.
Nitin Gadkari's water resources ministry has a different argument. It notes that neither the Cauvery Water Tribunal nor the Supreme Court has banned construction of new dams by the four riparian states, as long as they do not use any amount in excess of their share allotted by the tribunal. The ministry feels waters of Cauvery between KRS and Kabini dams in Karnataka, and Mettur in Tamil Nadu can be used for power generation and drinking water purposes. The ministry has said that if Tamil Nadu wants to build its own reservoir at Hogenakkal for generation of electricity and supply of drinking water to towns like Hosur, Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri, it is welcome to prepare a project report. Gadkari says he does not play politics in water management. While Puducherry as a downstream state has a small interest in what happens in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Kerala being the topmost upstream state has no interest in the lower reaches of the river. However, its plans to build small dams in Wayanad to tap its small share of Cauvery water will run into environmental difficulties. Even Mekedatu proposal will have to answer major environmental questions.