Less than two years away from the next state assembly election, Karnataka’s chief minister K Siddaramaiah is playing his cards with caution. Now, an issue that has plagued many political leaders in the past is haunting him again: a dispute between the state and its neighbour Tamil Nadu, over the sharing the Cauvery River’s water. To ensure his political survival, Siddaramaiah appears to be repeating what two his predecessors (SM Krishna, in 2002, and Jagadish Shettar, in 2012) did: flouting the process put in place by the highest court in the country.
On 25 August 2016, citing a bad monsoon, Siddaramaiah announced that Karnataka was not in a position to release Tamil Nadu’s share of the water. This declaration triggered a new battle between the two states. Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court. On 5 September, the court instructed Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs—cubic feet of water per second—from the Cauvery River to Tamil Nadu every day, for ten days, in order to save the latter’s samba crop. The court’s decision caused Karnataka to erupt in protests.
Pro-Karnataka activists called for a state-wide bandh on 9 September. “The state government has resolved not to oppose the bandh,” Siddaramaiah said on 8 September. As public transport stayed off the roads, and private and educational institutions were shut down, the state came to a standstill. On 10 September, Karnataka approached the court, and requested it to reduce to the flow from 15,000 cusecs to 1,000 cusecs a day, for six days instead of ten. Earlier today, on 12 September, the Supreme Court modified its order, asking the state to release 12,000 until 20 September instead.
But protests and legal tussles over the Cauvery are not new to Karnataka, or even to Tamil Nadu. The 498-kilometre-long river originates in Karnataka’s Coorg district, and flushes out to the Bay of Bengal after stretching through Tamil Nadu’s lowlands. The part of its basin that is in Tamil Nadu is over 44,000 square-kilometres, and 32,000 square-kilometres is in Karnataka. (Of the remaining, about 2,800 square kilometres are in Kerala, and another 160 in the Union Territory of Puducherry.) But an agreement to share the waters of the river—and that was acceptable to the two major stakeholders—has been in the works since 1892.
As an issue which has direct ramifications on large swathes of population in two states, and which sees the involvement of political parties, the fight for the Cauvery has become part and parcel of the social and political history of the two states.