Cauvery, the ‘Dakshina Ganga’ or the Ganges of the south, and the fourth largest river of southern India has been the economic backbone of the states through which it flows, making its impact felt most strongly in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In these two states, the river is almost the Mother Goddess, entwined with the identity of the people there. It is celebrated in music and literature and sung praises of in prayer and legends. Yet this same holy river has been the bone of contention between the two states for decades.
The contest for Cauvery between what is modern day Tamil Nadu and Karnataka can be traced back to the 11th century AD. It is believed that Chikkadeva Wodeyar of Mysore attempted to stop the flow of Cauvery into Tamil regions to settle scores with Chokkanath Naik of Madurai kingdom.
But the modern day trouble over Cauvery’s water goes back to 1807 when the Mysore state initiated development projects on the river and the Madras government disapproved of the same. This initial bit of squabble between the two governments resulted in the agreement of 1892 and then again in 1924. At present, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are at loggerheads with each other over the sharing of Cauvery’s water, but the precise origin of the disagreement is the treaty of 1924 signed between an erstwhile British province and the princely state. In the decades since the 1920s, internal borders and politics within the country have undergone significant changes, but the regulations set out in an agreement formed under colonial rule is what is causing the two states to simmer.
Writing about the historical background of the Cauvery dispute, political scientist Midatala Rani says in the late 19th century the relationship shared between Madras presidency and Mysore state was that of a ‘sovereign power and a feudal unit.’ “ Because of these reasons, the then British government favoured Madras,” she writes. When Madras presidency disapproved of Mysore’s irrigation plans on the Cauvery in 1807, and the two states could not come to a mutual agreement, the matter had to be taken by the government of India which was then in British hands.
Through the intervention of the British government, the General Agreement of 1892 was signed between the two states. The agreement entitled, “Rules defining the limits within which no new irrigation works are to be constructed by Mysore State without previous reference to Madras government,” laid out six rules of negotiation between the two states regarding Cauvery water.
The regulations meted out in the agreement made clear that the Mysore State was not to start with a development project on the Cauvery without asking for consent from the Madras Presidency. The Madras Presidency, on the other hand, was not to disallow the project unless it contradicted with the prescriptive rights that they had already acquired. Interestingly, the agreement failed to codify what these prescriptive rights were.
Over time, the agreement was felt to be unfair to both the states. While Mysore was unhappy about the lack of definition of Madras’ prescriptive rights, Madras was disappointed about not be allowed usage of water above its rights which might be unutilised.
The shortcomings of the agreement of 1892 came to the fore when in 1910 Mysore proposed the construction of the Kanambadi dam across the Cauvery. Almost at the same time, Madras proposed an irrigation project on the river. The Madras state objected to the second stage of the Kanambadi project and eventually the government of India had to be consulted.
Initially, the government left the two states to reach an agreement between themselves, but once that appeared impossible a Court of Arbitration presided over by Sir Henry Griffin was appointed to look into the matter. It was under him that an agreement was formulated on February 18, 1924, which was to be valid for the next 50 years.
Consisting of 10 clauses, the agreement of 1924 set out that henceforth, at least for the next 50 years, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry would be allotted 75 per cent of the Cauvery water, while 23 per cent would be given to Mysore and the remaining would run into the hands of Kerala or what was then Travancore.
A large part of the present tussle between the two states arises from a few contradictory claims raised by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu regarding the agreement of 1924. The Karnataka government believes that since the agreement of 1924 was to expire after 50 years, its clauses cannot be applied to present-day water allocation. Secondly, the state claims that considering when the agreement was signed Tamil Nadu was a British province and Karnataka a princely state, the latter did not have the freedom to put forth its interests as strongly as it would have desired.
Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, believes that the agreement of 1924 formed the premise upon which various developmental projects in both the states had taken place. Therefore, changing the basic nature of the agreement would be detrimental to both states. Secondly, they claim that when the agreement was first negotiated, it was understood that after 50 years, its clauses would be reviewed, but not completely changed.