What is the Cauvery Water Dispute?

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: November 9th, 2023

The Cauvery Water Dispute was fought between the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the allocation of water from the river Kaveri. In 1892 and 1924, the Madras Presidency and the Kingdom of Mysore reached two agreements that sparked this conflict. The Cauvery River rises in Karnataka and flows through Tamil Nadu and Puducherry before draining into the Bay of Bengal.

Cauvery Water Dispute

For more than a century, tensions between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have surrounded the sharing of the Cauvery waters. The concerned states are Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry (UT). The Inter-State River water dispute has been among the most contentious issues for Indian federalism. Many districts in both states are dependent on the Cauvery River for irrigation while the city of Bengaluru gets its water mostly from this river.

The Madras Presidency and the state of Mysore (now in Karnataka) first engaged in the Cauvery water dispute in the 19th century.

  • In its January 2018 judgment, the Supreme Court agreed with Karnataka that Bengaluru is a world-class metropolis in need of water infrastructure.
  • The Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to give 177.25 million cubic feet of water to Tamil Nadu instead of 192 million cubic feet at the interstate contact point at Biligundlu.
  • After Tamil Nadu’s appeal in 1986 to constitute a tribunal for solving the issue under the Inter-State Water Disputes Act 1956, the Union government formed the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) in 1990.
  • On February 20, 2013, the Government of India announced the final award. Tamil Nadu will receive 419 TMC per year for the entire Cauvery basin, followed by Karnataka with 270 TMC, Kerala with 30 TMC, and Puducherry with 7.
  • In Tamil Nadu, useable water is defined as the total water used for beneficial purposes, including sewage thrown into the sea in Lower Coleroon and Grand Anicut that exceeds 14 million cubic meters.

Sharing of water criteria is based on two situations:

  • When water availability is higher than the average water in the year it flows.
  • Water availability is equal to or less than annual water flows.

Constitutional Provisions for interstate water disputes

  • Article 262(1) provides that the Parliament may by law provide for the adjudication of any dispute related to any inter-State river or river valley.
  • Article 262(2) empowers the Parliament to provide that neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall exercise their jurisdiction in respect of any such disputes or complaints. The Interstate River Water Disputes Act 1956 (IRWD Act, 1956) was enacted under Article 262 of the Constitution of India.

Seventh Schedule:

  • Entry 17 of State List: Water i.e. water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage, water storage, and water power subject to entry 56 of the Union List
  • Entry 56 of the Union List: Regulation and development of the inter-State rivers and river valleys.

Supreme Court Judgment of 2018

  • The Supreme Court pronounced its verdict on the sharing of Cauvery water among Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Karnataka, and Kerala and declared Cauvery a “national asset”. It upheld the principle of equality of inter-State river water among riparian States.
  • The judgment concluded that Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) did not take into account Tamil Nadu’s stock of an “empirical” 20 TMC of groundwater and Karnataka is “entitled to marginal relief”. Hence the apex court reduced the allocation of Cauvery River water from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu.
  • This meant a reduction of 14.75 TMC of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu from the earlier 192 TMC as Awarded by the tribunal and this change will be adjusted from the Biligundlu site. Karnataka will release only 177.25 TMC of Cauvery water from the Billigundlu site to the Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu.
  • The Court gave the Centre six weeks to frame a scheme to make sure that the final decisions are implemented and also directed the formation of the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) to ensure the implementation of orders of the CWDT.

Cauvery Water Management Scheme, 2018

The Center established the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA) and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC).

  • CWMA is a permanent body and will be to regulate and control Cauvery water releases with the assistance of the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee.
  • CWRC acts as a technical arm and it will ensure the implementation of the final Award by periodically collecting data regarding levels, inflows, storages, and release of water.

Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019

  • Dispute Resolution Committee (DRC) will be established by the Central Government to resolve the dispute amicably through negotiations within one year (extendable by six months) and submit its report to the central government.
  • Establishment of a Single Inter-State River Water Disputes Tribunal by the Central Government with multiple benches. All existing Tribunals will be dissolved, and the disputes pending will be transferred to the new Tribunal.
  • The proposed Tribunal must give its verdict on the dispute within a timeline of two years, which may be extended by another year.
    The decision of the Tribunal will be final and binding.
  • Data Collection and maintenance of a databank at the national level for each river basin by an agency to be appointed and authorized by the central government.

What is the Way Forward?

There is a requirement for a permanent mechanism to solve water disputes between states without seeking recourse to the judiciary. However, there are some official paths that can also help ensure the rational use of water, such as:

  • Declaration of Rivers as National Property as done by SC in the Cauvery Verdict may reduce the tendency of states. Water disputes need to be depoliticized and not be made an emotional issue linked with regional pride.
  • Bringing water into the concurrent list as recommended by Mihir Shah’s report and supported by a parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources.
  • Practice the concept of 4Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover) for water management to achieve goal 6 of the SDGs (Ensure access to water and sanitation for all).
  • Following the National Water Policy which emphasized rational use of water and conservation of water sources. Urban water management in cities like Bengaluru should incorporate the conservation of wetlands along with appropriate sewage treatment.
  • Interlinking of rivers and the Scientific management of crop patterns.


What is the Cauvery Water Dispute?

The Supreme Court directed Karnataka to supply 177.25 million cubic feet of water to Tamil Nadu rather than 192 million cubic feet at the Biligundlu interstate interface point. The final allocation is an annual allotment of 419 TMC for Tamil Nadu in the entire Cauvery basin, 270 TMC for Karnataka, 30 TMC for Kerala, and 7 TMC for Puducherry. The dispute and verdict also gave way to many bills and acts to solve interstate water disputes in the country.

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