Indian farmers protest at plan to transfer river water to neighbouring state

The 802km Cauvery river originates in Karnataka and passes through Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry before draining into the Bay of Bengal

Activists are detained by the Indian police during a protest against the Supreme Court's order in the Cauvery river water dispute in Bangalore, India, 26 September 2023. EPA
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The city of Bengaluru, dubbed India's "Silicon Valley", has a deserted look as schools, colleges and offices remain closed and police guard the streets.

Security has been stepped up after farmer's groups called for a strike over a century-old water dispute.

The Karnataka Jala Samrakshana Samiti, an umbrella outfit of farmers in the southern state, demanded protests against the decision to release 5,000 cubic metres of water daily from the Cauvery river to neighbouring Tamil Nadu state for the next 15 days.

The Karnataka government says it is already facing shortages of water itself, at a time when it has to share with the neighbouring state.

The order was passed by Cauvery Water Management Authority, a federal government body, on September 21, after the Supreme Court refused to interfere in the dispute. The government had asked the CWMA to manage the water sharing between the two neighbouring states.

Protesting farmers crowded the streets of Bengaluru, Karnataka's capital, on Tuesday, wearing green scarves and carrying empty plastic containers to draw attention to the water crisis.

Bengaluru heavily relies on the Cauvery river for its drinking water supply.

“We are demanding that they don’t release the water. Save our people of Karnataka, Bangalore,” one of the protesters said.

More than 200 protesters were detained while trying to march towards Raj Bhavan, the governor's residence, from Vidhana Soudha, the state legislative assembly. In one incident, police foiled a farmer’s attempt to hang himself.

The authorities announced the closure of schools, colleges and government offices, but banks, ATMs, public and private transport, shops, and commercial establishments also remained shut. Essential services such as hospitals and ambulance services were open.

Police had banned gatherings of more than five people and only allowed protests in the city's Freedom Park.

“No procession and any protests will not be allowed except this park. We have made adequate arrangements and have sufficient manpower,” Shekhar H Tekkannvar, a senior police official said.

Protests had also broken out in several parts of the state. In Mandya, protesting farmers held a motorbike rally carrying flags.

In Ramanagara, a mock funeral of Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin was observed by protestors.

What is the Cauvery Water Dispute?

The 802 kilometre Kaveri or Cauvery river originates in Karnataka and passes through Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry before draining into the Bay of Bengal.

In 2013, the government announced an allocation of 419 billion cubic feet (11.9bn cubic metres) of the 740 billion cubic feet of Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu, 270 billion cubic feet to Karnataka, 30 billion cubic feet to Kerala and 7 billion cubic feet to Puducherry.

The generous allocation to Tamil Nadu compared to Karnataka is despite both states having a similar population – about 76 million and 67 respectively – and a similar dependence on rice farming, which is highly water intensive.

Both states have been fighting over the water share since the British era.

Mysore, a former princely state in now Karnataka, and Madras Presidency, a British administrative province covering most of southern India and Tamil Nadu, came to a consensus in 1924, with Mysore allowed to build a dam to store 44.8 billion cubic feet of water for up to 50 years.

The Indian government constituted the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) in 1990 to resolve the water dispute between Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Puducherry.

It passed an interim order to Karnataka to release 205 million cubic feet of water to Tamil Nadu on a monthly basis.

The criteria for water sharing depends on the water availability when it is above the normal water year flows and when water availability is equal to or below the normal water year flows.

But both the states have approached the Supreme Court multiple times over the dispute and there has been no final resolution.

Fresh protests

The CWMA has directed Karnataka to discharge 5,000 cubic metres of water to Tamil Nadu but the state has claimed that its urban cities like its capital Bengaluru are on the brink of a drinking water crisis and it has no surplus water for sharing.

"We don't even have water for drinking. We have discussed (this) with all parliament members, who assured us that they are going to support our fight. We are pressing it before the Supreme Court to give us justice. I hope justice will be given to us," Deputy Chief Minister Shivakumar had said.

Another strike has been called for September 29 under the banner Kannada Okkuta led by Kannada activist Vatal Nagaraj.

Deadly riots broke out in Bengaluru in 2016 after the top court ordered the release of some water to Tamil Nadu.

Updated: September 26, 2023, 1:05 PM