The controversial journey of the Cauvery river waters pact

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By T.Ramakrishnan/The Hindu

Chennai, February 21: M. Visvesvaraya (1860-1962), rightly called engineer-visionary, [as Chief Engineer of Mysore] came up with a proposal in October 1910 to build a reservoir, now called Krishnarajasagara (KRS). Eventually, in September 1911, an agreement was arrived at building a smaller reservoir of about 11.3 thousand million cubic feet (tmc) capacity in the initial phase of the dam project. But, friction developed immediately on the execution of the next phase of the project. As both Madras and Mysore had agreed for referring the matter to an arbitrator, the Government of India appointed Sir H.D. Griffin, Judge, High Court, Allahabad, as Arbitrator, who commenced his job in July 1913.

Griffin took less than a year to arrive at his award on what was then popularly called — Kannambadi Arbitration Case — and delivered his award on May 12, 1914. The takeaway of the award was the nod to the upper riparian State’s plan of constructing KRS with a full reservoir level of 124 ft and capacity of 41.5 tmc ft.

Madras, which had about 1.5 million acres of land under cultivation in its territory of the Cauvery delta, was naturally worried about possible adverse consequences of the KRS dam project and it sent its formal response to the Government of India (GoI) in April 1915.

Three months later, Mysore took up the matter with Resident in Mysore Hugh Daly, seeking modification in the award. Madras suffered a setback in March 1916 when it was informed by GoI that the award had been ratified. Four months later, Madras conveyed to GoI that it desired the matter be referred to the Secretary of State for India.

In November 1919, Secretary of State Edwin Samuel Montagu informed Resident Henry Venn Cobb that his government did not approve the award. Subsequently, GoI indicated to Mysore that the latter could enter into negotiations with Madras or it could submit the main questions to arbitration by a new tribunal. It took over five months for Mysore to convey its willingness to have negotiations with Madras.

The discussions between the two sides paved the way for framing a draft set of rules for the regulation of the KRS by July 1921.

But, it was felt that the proposed rules were, by themselves, “incomplete and inoperative” in the absence of an enabling agreement. This led to another round of negotiations. Mysore, while agreeing to ensure the prescriptive right of Madras, did not want the lower riparian State to have further locus standi in its future projects. Madras, which was aware that the 1892 Agreement had placed the upper riparian State on a strong footing, was, however, not satisfied merely with the retention of the prescriptive right. It favoured a share, on an “equitable basis” of all the surpluses of the Cauvery basin.

S. Guhan [the author of The Cauvery River Dispute] points out that even though three broad approaches came up for discussion, what eventually was agreed upon was that both sides should “lay all their cards on the table” which would enable them to share their intentions for future storage and irrigation extension; arrive at a “broader settlement,” which would include KRS and Mettur but would not be confined to the two dam projects and allow for re-assessment of surpluses and their possible utilisation, preceded by review, after a reasonable period of time.

On the 33rd anniversary of the 1892 Agreement, the two parties entered into a fresh agreement at Fort St. George, Madras, on February 18, 1924, which even today remains the last such understanding between the two States. A.R. Banerji, Mysore Dewan, and P. Hawkins, Public Works Department’s Secretary of Madras, were the signatories to the pact.

The main messages of the agreement were essentially two. The pact paved the way for the construction of KRS up to the height of 124 ft with a capacity of about 44.83 TMC and Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu which would be twice the size of KRS. The pact allowed a review of certain stipulations of the agreement after 50 years, which became the most controversial feature of the agreement.

Among the major elements of the pact were the lower riparian State’s consent for limiting the new area of irrigation under the Mettur project to 3.01 lakh acres and the formulation of the Rules of Regulation of KRS and other reservoirs, if and when built, in such a manner that there should not be “any material diminution in supplies” to Madras, as assured in the KRS rules.

Contrary to the subsequent campaign by political leaders of Karnataka that the 1924 Agreement was imposed on Mysore, which was a “vassal Princely State,” a statement issued by Banerji, the Dewan of Mysore, and published by The Hindu on February 21, 1924, did not betray any such feeling. Banerji called the agreement “a fair and honourable settlement.” While lauding technical officers on either side, Banerji said their work “will stand out in history as of first rate magnitude and excellence in view of the fact that while the spirit of ‘give and take’ reigned throughout, there was not on either side of the slightest determination or willingness to give in on the vital points.” No one would argue that there was “no British hand” behind the settlement. But, to interpret it to say that Mysore’s interests were brushed aside wholly in the process and to its detriment would not be an act of fairness to history.

(Excerpts from a publication – Cauvery : a long-winded dispute – to be brought out by The Hindu Group shortly )


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