Case study – Cauvery River Water Sharing Dispute

The following article is a case study on Cauvery River water sharing dispute between two states of India, namely Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This blog post is compiled towards the credit requirement for HS4350 – Contemporary Issues and Development course, at IIT Madras.


The sharing of river waters across political boundaries is a matter of conflict in many countries. India faces a large number of transnational as well as inter-state conflicts on common water resources. Within India, 16 of the 18 major river basins cover two or more States. Though, ‘Water’ is listed as a state subject in the constitution of India, the Central Government is empowered to take measures to ensure integrated development of interstate rivers, establish mechanisms to resolve disputes between riparian states, and intervene in the interests of environment protection. There are also several national legislations such as the River Boards Act, the Interstate Water Disputes Act, and those relating to environmental protection, forest conservation, pollution control, etc. The legal framework consists of provisions regarding the powers of the state in relation to water resource development and their distribution, the nature of and basis for the rights of different claimants over common sources of water, and the principles, mechanisms and procedures for resolving disputes. However, they have not been effective in bringing about a satisfactory solution. Many of these problems are due to the fact that there are not enough effective guidelines, an accepted set of parameters and indicators to resolve conflicts in addressing transboundary river water sharing issues.

Why Cauvery case study is important?

The Cauvery river water dispute, primarily between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, dates back to the 19th century. Many treaties and negotiations have been held to reach to a conclusion in this matter, but none of them have proven to be sustainable enough. The Cauvery River Dispute has been a serious issue since 1974 when a 50 year old agreement between the Madras president and the princely Mysore state collapsed. Karnataka asserts that the 1924 agreement entailed a discontinuation of the water supply to Tamil Nadu after 50 years. The conflict between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka compounds a century old dispute over the vital interests of farmers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It is a perfect example of institutional failure, and a very important case study to understand the intricacies and the problems with the current framework.

Facts and Figures

  • Origins at Talakaveri, Kodagu in the Western Ghats in Karnataka, flows generally south and east through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and across the southern Deccan plateau through the southeastern lowlands, emptying into the Bay of Bengal through two principal mouths.
  • Basin – 81,155 km2 (31,334 sq mi).
  • Length – 765 km (475 mi).
  • Discharge – 235.7 m3/s (8,324 cu ft/s)
  • Major tributaries – Shimsha, Hemavati, Arkavati, Honnuhole, Lakshmana Tirtha, Kabini, Bhavani River, Lokapavani, Noyyal, Amaravati River
  • States – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Puducherry


Tamil Nadu




Basin Area (in km²)

34,273 (42%)

44,016 (54%)

2,866 (3.5%)



Drought area in the basin (in km²)

21,870 (63.8%)

12,790 (29.2%)



Timeline of the issue

(a) Mid 1870s – 1947 – Pre-independence era

The British controlled both Mysore and Madras in the mid-nineteenth century. During their regime, numerous plans were drawn up for the utilization of the Kaveri waters by both states. However, the drought and subsequent famine in the mid-1870s put a hold on the implementation of these plans. However, when Mysore sought to revive those plans, a conference was held in 1890 with the objective of agreeing on the principles of a modus vivendi, which would on the one hand allow to Mysore in dealing with irrigation works, and on the other, give to Madras practical security against injury to interests and eventually, after heavy discussions and negotiations for two years, the agreement of 1892 was signed.

However in 1910, both Mysore and Madras planned to construct dams in Kannambadi and Mettur respectively. The British government then, permitted Mysore to build the dam for a reduced storage (11 TMC as opposed to planned 41.5 TMC), but during the construction, the foundation was laid to suit the earlier desired full storage, which resulted in rift from Madras. As a result, the Kaveri dispute was put for arbitration for the first time.

Proceedings started on 16 July 1913 and the award was given on 12 May 1914. Still, Madras appealed against the award and negotiations continued for another 10 years. Eventually an agreement was arrived at in 1924, which was set to lapse after a run of 50 years.

(b) 1947 – 1980s – Post-independence developments

Independence and the reorganization of states in India resulted in new developments in this issue. In 1956, state boundaries were redrawn based on linguistic demographics. These changed the equations as Kerala and Puducherry also jumped into the fray, by claiming their right on one of their tributaries or the main river to some extent.

By the late 1960s, the government realized the gravity of the situation as the 50 year run of the 1924 agreement was soon coming to an end. A ‘Cauvery Fact Finding Committee (CFCC)’ was constituted and it presented its final draft agreement in 1974 which was not ratified. Again in 1976, led by then irrigation minister, Jagjeevan Ram prepared a final draft on the findings of the CFFC. It was accepted by all the states and the Government also made an announcement to that effect in Parliament.

Again, Karnataka acted on its own will without taking into account the impact on the livelihood of other states and went on to make Harangi dam at Kushalangara in Kodagu. Tamil Nadu went to court demanding the constitution of a Tribunal under the Interstate River Water Disputes Act (ISWD) of 1956. Later Tamil Nadu withdrew its case demanding the constitution of a tribunal and the two states started negotiating again. Several rounds of discussions were held in the 1980s.

(c) 1990s

The Supreme Court then directed the government to constitute a tribunal and refer all disputes to it. A three man tribunal was thus constituted on 2 June 1990, and following were the demands by the concerned four states

  • Karnataka – 465 billion ft³

  • Kerala – 99.8 billion ft³ (2.83 km³)

  • Puducherry – 9.3 billion ft³ (0.3 km³)

  • Tamil Nadu –  566 billion ft³ for Tamil Nadu and Puducherry; 177 billion ft³ for Karnataka and 5 billion ft³ for Kerala.

Tamil Nadu demanded a mandatory injunction on Karnataka for the immediate release of water and other reliefs. Although initially dismissed by the tribunal, on the direction of Supreme Court, it considered TN’s plea and released the interim award on 25 June 1991. They did it by calculating the average inflows over a period of 10 years (ignoring the outliers), and it came at a figure of 205 billion ft³ which Karnataka has to ensure reached TN in a water year, to be dispersed on a monthly basis. Karnataka, again not satisfied with the order, issued an ordinance seeking to annul the award. The Supreme Court now stepped in on President’s request and struck it down, and it was subsequently gazzeted by GOI on 11 Dec 1991. Various riots broke down because of this in the Tamil inhabitated parts of Karnataka.

However, in the interim award, there was no clear cut formula that everyone agreed upon to share the waters in the case of failure of the monsoon. And this worsened the situation in 1995-96, when monsoons failed badly in Karnataka and Karnataka didn’t fulfill the interim order. Finally, P V Narsimha Rao intervened and found a political solution where Karnataka released 6 billion ft³ instead of the 11 that the tribunal ordered.

Due to several cases of Karnataka disobeying the interim tribunal’s award, in 1997, the Government proposed the setting up of a Cauvery River Authority which would be vested with far reaching powers to ensure the implementation of the Interim Order. These powers included the power to take over the control of dams in the event of the Interim Order not being honoured. Karnataka, which had always maintained that the interim order had no scientific basis and was intrinsically flawed, strongly protested the proposal to set up such an authority.

The Government then made several modifications to the powers of the Authority and came up with a new proposal. The new proposal greatly reduced the executive powers of the Authority. The power to take over control of dams was also done away with. Under this new proposal, the Government set up two new bodies, viz., Cauvery River Authority and Cauvery Monitoring Committee. The Cauvery River Authority would consist of the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of all four states (Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala) and was headquartered in New Delhi. The Cauvery Monitoring Committee on the other hand, was an expert body which consisted of engineers, technocrats and other officers who would take stock of the ‘ground realities’ and report to the government .

(d) 2000s

    Again, as pointed out before, since there was no clear formula for distress. In the summer of 2002, things once again came to a stall when monsoon failed in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu demanded that Karnataka honour the interim award and release to Tamil Nadu its proportionate share. Karnataka on the other hand stated that the water levels were hardly enough to meet its own demands and ruled out releasing any water in the circumstances that prevailed. CRA and Supreme Court intervened and ordered Karnataka to release 1.25 billion ft³ of water every day (which was reduced to 0.8 billion ft³). Karnataka obeyed the order for a few days under the pressure of TN and the Supreme Court, but they stopped it again on 18 September as a Kannada extremists and thir protests threatened to take a dangerous turn. Ultimately, the centre had to step in and it asked Karnataka to release the water. The flare up had by now, well and truly taken an ugly turn and there were accusations and counter accusations being thrown all around in both states. The dispute had already spilled onto the streets in the Mandya district of Karnataka and was threatening to spread to other parts of the state too. The Karnataka Chief Minister, S M Krishna, fearing that the situation might spiral out of control, embarked a padyatra from Bangalore to Mandya to soothe tempers between the two states.

    Even though the monsoons were good from 2003-2006, the court proceedings still didn’t show any progress. The term of the tribunal was initially set to expire in August 2005, but it was given an extension until September 2006. Various controversies and rumours also erupted as the tribunal neared its deadline. The tribunal suggested that a new expert committe should be formed to carry out further ground realities assessment. But this was vehemently opposed by all the four state governments, and also the chief judge of the tribunal. Nonetheless, it was still formed and the tribunal was given yet another extension.

    Finally, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal announced its final verdict on 5 February 2007. According to its verdict, Tamil Nadu gets 419 billion ft³ (12 km³) of Kaveri water while Karnataka gets 270 billion ft³ (7.6 km³). The actual release of water by Karnataka to Tamil Nadu is to be 192 billion ft³ (5.4 km³) annually. Further, Kerala will get 30 billion ft³ and Puducherry 7 billion ft³.

    As expected, Karnataka protested tribunal final award and observes state-wide bandh on the issue. Bangalore IT professionals protest against the “biased” award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. Meanwhile in TN, Jayalalithaa undertakes a token fast in Chennai demanding publication of the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal in the Official Gazette of the Centre.

(e) 2010s

    Karnataka again defied tribunal final award and that made Jayalalithaa seek immediate Cauvery River Authority meet in May 2012. On 19 September 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is also the Chairman of the Cauvery River Authority, directed Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of Kaveri water to Tamil Nadu at Biligundlu (the border) daily. But Karnataka felt that this was impractical due to the drought conditions prevailing because of the failed monsoon.

    Again, history repeated itself. Karnataka again defied the ruling, and upon TN’s and Supreme Court’s pressure, they started releasing water which led to wide protests and violence in Karnataka. The drama continued in October, where several Kannada Organisations, under the banner of “Kannada Okkoota”, called a Karnataka bandh (close down) on 6 October in protest against the Kaveri water release. Finally on 6 December, the supreme court directed Karnataka to release 10,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu. The court asked the union government to indicate the time frame within which the final decision of the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, which was given in February 2007, was to be notified. This decision was given in the view of saving the standing crops of both the states.

    Finally on 20 February 2013, based on the directions of the Supreme Court, the Indian Government notified the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) on sharing the waters of the Cauvery system among the basin States of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala and Union territory of Puducherry. The final award makes an annual allocation of 419 tmcft to Tamil Nadu in the entire Cauvery basin, 270 tmcft to Karnataka, 30 tmcft to Kerala and 7 tmcft to Puducherry.


Tamil Nadu




Basin Area (in km²)

34,273 (42%)

44,016 (54%)

2,866 (3.5%)



Share for each state as per Cauvery Tribunal final award Dated 19 February 2013

270 (37%)

419 (58%)

30 (4%)

7 (1%)



    It still doesn’t take rest here. Following is the summary of events that follow this.

  • March 10, 2013: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister says that she will strive for formation of Cauvery Water Board during a felicitation ceremony organised in Thanjavur for her efforts to get the final award notified in the Union gazette.
  • March 19, 2013: Tamil Nadu moves Supreme Court to give directions to Water Ministry for constitution of Cauvery Management Board.
  • May 1, 2013: The Election Commission directs the Union Water Resources Ministry to defer constituting the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC) till May 5 in view ot Karnataka Assembly polls.
  • May 10, 2013: Supreme Court directs Centre to set up panel to supervise Cauvery water release.
  • May 24, 2013: Centre notified temporary Cauvery Water (Implementation of the Order of 2007) Scheme, 2013.
  • May 27, 2013: Cauvery issue will be resolved soon, says Karnataka Law Minister.
  • May 28, 2013: Tamil Nadu moves Supreme Court, seeks Rs. 2,480-cr damages from Karnataka for not following orders of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal
  • June 1, 2013: Union Water Resources Secretary chairs the first meeting of the Supervisory Committee which saw Tamil Nadu demanding its share of water for June as stipulated in the award.
  • June 2, 2013: Water cannot be released as and when TN demands, says Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.
  • June 6, 2013: Karnataka says it cannot release 134 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu between June and September.
  • June 12, 1013: Cauvery Supervisory Committee terms the Tamil Nadu’s plea for directions to Karnataka for release of Cauvery waters as per the award of the CWDT as not “feasible”.
  • June 14, 2013: Tamil Nadu decides to file contempt plea against Karnataka for its stand on the Cauvery Supervisory Committee.
  • June 15, 2013: Chief Minister Jayalaithaa says the Tamil Nadu government will approach the Supreme Court for the formation of the Cauvery Management Board and Cauvery Water Regulatory Authority.
  • June 26, 2013: Contending that the setting up of a supervisory committee had become a futile exercise, Tamil Nadu moves SC for constitution of Cauvery Management Board.
  • June 28, 2013: Tamil Nadu files contempt petition in the Supreme Court against Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah for his a defiant stand before the Supervisory Committee
  • July 15, 2013: Karnataka and Tamil Nadu clash during the third meeting of the Cauvery Supervisory Committee here over latter’s share of the river waters. While Tamil Nadu sought 34 tmcft in July and 50 tmcft for August to save the Samba crop, Karnataka says that it had already released 34 tmcft between June and July 13.


    This case study is a classic example of institutional failure to address this problem. The problem persists from a century now, but still we haven’t been able to reach to a decision which is fair to all the stakeholders involved. As far as I see, this was largely due to political motives. Most of the time, rather than depending on the scientific research involved, the government of respective states decided to act on people’s sentiments to protect their vote bank. This has been clearly shown in the case where the Executive committee responsible for making sure whether the states are following the tribunal award, is stripped of its powers by the legislature. Also, this also shows how crippled our judiciary and legislature is, which takes more than 16 years to devise an act to control the situation. And ultimately when it makes it, it is on the basis of the parameters which were used in 1892 and 1924, almost 100 years back! They still haven’t incorporated a feasible distress sharing model in the final verdict. And as mentioned before, there is no executive branch incorporated to make sure that all the stakeholders respect the final award. This issue has just revolved around formation of numerous committees and regulatory authorities, but a real solution is still not in sight in near future.


  1. Ministry of Water Resources, GOI –
  2. The Hindu –
  3. Wikipedia –

Smit Mehta, CS10B024


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