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The Cauvery water dispute is more than an escalated local issue, it is an urgent cautionary tale

The Cauvery water dispute is symptomatic of some of the biggest problems that India is grappling with, writes Pragya Tiwari. The water wars, farmer suicides and cynical identity politics that have grown from a legal battle over the sharing of a river’s water have echoes all over the country. She writes that if India seeks to rise to the position of a global superpower it needs to learn from the current conflict.

Two of India’s largest southern states, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, are locked in a bitter legal battle over the waters of the river Cauvery – a battle that has been spilling over to the streets.

On the 12 September, Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka and a city known as India’s Silicon Valley, was beset by spectacular arson and rioting. Hundreds took to the streets in violent fury bringing work and life to a grinding halt. Estimated losses ran in excess of Rs 20,000 crores. Late last week, the threat of violence in Karnataka loomed large again. The anxious state government prohibited the assembly of large groups in public, liquor stores were shut, security forces patrolled the streets and the Central Government was asked to send more forces in a bid to stop the state from burning again.

The vigilance has helped curb the intensity of protests but has failed to stem them altogether. Earlier this week farmers took to the streets again, and at least as long as the case is being heard in the Supreme Court, the situation is likely to remain on the boil.

The nature of the dispute between the states through which the river Cauvery flows is complex and dates back to agreements signed between the Madras Presidency and the Princely State of Mysore in 1892 and 1924. The 1924 agreement lapsed in 1974. 16 years later the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal was constituted, and after over a decade, in 2007, it came up with a formula for dividing water between states. The Central Government notified this award in 2013.

However, no party to the dispute is entirely satisfied with the award and the dissatisfaction has been exacerbated over the last couple of years due to below average rainfall. 2014 and 2015 were drought years for India and even though the nationwide average of monsoon rain in 2016 has been regular, roughly one third of the country has received deficient rainfall this year as well.

Karnataka, for one, has been largely dry and the district where the Cauvery originates is likely to be declared drought hit. Paucity of water has serious adverse implications for agriculture and has led to the states arguing over a distress sharing formula.

Originally published on LSE.

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