Cauvery Dispute: Background, Timeline, Recent Verdict, Issues


  • The river Cauvery is the third largest river of South India after Mahanadi and Godavari. Its water drains the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. But the sharing of the water of this river has become an issue of conflict between the two states, with each referring to a British-era document for deciding their claim.

Geographical Location of the River: 

  • The Cauvery River originates in Karnataka’s Kodagu district, flows into Tamil Nadu, and reaches the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar.
  • Parts of three Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka – and the Union Territory of Pondicherry lie in the Cauvery basin.
  • The total catchment area is 81,155 square kilometres. Off the total area 34,273 kilometres is in Karnataka, 44,016 square km in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and about 2,866 sq km is in Kerala.
  • The river’s upper hilly catchment lies in Karnataka and Kerala. Its lower part lies in the plains of Tamil Nadu.
  • Karnataka is the upper riparian statewhere the river originates; Tamil Nadu is a lower riparian state.

Brief Background of the Dispute

Pre- Independence

  • In mid-19thcentury, the government of Mysore wanted to build a number of new irrigation projects.
  • This caused anxiety to the state of Madras which was dependent on Cauvery waters for irrigation.
  • After several rounds of discussions between the two and the government of India, an agreement was signed in 1892
  • Another agreement was signed in 1924,relating to the use, distribution, and control of the Cauvery waters specifically.
  • Both agreements stated that existing irrigation should not be impeded by the construction of new works upstream, and downstream irrigation should not be reduced.
  • However, Karnataka did not implement these agreements
  • In 1910, the government of Mysore proposed a reservoir at Kannambadi, and sought the consent of the Madras government under the 1892 agreement.
  • As the Madras government did not agree, it was referred to arbitration.
  • The Madras government did not accept the reward of the arbitration panel and it appealed. When the government of India did not intervene, moves were initiated that led to the signing of the 1924 Agreement.


  • As Kerala and Puducherry also claimed share of Cauvery water after India attained Independence, a Fact Finding Committeewas set-up in 1970 to figure out the situation on ground.
  • After submission of the report, the states reached at an agreement in 1976.
  • However, later when Tamil Nadu got its new government, it refused to give consent to terms of agreement which led to fresh disputes.
  • In 1986, Tamil Nadu government appealed the Central government to constitute a tribunal for solving the issue under Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956.
  • The Centre constituted the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) finally in 1990 to resolve the dispute following a Supreme Court order.
  • The Tribunal announced its final order in 2007
  • The award made an annual allocation of 419 TMC to Tamil Nadu in the entire Cauvery basin, 270 TMC to Karnataka, 30 TMC to Kerala, and 7 TMC to Puducherry.
  • Karnataka had contested the final verdict of the dispute tribunals, arguing that a major share of the water will go to Tamil Nadu, leaving almost six Karnataka districts, including Bengaluru, without enough water for drinking and farming.
  • Over the years, the Supreme Court has passed a series of orders setting a limit to the amount of water to be released by Karnataka to Tamil Nadu.
  • In 2016, the Tamil Nadu government sought the Supreme Court’s intervention claiming that Karnataka had failed to fully comply with a series of orders passed by the court regarding timely release of water from the Cauvery River.
  • Karnataka argued that it was unfair to require the state to release a fixed amount of water irrespective of the availability of water. The state also made strong case on drinking water needs of Bengaluru


Timeline of the Dispute:

  • The dispute arose after the Agreement of 1924 lapsed in the year 1974, putting an end to the obligations of the states under the document. After this, some of the important dates have been as follows:
  • 1990-After a constant demand by Tamil Nadu to constitute the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, it was finally created in 1990 in the month of June by direction of Supreme Court.
  • 1991-The Tribunal rejected the plea for interim relief of the Tamil Nadu government against which the state went on an appeal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then directed the tribunal to entertain the interim relief petition. The tribunal complied and passed an interim award which required Karnataka to release 205 tmcft of water. But in order to nullify the effects of the interim award the Karnataka government passed an ordinance that also became a matter of litigation and was struck down by the Supreme Court. But Karnataka still refused to obey which resulted in the publication of notification of the interim award in gazette of Government of India.
  • 1993-Some dramatic events took place as the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Later Jayalalithaa went on a sudden fast demanding immediate release of the share of water stipulated in the interim award.
  • 1998-But the constant denial of the interim award finally led to the constitution of the Cauvery River Authority that would ensure implementation of the interim award.
  • 2002-This became another major eventful year which began with the Authority directing Karnataka to release only 0.8 tmcft of water, which angered Tamil Nadu and it again appealed to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, a lot of political events unfurled with a Congress MP from Tamil Nadu blaming the AIADMK government for not sufficiently addressing the issue in the Parliament which led to a tussle between the two parties. In Karnataka a farmer jumped into the Kabini reservoir and died in protest against the release of water to Tamil Nadu. Then a Cauvery Monitoring Committee Panel was formed that visited the farmers of Karnataka seeking to know their distress.
  • 2003-Loopholes in functioning of the Cauvery River Authority was exposed.
  • 2005-A distress sharing formula was decided, but Karnataka still refused to implement this formula.
  • 2006-Talks held between farmers of both sides and compromise on water sharing was entered into.
  • 2007-The tribunal upheld the agreements of 1892 and 1924 and passed the award, which led to violent protests in Karnataka.


Verdict of CWD Tribunal:

  • The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal passed an Interim order in 1991 directing the State of Karnataka to release Water from its reservoirs in Karnataka so as to ensure 205 Thousand Million Cubic Feet (TMC) of water into Mettur reservoir of Tamil Nadu in a water year (1st June to 31st May) with monthly and weekly stipulations. Karnataka government refused to obey the interim award.
  • After 16 years of hearing and an interim order, the Tribunal announced its final order in 2007 allocating 419 tmcft water to Tamil Nadu and 270 tmcft to Karnataka. Kerala was given 30 tmcft and Puducherry got 7 tmc ft. Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu filed review petitions in Supreme Court.
  • Karnataka has not accepted the order and refused to release the water to Tamil Nadu. In 2013, Contempt of Court was issued against Karnataka.
  • 2013-Notification of final award by Centre and creation of Cauvery Water Management Board
  • 2016-But Karnataka had refused to follow the final award which led to another petition before the Supreme Court seeking execution of the final award. The Court after that kept pressurizing the Karnataka government for releasing 15,000 cusecs of water and to obey the award. Meanwhile the matter continued in the Court.

Latest Supreme Court Verdict:

  • The judgment was passed on a batch of appeals by the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala challenging the 2007 award passed by the Cauvery River Water Disputes Tribunal
  • Supreme Court curtailed Tamil Nadu’s share of Cauvery water by 14.75 tmcft and increased Karnataka’s share to meet Bengaluru’s drinking water needs.
  • Tamil Nadu will get 404.25 tmcft, which will be 14.75 tmcft less than what was allotted by the tribunal in 2007.
  • Karnataka will now release only 177.25 TMC ft Cauvery water from Billigundlu site to Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu.
  • The SC has given the Centre 6 weeks to frame a scheme to make sure the final decisions are implemented.
  • The SC has also directed the formation of the Cauvery Management Board (CMB)
  • The 2007 tribunal award of 30 TMC ft to Kerala and 7 TMC ft water to Puducherry will remain unchanged
  • Referring to river Cauvery as a “national asset”,the Supreme Court has further said that “no state can claim exclusive right to a river passing through different states”
  • The Court acknowledged Bengaluru’s need of water and based the supply of water to Bengaluru on the ground that both the National Water Policy and also courts of different countries hold that drinking water should be given “first priority.”

Way Forward:

  • The outcome of the legal battle ranging over a decade has serve as a precedent on deciding water sharing disputes in the future.
  • The apex court has upheld the approach of the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal but has slightly modified it. The decision has boosted the prospects of a viable water-sharing arrangement among the riparian States.
  • The Court has significantly recognised the principle of equitable distribution of inter-State rivers by stating that no single State has primacy in accessing water resources and that rivers are national assets.
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