Chennai: Ahead of the assembly polls in Karnataka, the friction over the unresolved water-sharing dispute between the state and Tamil Nadu over the Mekedatu dam project on the Cauvery basin has resurfaced yet again.

The reason this time is Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s 2023-2024 state budget where he said that efforts would be made to start work on the project. Last year, Rs 1,000 crore was set aside for commencing the construction of the Rs 9,000 crore reservoir. 

The proposed dam with a capacity of 67.16 thousand million cubic ft. (tmc ft) will help produce 400 MW of hydro power. More importantly, the project has been pitched to meet drinking water needs of Bengaluru and the neighbouring suburbs and Ramnagara.

Tamil Nadu — the lower riparian state — has claimed that the project is against the interest of the state’s water requirement. “Before every election, this is an agenda that Karnataka brings up. The matter is in court, and we will legally move against this,” Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) organisational secretary R.S. Bharathi told ThePrint on Bommai’s remark. 

“The lower riparian state has to give its no-objection for any project that comes up on the Cauvery as per the Cauvery tribunal and Supreme Court order,” G. Sundarrajan, an activist with environmental organisation Poovulagin Nanbargal (Friends of the Earth), told ThePrint.  

In 2018, the Supreme Court revised the 2007 Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) and brought down Tamil Nadu’s share from 192 tmcft to 177.25 tmcft. Karnataka saw its share of water go up by an additional 14.75 tmcft of water, of which 4.75 tmcft was set aside to meet the drinking and domestic purposes of Bengaluru. 

Also Read: Budget 2023: Long-pending dam project in poll-bound Karnataka gets Rs 5,300 crore

What is the Mekedatu project?

The project is planned at Mekedatu, which is just 4 km from Tamil Nadu border at the confluence of Cauvery and its tributary Arkavathi. 

Tamil Nadu, which is embroiled in water disputes with Kerala over Mullaperiyar dam, faces same challenge with Karnataka over the construction of Mekedatu dam on the Cauvery basin.

Initially mooted in 1948, the Mekedatu project has over the years seen several opposition and changes. But since 2013, it gained widespread interest in Karnataka. In 2015, the then Siddaramaiah government in its budget suggested a detailed project report for construction of a “balancing reservoir”.  

Over the years the matter has also gained political importance. In 2022, under the theme “Namma Neeru, Namma Hakku” (Our water, Our right), the Congress intensified political pressure on the BJP government in Karnataka by conducting a padayatra demanding the construction of Mekedatu dam. 

Also Read: Polls soon, Karnataka govt to name Shivamogga airport after Yediyurappa year after he opposed move

Troubles around the project in Tamil Nadu 

Tamil Nadu has been accusing Karnataka of not releasing the regular share of water in time.

According to Sundarrajan, the dam is proposed near the Cauvery South Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a pristine forest area. “Building a dam there will jeopardise the environment.” 

The project is likely to submerge around 4,996 hectares of land, including about 4,800 hectares of forest and wildlife land. “The rich flora and fauna will get affected by this project,” Sundarrajan said, adding that whatever water the Mettur dam gets now is from the rainfall in the region between Kabini Hemavati and Mettur.

If Mekedatu is built then, he claimed, this will affect the inflow into Mettur dam. 

In 2017, when Tamil Nadu was going through one of the worst droughts in 140 years, the farmers from Thanjavur or Tanjore sat on a 107-day protest in Delhi demanding release of Cauvery water. 

“Karnataka is already not abiding by the Supreme Court or Cauvery Water Management Board’s direction of releasing a set amount of water to Tamil Nadu every month,” P. Ayyankannu, who led the farmers’ protest in Delhi, told ThePrint.

“Only when there is flooding in the region due to excess rainfall, do they release water. During peak summer, water is not released,” he said. “If Mekedatu is built, we won’t get water at all and the farmers in Tamil Nadu will be destroyed.” 

Tamil Nadu has been getting water from three sources — river Kabini, catchment areas of Krishnarajasagar reservoir; the sub-basins of Shimsha, Arkavathi and Suvarnavathi rivers; from Krishnaraja Sagar Dam and from Kabini dam. 

At an all-party meeting in 2021, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin accused Karnataka of trying to stop the only free flowing path of the Cauvery to Tamil Nadu by constructing the Mekedatu. The other two sources are already controlled by dams. 

Citing the reason for the opposition to the Mekedatu dam, Stalin had said, “If the new dam is built, Karnataka will release only residual quantities of water to Tamil Nadu.” 

On 18 February, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) chief Vaiko urged the Tamil Nadu government to prevent Karnataka’s plan of going ahead to construct the dam.

“In the last 48 years, we have lost cultivation in 15.87 lakh hectares, while Karnataka was able to increase its area of cultivation to 38.25 lakh hectares from 9.96 lakh hectares. If the Mekedatu project is allowed, the Cauvery delta will become a desert,” he said.

The Central Water Commission (CWC) has not processed the Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the project yet. Irrespective of the noise both the states make because of their political compulsions, it’s still a long way before the project goes off the drawing board. 

The CWC will process the DPR only after the Cauvery Water Management Authority gives approval to the project after taking consent of all Cauvery-basin states. There has not been much forward movement on the project since then. 

Dispute dating back to pre-Independence 

The dispute over Cauvery water goes back to the early 1890s. The water sharing between the princely state of Mysore and the Madras Presidency was based on 1892 and 1924 agreements

Despite the opposition from Tamil Nadu to the construction of two dams over the Cauvery between 1959 till end of 1960s, Karnataka managed to build its two dams.

In 1974, stating that the 1924 agreement that was for 50 years had ended, Karnataka wanted to stop releasing water to different beneficiary states. But the central government’s intervened and a Cauvery Fact Finding Committee (CFFC) was set up.

Based on this, all parties involved — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry — arrived at an understanding and a draft was set up in 1976. 

Unfortunately, the draft was not approved as Tamil Nadu came under the President’s rule. Once the new AIADMK government came to power, things were back to square one with no amicable solution. 

Based on a Supreme Court appeal by a farmers’ association in 1986 to constitute a tribunal, the V.P. Singh government set up the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal in 1990.   

In 1998, with the Prime Minister as its Chairperson, and Chief Ministers of the four states as members, a Cauvery River Authority (CRA) was formed and simultaneously a Cauvery Monitoring Committee was also set up comprising experts who would give recommendation to the CRA.

The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal submitted its 1,000-page final report in 2007, with recommendation of suggestion on water sharing. In 2018, the Supreme Court revised the water share and fixed a validity period of 15 years before revisiting the share. 

(Edited by Richa Mishra)

Also Read: Lokesh Kanagaraj is Tamil Tarantino. His hit-machine universe is ready & ripe