India's top court steps in to help thirsty tech hub Bengaluru in river-sharing deal

Indian firefighters try to douse a fire at Bellandur Lake in Bangalore on Jan 20, 2017. Rampant population growth has left some of its famous lakes so polluted that they regularly catch fire spontaneously.
Indian firefighters try to douse a fire at Bellandur Lake in Bangalore on Jan 20, 2017. Rampant population growth has left some of its famous lakes so polluted that they regularly catch fire spontaneously. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - India's water-starved tech hub Bangalore has received a much-needed boost when the country's top court altered a river-sharing arrangement in its favour, ruling on a bitter dispute that dates back more than a century.

The Supreme Court said on Friday (Feb 16) that a 2007 ruling by a special tribunal on river-sharing had failed to take into account Bangalore's growing water needs, and awarded a greater share to the southern state of Karnataka.

Bangalore, officially known as Bengaluru, was once known as India's garden city for its many lakes and parks, but has developed a serious water shortage in recent years as workers have flocked there to take up jobs in the tech industry.

Known as the Silicon Valley of India, the Karnataka capital now has a population of more than 10 million and is one of the country's fastest growing cities.

Rampant population growth has left some of its famous lakes so polluted that they regularly catch fire spontaneously.

The river-sharing issue has become hugely emotive in the city. It suffered deadly protests in 2016 when the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release extra water from the Cauvery river to ease a shortage in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.

Hundreds of companies were forced to close and public transport services were cancelled as thousands took to the streets.

Mohan Katarki, the lawyer who acted for Karnataka in the case, praised the court's ruling.

"This case has dragged on for so many years," he said. "The verdict will help us plan better. Now the state must forget the past and move on in a peaceful manner."

Decades of population growth and uncontrolled urbanisation have created a water crisis in India.

The World Resources Institute, a Washington-based research group, says the national supply is predicted to fall to 50 per cent below demand by 2030.

The Cauvery rises in Karnataka and flows into the Bay of Bengal through Tamil Nadu.

Its waters - fed by India's annual June to September monsoon rains - irrigate crops and provide drinking supplies for both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

The modern dispute began in 1974, when an 1892 agreement on the sharing of the waters lapsed. That was the year when the British Madras presidency, now Tamil Nadu state, forced the Maharaja-ruled Mysore - modern Karnataka state - not to use the Cauvery waters without its permission.

A tribunal set up in 1990 awarded Tamil Nadu 11.9 billion cubic metres of the estimated total of 21 billion cu m of Cauvery waters.

Karnataka was given 7.66 billion cu m. The two states have repeatedly resorted to legal action to win a bigger share of the waters.

Under Friday's ruling, Karnataka's share will increase to 8.09 billion cu m, drawing down from Tamil Nadu's share of the waters.

The remaining water volumes are taken up by Kerala state and Puducherry territory, according to Indian media reports.

Appasamy Navaneethakrishnan, the lawyer for the Tamil Nadu government in the case, said Friday's ruling was a setback for the state. "We will study the judgment in depth and we will take appropriate steps," he told reporters outside the court.