Follow Us:

Cauvery’s choppy course

Sam Rajappa |

The failure of the executive in its duty and the stepping in of the judiciary on an issue which ought to be non-justiciable had kept the Cauvery cauldron boiling all these years. When the Cauvery Disputes Tribunal appointed by the Government of India on 2 June 1990 under the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, submitted its final award in 2007, the Prime Minister should have appointed a Cauvery Management Board to oversee implementation of the award and a Cauvery Waters Regulation Committee to assist the CMB as mandated by the tribunal. Manmohan Singh failed to do so even after repeated reminders.

The tribunal decided the quantum of water for each of the four Cauvery riparian States, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Pondicherry after extensive study of the flow of water in the Cauvery system for 100 years and its utilisation by the four States. Unhappy over its share of water, the Karnataka government filed a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court which was promptly admitted.

Article 262 of the Constitution on adjudication of disputes relating to waters of inter-State rivers or river valleys states categorically that “neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall exercise jurisdiction” in respect of the adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution or control of the waters of, or, in any inter-State river or valley. The Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, enacted by Parliament in pursuance of Article 262 states, “Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law, neither the Supreme Court nor any other court shall have or exercise jurisdiction in respect of any water dispute which may be referred to a tribunal under this Act.”

By trying to adjudicate, where it had no jurisdiction, the Supreme Court has made the dispute worse confounded. On 5 September, it ordered Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu for 10 days. On appeal by Karnataka, the court reduced the outflow to 12,000 cusecs but increased the number of days to 15. It would have fetched Tamil Nadu 14.8 tmcft of water instead of 13 tmcft according to the first order. Karnataka erupted in violence when the government started implementing the court order. 

Meanwhile, the Cauvery Supervisory Committee on 20 September ordered Karnataka to release 3,000 cusecs to Tamil Nadu from 21 September to 30 September. Within 24 hours, a Bench of the Supreme Court directed Karnataka to release 6,000 cusecs to Tamil Nadu till 27 September. It had the effect of pouring oil on burning fire and Karnataka struck back. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, aware of the limitations of the Supreme Court, convened a Cabinet meeting on 21 September which called for an emergency meeting of the Assembly on 23 September and decided to stop any release of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu for the time being.

Finding the futility of ad hoc orders on release of Cauvery water for which the Supreme Court is neither technically qualified nor constitutionally bound, it ordered the Union government to constitute the Cauvery Management Board within four weeks. The setting up of the empowered board, on the lines of the Bhakra Beas Management Board, was an important component of the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal presented in 2007. Even after the award was notified in 2013, the UPA government resisted setting up of the Cauvery Management Board.

The board will be an autonomous constitutional body like the Election Commission of India, and will have supervisory powers over all the dams and reservoirs in the Cauvery system. It will have complete powers to direct Karnataka to release water to the lower riparian States. The post of chairman of the board shall be held by an irrigation engineer of repute of the rank of chief engineer. The chairman will be assisted by two full-time members, one of whom shall be an irrigation engineer and the other an agricultural expert of repute. The ministry of water resources and the ministry of agriculture shall nominate a part-time member each to the board. The board will also have representatives of Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Pondicherry who shall be irrigation engineers of the rank of chief engineer.

Agitations and violence over the sharing of the Cauvery water are not new. When the tribunal gave an interim award in 1991, then Karnataka Chief Minister S Bangarappa turned it into a Kannada versus Tamil issue and chauvinistic Kannadigas launched a pogrom against Tamils residing in Karnataka in which more than 20 lives were lost, and forced thousands of Tamils rooted in Karnataka to flee. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha was able to contain retaliatory attacks of Kannadigas living in Tamil Nadu except for a few stray incidents.

In order to put an end to the periodic eruption of violence, Tamil Nadu has been repeatedly approaching the Centre to constitute the Cauvery Management Board. The Bhakra Beas Management Board constituted for the administration, maintenance and operation of works of Bhakra Nangal and Beas projects has been able to regulate the supply of water from the Sutlej, the Ravi and the Beas to the States of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi and the Union Territory of Chandigarh and to distribute power from the projects to these States as well as Himachal Pradesh without any major hitch.

After the 2014 change in government at the Centre, Jayalalitha wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom she has a good equation, pointing out the importance of constituting the Cauvery Management Board and said that without such a body, the award of the tribunal would remain a mere piece of paper. She said that she was ignoring the statements of Union ministers Ananth Kumar and Venkaiah Naidu on the Cauvery issue, but was forced to write the letter because the memorandum submitted by Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah was “replete with prevarications and misleading statements and is aimed at making the final award of the tribunal itself migratory.” In response to Jayalalitha&’s letter, Uma Bharati, Union Minister for Water Resources, said the Supreme Court had not directed the Prime Minister to set up the CMB or the CRC! That was just before the 20 September order of the Supreme Court.

A way forward to resolve the Cauvery imbroglio even after setting up of the management board is to find means to augment the flow into the Cauvery system. The available water is insufficient to meet extensive paddy cultivation in the delta region in Tamil Nadu or cash-rich, water guzzling sugarcane cultivation in the Cauvery basin on the Karnataka side. Lakhs of trees were felled in Coorg, where the Cauvery originates, disregarding the people&’s agitation against it, for a new railway line to Mysore and a high tension power line, which had considerably altered the pattern of rainfall in the catchment area.

An immediate solution lies in implementing the proposal to link the Hemavati, a Cauvery tributary, with the west-flowing Netravat river, which drains into the Arabian Sea, and divert the water eastwards to join the main Cauvery river which traverses the entire width of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. This project will augment flows into the Cauvery by almost 100 per cent, more than enough to meet the requirements of all concerned. A contour canal along the Sahyadri ranges of the Western Ghats, parallel to the Konkan Railway, will dramatically improve the flows in all the east flowing rivers south of the Vindhyas. The Netravati-Hemavati link can be taken up immediately and completed within 12 months to double the availability of water in the Cauvery system. Will the Modi government take up the challenge?

 The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School.