In times of scarcity and shortage, distinctions between need and greed mean little. Following a deficit southwest monsoon this year, Karnataka has been reluctant to share the Cauvery with its lower riparian neighbour Tamil Nadu, choosing instead to retain the river’s waters in its small and major reservoirs. When the monsoon fails, neither State can possibly satisfy its irrigation and drinking water requirements from the Cauvery’s flows. It is nobody’s case that Karnataka is building up a huge surplus by damming the water, but the burden of a deficit year will have to be shared equally. By agreeing before the Supreme Court to release 10,000 cusecs of water daily to Tamil Nadu till September 19 — when the Cauvery River Authority, headed by the Prime Minister, meets to decide the issue — Karnataka has indicated a readiness to arrive at an understanding with Tamil Nadu on a just sharing of the water. Tamil Nadu had sought two TMC ft (thousand million cubic feet) of water for irrigation in the Cauvery delta, and Karnataka’s undertaking before the court means the State will get less than half of what it wanted. The undertaking, as a sort of minimum guarantee, will be the starting point for the talks in the CRA, and Tamil Nadu can hope for a reasonable coverage of the long-term samba crop. With the southwest monsoon playing truant, the State has already lost the short-term kuruvai crop.
What is most disquieting about the Cauvery dispute that arises every season is the failure of the Centre and the two States to bring about an acceptable solution. Each time, it takes the intervention of the Supreme Court to force a compromise. Little wonder then, one of the judges in the Supreme Court Bench hearing the issue felt compelled to express displeasure at the failure of the Prime Minister’s Office to hold a meeting of the CRA. Instead of fixing a date taking into consideration the urgency of the issue, PMO officials spent time seeking convenient dates from the Chief Ministers of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. The PMO seems to require constant prodding from the Supreme Court before it convenes the CRA. Clearly, the mechanism established for the heads of government to strive for a solution to the Cauvery water issue during deficit years is not working. The CRA is required to arrive at a pro rata sharing of the water among the Cauvery basin States under a distress-sharing formula. But the Centre — driven by the political compulsions of the government of the day — prefers not to take the lead in thrashing out a solution for fear of being seen taking sides.