An inadequate monsoon has always been a prelude to the eruption of the festering sore that the dispute over the sharing of Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has become. We have seen this in 1991-92, 1995-96, 2002-2003, and now again in 2012. What distinguishes this year’s showdown is that it is the first after the February 2007 final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was announced, a scheme that swiftly went into cold storage thanks to Special Leave Petitions that all four Cauvery basin States filed in the Supreme Court. With the final award in legal deep-freeze, the interim award as implemented by the Cauvery River Authority remains the sole guide for adjudicating the allocation and release of water, especially in a poor monsoon year. The current quarrel has become one of claims versus counter-claims, with both States pressing their case for water, yet supremely blind to each other’s distress. On September 19, the CRA, which is headed by the Prime Minister, directed Karnataka to release 9000 cusecs of water every day from September 21 to October 15, an order upheld by the Supreme Court on September 28, and with which Karnataka partially complied. This triggered a wave of protests in the basin districts. On October 8, Karnataka stopped releases from the Krishnaraja Sagar reservoir. In response, the Tamil Nadu government has moved the Supreme Court charging the Karnataka government with contempt.
Clearly, dispute-resolution between two States, especially over a resource as vital as water, cannot be conducted through court directives. Nor can this process be reduced to short bursts of intense confrontation whenever a crisis hits. The Cauvery Tribunal’s final award came after 17 years of adjudication, and it must be given a chance to work. For this to happen, the disputing parties must agree to bring it out of cold storage by withdrawing the objections filed in the Supreme Court, and instead pursue their engagement with the Cauvery Tribunal — whose vacancies must immediately be filled — for clarifications and amendments to the final order. Until then, the CRA has the unenviable and politically fraught task of deciding the volume of water to be released and the courts must not brook any defiance of its decisions. The absence of legal closure allows parochial political forces to compete with each other in cashing in on distress. It is, therefore, incumbent on all stake-holders to show the political will and statesmanship needed to tide over the current standoff and clear the hurdles for the final award of the Cauvery Tribunal to be given a chance to work, so that the Cauvery basin may begin to realise its full agro-economic potential.