The Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been quick to respond positively to the Supreme Court’s suggestion that they meet and find a political solution to the seemingly intractable Cauvery river water dispute. It ill-behoves anyone to balk at an opportunity for negotiations, regardless of the stage of litigation, especially when the highest court in the land suggests it. Since the need to adjudicate arose because years of negotiations ended in failure, the advice for further talks long after a duly constituted tribunal’s verdict has been delivered may seem strange. Yet, the executive has to take responsibility for the failure of institutional mechanisms to find a solution. A provision in the Constitution, a law on inter-State water disputes, the verdict of a tribunal formed under the law, and an authority headed by the Prime Minister and involving the Chief Ministers of the basin States — all these structural arrangements seem to fail in the face of political intransigence. Past experience shows that the dispute flares up only in years of distress and goes dormant whenever nature’s bounty renders the upper riparian’s opinion on the timing and quantum of release of Cauvery water irrelevant. As they sit down for talks on Thursday — the first time since 1997 that Chief Ministers from the two States find themselves at the negotiating table — it is not the political will to find an amicable solution in the interests of their farmers which brings them there; rather, they will be there at the court’s bidding, perhaps each seeing in it an opportunity to expose how intransigent the other side is.
If they wish to defy this realistic, if not cynical, assessment, they would do well to understand that this time they are armed with much more than good intentions to move forward: the final award of the Cauvery Tribunal, delivered in 2007, is available for guidance and refuge. In the upcoming round of talks, the two Chief Ministers would serve the farmers’ cause well if they do not stop with finding a way out of the current year’s water shortage. Here is an opportunity to move beyond the particular requirements of this season — as irony would have it, the two States even disagree on what constitutes a ‘season’ — and hammer out a lasting political solution to a dispute that persists five years after a final award which has the force and effect of a Supreme Court decree. They could accept broadly the terms of the award which apportions the water estimated to be available in the Cauvery basin among the four riparian States and look for ways to implement it. Only a meaningful agreement on operationalising the final award during normal years and sharing distress pro rata in years of shortage is the way out.