Three years have passed since the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) gave its final award on inter-State sharing of the river waters. The Inter-State Waters Dispute Act, 1956 bars any court, including the Supreme Court, from having or exercising jurisdiction “in respect of any water dispute which may be referred to a Tribunal under this Act.” A 2002 amendment to the Act provides further that “the decision of the Tribunal, after its publication in the Official Gazette by the Central Government...shall have the same force as an order or decree of the Supreme Court.” But this is only on paper. The final award of the CWDT has not entered into force because it has not been gazetted — and it has not been gazetted because the matter has been taken to the Supreme Court over the head of the Tribunal and has become part of the law’s interminable delays. With Karnataka challenging the very foundation of the final order and seeking fresh adjudication, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, under political pressure, also pressed their demands in the highest court of the land. Not surprisingly, the Tribunal refused to hear applications relating to the final award on the grounds that the Supreme Court had admitted Special Leave Petitions against it.
Cauvery is a river whose waters have been more or less fully utilised. This means that working out a modus vivendi for fair and equitable sharing among the basin States has been a volatile issue and implementing it in deficit monsoon years will be a tough political challenge. The CWDT was set up in June 1990 at the direction of the Supreme Court after repeated rounds of negotiation among the basin States had failed and the V.P. Singh government informed the court that it did not want to undertake any further negotiation. The Tribunal’s Interim Award came on June 25, 1991 and the final award on February 5, 2007. By any estimation, these awards were just, equitable, and workable. Under the final award, Tamil Nadu’s share of the water to be released by Karnataka at the Biligundulu gauging station was determined as 182 thousand million cubic feet, in addition to the 10 tmcft for environmental purposes. Taking the dispute back to the Supreme Court has defeated the very purpose for which the Tribunal was constituted. It is the guaranteed way of consuming time in years to the detriment of the interests of the farmers and people of the historically celebrated Cauvery basin. Both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are paying a heavy economic price: in the absence of a settlement, the former’s massive scheme for the modernisation of the Cauvery delta zone is on hold and the latter’s plans for new check dams along the river cannot go ahead. If the dispute is not to drag on for another decade, the Supreme Court must dispose of these petitions efficiently — and allow the Tribunal to be the final adjudicator, as envisaged in the Inter-State Water Disputes Act.