The Supreme Court homed in on the nub of a long story when it pulled up the Union government for abdicating its responsibility to abide by an earlier order to notify the final decision of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. The government was clearly guilty of delaying the notification, even after the parties informed the court last month that they had no objection to the gazetting of the award. Twenty-three years after the Tribunal was formed and six years to the day since it delivered its verdict, what stands out is the lack of political will and resolve on the part of the Centre. The Tribunal passed its order as long back as February 5, 2007, but so far it remains on paper. Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have filed petitions for clarification before the Tribunal as well as appeals in the apex court and this is perhaps why the Centre has so far not notified the award. However, after the hearing on January 4, 2013 — at which the court recorded that the States concerned had no objection to the notification, without prejudice to their rights and contentions in the appeals — nothing but political motive can account for the dilly-dallying since then. The Assembly election in Karnataka is a few months away, and the Congress has high stakes in its outcome. Political leaders in Karnataka want the Centre to wait for the court to dispose of the appeals before the award is formalised. The court has set a firm February 20 deadline, but Karnataka can be expected to maintain its resistance to the notification, fearing that it might be saddled with a permanent obligation to share the river’s water with Tamil Nadu on terms unfavourable to it.
The next few days may see some fresh political action or litigation aimed at delaying the notification, but the parties would do well to remember that the Cauvery imbroglio has been plagued by politics for far too long and that it is time for the matter to go to the domain of technical experts. When the final notification comes into force, the interim order of June 1991, which set an annual water release obligation of 205 thousand million cubic feet on Karnataka, will no more be in force. The apportionment formula and the schedule of releases are different in the final order. Mechanisms such as the Cauvery River Authority and Cauvery Monitoring Committee would be superseded by a fresh scheme that may involve formation of a water management board and a regulation committee. Both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have reservations about the quantum of water identified as their respective share, but it requires boldness and imagination on their part to share the limited water available in the Cauvery basin on terms worked out by a duly constituted Tribunal. Endless litigation and seasonal adjudication cannot be the norm every year.