The Karnataka government’s decision to ‘defer’ release of 6,000 cusecs of water per day to Tamil Nadu till a special session of the State legislature discusses the issue today is nothing short of defiance of the Supreme Court’s September 20 directive. The court had asked Karnataka to release 6,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu from September 21 to September 27.
However, this was arguably an inevitable political stand taken by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, given the backdrop of aggressive posturing adopted by the principal political parties in the State over the Cauvery water-sharing issue.
Mr. Siddaramaiah had faced severe criticism earlier when the State government, challenging the Supreme Court’s order on September 5 to release 15,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu, submitted an affidavit to the court, offering to release 10,000 cusecs of water instead till September 15. Subsequent release of water led to bandhs and widespread violence in the State. The fact that Mr. Siddaramaiah now has the full support of all political parties and Kannada organisations in the State to ‘defy’ the apex court reflects the political realities surrounding the Cauvery dispute more than the State’s water-sharing abilities. The Cauvery dispute has often been about Kannada and Tamil pride instead of sharing distress over a “deficit river”.
Dependence on a deficit river
Unfortunately, both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu’s dependence on the Cauvery has consistently increased. In Bengaluru, where groundwater resources and lakes have vanished due to poor management, the Cauvery is the lifeline for drinking water. Tamil Nadu needs to learn to rework its cropping patterns to reduce its dependence on the river.
In the last two decades, Karnataka has twice defied the apex court’s orders to release water to Tamil Nadu. The first time was in 2002 when the then Congress Chief Minister, S.M. Krishna, refused and later apologised before the Supreme Court for not implementing its directive.
What triggered the situation this time was not just the court’s September 20 directive but the Cauvery Supervisory Committee’s order on September 19 to Karnataka that it would have to release 3,000 cusecs of water for the rest of the month to Tamil Nadu. The Supervisory Committee had no jurisdiction or legal standing to announce a quantum of release. This announcement made the 6,000 cusecs release order seem a “bigger blow than it really was” in Karnataka’s public perception and political portrayal. In reality, the 6,000 cusecs order actually brought down by half the quantum that was being released by Karnataka (12,000 cusecs as per the earlier order).
Given that Karnataka had declared that it did not even have enough for drinking water needs and had stopped releasing water for cultivation, any order to release water was seen in the State as “injustice” meted out to it.
Adding to Karnataka’s woes was the court’s order to the Centre to constitute a Cauvery Management Board. Such a board is seen in the State as an effort to take away the State’s control over the river. Its objection is part of its petition challenging the Cauvery river water tribunal’s 2007 award. This is pending before a three-judge bench of the apex court, which is slated to hear it in October. Against this backdrop, the State found the order by a smaller two-judge Bench “unacceptable”.
While the State’s argument may be clouded in political rhetoric, the issue brings to the fore the need for a dynamic model that calculates and explains with transparency the quantum of water to be shared, especially in a distress year. The reason for this, according to environmentalists and irrigation experts, is that inflows into the river’s basin area depend on the south-west monsoon, which is becoming increasingly erratic. They also point out that large-scale destruction in the Western Ghats, key catchment areas of the Cauvery, has further led to depleted inflows into the river.
Experts argue that the quantum of water to be released by Karnataka would also include run-of-the-river flows (water that flows to Tamil Nadu even if Karnataka’s reservoirs do not release any water), and if such facts are portrayed accurately, the quantum of release may not seem so large.
But there is absolutely no clarity, at least in the public domain, on how the Supervisory Committee arrived at its calculation of 3,000 cusecs and why the apex court subsequently ordered a release of 6,000 cusecs of water.
On several occasions, deft political handling of the issue has ensured amicable agreements in a discreet manner. Unfortunately, decisions that have helped solve the problem in some years have remained a secret, as it would be politically uncomfortable for both States if it were brought to the pubic domain.
In terms of electoral politics in Karnataka, the Cauvery issue has an impact only in the old Mysuru region. But it is now seen as one of “injustice to Karnataka”. This creates wider political ramifications for any ruling party. It is dangerous to let these considerations form the basis for ‘disobeying’ an order by the Supreme Court and hence threaten our constitutional systems. But it is important to recognise that these political realities exist.
The game plan for Karnataka, according to legal experts, is to move a resolution before the legislature directing the executive to not release water, and then go before the apex court and submit that it has received conflicting directions from the judiciary and the legislature. This would again bring an unhealthy confrontation between two institutions, and goes against the spirit of cooperative federalism.
By refusing to release water even in the absence of a resolution from the legislature, the Chief Minister runs the risk of contempt of court proceedings. Ironically, in the State’s political situation, such a development would only strengthen Mr. Siddaramaiah’s position. Given the criticism he has faced in the past for taking decisions ‘unilaterally’, he has now received complete support for his decision even from the principal opposition party, the BJP, and from H.D. Deve Gowda. In the end, the Chief Minister stands to gain through defiance rather than adherence to constitutional systems.