When the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) proposed the setting up of a Cauvery Management Board, it did so for very good reasons. During monsoon deficit years, the pattern of flows in the different sub-basins will not match the schedule of water deliveries worked out on the basis of normal year readings. The CMB was conceived as a body that would monitor the storage position in the Cauvery basin and the trend of rainfall, and assess the likely inflows for distribution among the States. The tribunal was emphatic in its final award: the CMB is integral to the resolution of disputes, between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and also Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and Tamil Nadu and Kerala, over the schedule of releases for irrigation downstream. For the >Central government to now oppose the setting up of the CMB , taking cover under Article 262 of the Constitution and the provisions of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956 that forbid the Supreme Court from intervening in inter-State water disputes is little more than a streak of twisted logic. Indeed, the Section of the 1956 Act that gives the orders of tribunals set up by the government under it the same force as an order of the Supreme Court is being invoked not to strengthen the orders of the Cauvery tribunal but to subvert one of its crucial recommendations. The Supreme Court’s direction to the Centre to constitute the CMB was in keeping with the tribunal order, and not in contravention of it, as the government was trying to make it appear.
The fact that the Centre did such a hasty U-turn on the CMB while making its submission in the Supreme Court suggests that political factors may have been at play. The Assembly election in Karnataka, where the BJP has high stakes, is less than two years away. In contrast, Tamil Nadu, where the BJP has no real base, has recently concluded its election. If there is a good legal argument against the setting up of the CMB, it is that a larger, three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court is already seized of the matter. Tamil Nadu’s plea to constitute the CMB had been clubbed along with the main appeal filed challenging the 2007 final award of the CWDT. In the short term, the Supreme Court’s acceptance of the suggestion that a “technical team” visit the Cauvery basin and report back on the ground realities seems to be the only certain way of depoliticising the dispute. But any long-term solution will necessarily have to be on the basis of the well-thought-out recommendations of the CWDT, and the mechanism provided for the sharing of waters in a year of distress.