In denial mode

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

As the Supreme Court resumes its hearing on Tamil Nadu's plea against Karnataka's refusal to release Cauvery water, the Centre is reluctant to agree to Karnataka's request for a meeting of the CRA.

BOTH the Supreme Court and the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) appear to be waiting for the rain gods to offer a respite in the charged Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In the process, the prestige and the status of both the institutions as inter-State dispute-resolution mechanisms in a federal polity are at stake.

Karnataka's failure to comply with the Supreme Court directive of October 4 to release 9,000 cusecs of water (about 0.8 tmc ft) daily to reach Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu in the manner indicated in the September 8 order of the CRA (Frontline, October 25), has invited predictable responses from Tamil Nadu and the Centre.

On October 11, a three-member Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices V.N. Khare, Arijit Pasayat and S.B. Sinha, issued notices to Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, Water Resources Minister H.K. Patil and Chief Secretary A. Ravindra, on a second contempt of court petition filed by Tamil Nadu. The first contempt petition, filed last month, and the current one, along with Tamil Nadu's interlocutory application (I.A.) challenging the CRA's September 8 decision, are to be heard by the Supreme Court on October 24.

In its first contempt petition, Tamil Nadu sought action against five senior officials of Karnataka including S.M. Krishna, for `wilful disobedience' of the Supreme Court's September 3 order. In that order, the Court had directed Karnataka to release 1.25 tmc ft of water to Tamil Nadu every day, until a final decision on the matter was taken by the CRA. The order, it said, would stand superseded by the CRA's decision. The Court requested the CRA to decide finally the dispute between the States with regard to the pro rata sharing of water by the Cauvery basin States, especially in times of distress. On September 8, the CRA asked Karnataka to release 9,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu , accounted on a weekly average basis for September and October 2002.

Tamil Nadu's charge of `wilful disobedience' by Karnataka of the court order and the CRA decision rests on the allegation that the Karnataka government stage-managed the agitation by farmers in Mandya district to absolve itself of blame and express helplessness. "The State of Karnataka surely with all its forces at its command would have been able to effectively prevent any such agitation," Tamil Nadu noted. To buttress its case, Tamil Nadu pointed to a statement by Karnataka's Minister for Information Kagodu Thimmappa, to the effect that the "government was bound to face the consequences for suspending the release of water". If a government and its functionaries believe that they can defy with impunity the orders of the Supreme Court and treat it with contempt, it would be a sad day for democracy and rule of law in the country, Tamil Nadu noted.

However, there appears to be an inconsistency in Tamil Nadu's stand on the CRA's September 8 decision. In its first contempt petition Tamil Nadu contended that the Interim Orders passed by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on June 25, 1991 and April 3, 1992, and as directed to be implemented by the CRA by its September 8 decision, will have the same force as the order of the Supreme Court. Therefore, by grossly violating the Supreme Court's September 3 order and the CRA's September 8 direction, Karnataka and its senior functionaries are guilty of contempt, it argued.

However, in its I.A. the State contended that the CRA's September 8 directive could not be considered to be `final' as understood by the court in its September 3 order. Therefore, the CRA's decision was not only illegal but could not have superseded the court's order, it argued. The court's order contemplated the CRA meeting to decide upon "a specific formula for deficit sharing keeping in view the directions of the Tribunal given on April 3, 1992", Tamil Nadu insisted.

In Karnataka's reply-affidavit to the contempt petition, Krishna took the stand that the alleged disobedience of the CRA's September 8 order could not be a subject matter of contempt. The CRA is not a court or tribunal, and therefore, the decision of the CRA does not have the force of the decree of the Supreme Court, Krishna stated. He cited in his defence, Tamil Nadu's attack on the CRA in its I.A.

Krishna denied any wilful disobedience of the court's order, and attributed the shortfall in the release of water to the violence indulged in by the State's farmers on September 7 and 8. The farmers damaged the hoist equipment, essential to operate the crest gates of the dam, and as soon as it became possible the government resumed the release of water from the Kabini reservoir early on September 14 at the rate of 10,000 cusecs, he claimed.

Krishna said the actual releases from Karnataka's reservoirs between September 4 and 8 fell short of the quantum stipulated by the court because the anticipated contribution from the intermediate catchment (an area of 8,000 sq km on the inter-State border) did not materialise. He explained the non-compliance with the CRA's September 8 directive, too, in terms of non-realisation of anticipated contribution from the intermediate catchment area and lower catchment area (about 5,535 sq km between Biligundlu and Mettur, mainly within Tamil Nadu). This contribution, estimated at 25 tmc ft, has been anticipated in the Tribunal's Interim Order directing Karnataka to maintain the total flow of 205 tmc ft at Mettur. Was Karnataka correct in linking the non-realisation of this tiny contribution with its non-compliance with the court's order, ask observers.

In its second contempt petition, Tamil Nadu argued that the State was liable to be compensated for the crop loss because of the delay in the release of water by Karnataka. By Tamil Nadu's estimates, the loss could be around Rs.3,000 crores. The court did not entertain Tamil Nadu's plea to direct the court registry not to list any petition, appeal or application filed by Karnataka until it implemented the court directives. Karnataka has not released any water since the court's October 4 order, Tamil Nadu alleged.

Senior counsel for Tamil Nadu K.K. Venugopal told the court that the gross and aggravated contempt committed by Karnataka not only undermined the prestige and dignity of the court, but was also evidence of a serious breakdown of the constitutional machinery in the State. The second contempt petition alleged that Krishna's padayatra was aimed at heightening the resistance of the farmers to the implementation of the court's orders. It sought a direction to the Centre to ensure implementation of the orders by issuing appropriate directions under Article 256 of the Constitution.

With the sword of contempt of court hanging over Karnataka, the Prime Minister — the chairperson of the CRA — appears to be in no hurry to call another meeting of the CRA, as requested by Krishna after the October 4 Supreme Court order. Content to throw the ball back to the court, the CRA has only exposed its inability to sort out the real issue of evolving a distress-sharing formula, the key to solving the protracted tangle.

HOWEVER, as in previous years, rain may help settle the issue at least for now. The catchment areas of the Cauvery and other parts of southern Karnataka, especially Mandya and Mysore, have had copious rain in the second week of October. This has to a large extent calmed down farmers who have been agitating against the release of water from the Kabini reservoir to Tamil Nadu.

On October 16, inflows into Karnataka's four reservoirs were: Krishnaraja Sagar (KRS): 33,299 cusecs (12,403 cusecs on the same day last year); Kabini: 10,660 cusecs (2,525 cusecs); Harangi: 1,329 cusecs (5,332 cusecs) and Hemavathy: 4,000 cusecs (2,018 cusecs).

The government said that as on October 16 the storage in the four reservoirs was 35 tmc ft. According to Kagodu Thimmappa, the State's current requirement was 65 tmc ft (52 tmc ft for standing crops and 13 tmc ft for drinking water needs). He said the government would consider releasing water to Tamil Nadu if an additional 3 tmc ft flowed into the Kabini reservoir, which, on October 16, was 4.81 tmc ft short of its full storage.

There can be no denying the fact that once again nature, more than protests and negotiations, helped defuse a situation that was fast threatening to go out of control. The rain has `forced' the leaders of the `Cauvery Rathara Hitharakshana Samithi', the umbrella organisation spearheading the protests, to suspend their 38-day-old agitation. Their protests and criticism that Krishna was betraying the State's interests had led to the Chief Minister's refusal, backed by his Cabinet colleagues and all political parties, to comply with the court's order.

Krishna has maintained that he did not order the release of water even when the farmers were protesting, not to prove a point but out of a conviction that the court's directive had to be obeyed. But, according to him, the releases had to be stopped given the lack of rainfall, the dwindling inflows into the four reservoirs and the heightened levels of tension in the basin areas.

Krishna was fighting with his back to the wall and losing political points mainly to his long-time rivals G. Made Gowda, who is the de facto leader of the Hitharakshana Samithi, and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. All three belong to the dominant Vokkaliga community and vie for the right to be its main political leader.

On October 5, much to the chagrin of the political opposition, Krishna set out on his padayatra from Bangalore to the KRS reservoir to "take farmers into confidence" and to "restore peace in the Cauvery basin". He would not heed the requests of the Samithi and the Opposition to call off the padayatra. Eventually, he terminated it at Mandya, his home district, reportedly at the direction of the Congress (I) high command, which felt that it would be counterproductive to both Karnataka and the Congress (I)'s cause. While the padayatra may not have helped defuse the crisis, it certainly helped Krishna resurrect his credibility as a leader of the Vokkaligas.

MEANWHILE, the crisis is acute in the Cauvery delta districts of Tamil Nadu. The samba crop, which is raised on some 4.4 lakh hectares in these districts alone between September and January, is a write-off, as was the case with the short-term kuruvai paddy crop (June to September) on some 1.2 lakh ha. The unkindest cut is that the samba fodder crop, which is cultivated in times of drought using the direct sowing method, is in jeopardy.

Tamil Nadu reacted to Karnataka's refusal to release water by organising a general strike, which was backed by all political parties, on October 9. The Tamil film industry held a massive rally in Neyveli on October 12, followed by a day's fast by film star Rajnikant in Chennai.

A spell of rain raised hopes of a fodder crop in the delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, but the rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun and the farmers sank deeper into despair.

The Tamil Nadu government normally opens the sluice gates of the Mettur dam on June 12 for farmers to raise the kuruvai crop. But it could not do so this year because of Karnataka's refusal to release water citing a deficient southwest monsoon. The farmers then pinned their hopes on the samba crop after the Supreme Court's September 3 order asking Karnataka to release 1.25 tmc ft water every day to reach the Mettur dam. The Tamil Nadu government opened the dam on September 6 (after a delay of nearly three months), but the farmers were left high and dry after Krishna refused to heed the Supreme Court's order and subsequently the CRA's directive.

Farmers who had raised nurseries on some 4,800 ha when water was released from Mettur have little hope of doing any transplantation. Said S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers' Welfare Association: "There is no water to puddle the land for transplantation. We are going to lose the nurseries. There is no possibility of transplanting from the nurseries."

The Tamil Nadu government acted in haste once again when it stopped the release of water from the Mettur reservoir in early October after it rained for a couple of days. The rain was a result of the receding southwest monsoon and not the northeast monsoon. A few days later the dam was opened once again to let out water for irrigation, but only 6,000 cusecs was released. ("This water is totally insufficient," said Ranganathan.)

Direct sowing is also under threat because the northeast monsoon, which normally brings rain from the middle of October, had not set in by October 17. "This is one of the worst years in my memory," said Ranganathan.

DESPITE this grim situation, political parties in the State grabbed the issue to play a game of one-upmanship, and the Tamil film industry played into their hands. Several thousand members of the film industry, led by director Bharathiraja, participated in the Neyveli rally and public meeting to demand that Karnataka release to Tamil Nadu its rightful share of water. They demanded that the Centrally-owned Neyveli Lignite Corporation cut power supply from its thermal units to Karnataka.

Rajnikant, however, struck out on his own. He did not take parting the Neyveli rally because he was upset that his suggestion that a rally be taken out in Chennai and a memorandum be presented to the Governor was not accepted. He was also against the demand to stop electricity supply from Neyveli to Karnataka. Rajnikant organised his own fast in Chennai on October 13. His plank was, "The Supreme Court is God's order", echoing the maxim Vox populi, vox dei.

While the Neyveli rally had the tacit backing of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, Rajnikant's fast had the blessings of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the main Opposition party.

Rajnikant's fast demonstrated that his fan following was intact. One of his fans, `Rajni' N. Ramachandran of Guindy, Chennai, said, "This shows his `anbu samrajyam'(empire of affection). Thousands of his fans came on their own to see him fast. They were not mobilised."

The success of the fast must have enthused the actor. For he had intended the fast to be a trial balloon for his eventual entry into politics. He had served notice about his entry into politics on October 9 when he accused some people of using his views on the Neyveli rally to deepen the divide in the film industry. He accused them of doing this "out of jealousy towards me and because they are scared of me." In an indirect dig at the AIADMK, he said: "I don't want to politicise this. I will take on those people who are politicising this at the time of the elections. My fans should be calm and patient. These are testing times and we will face them."

Rajnikant's plea for a Ganga-Cauvery link, or the linking of rivers in south India, as a panacea to the recurrent water disputes, has put this decades-old demand back on centre stage.

President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, Jayalalithaa and now Rajnikant have demanded that the Ganga and the Cauvery be linked. D.R. Karthikeyan, former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation and patron of the National Agriculturists' Awareness Movement, is also mobilising public opinion in favour of the linking of the various rivers in the country.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment