Interview: Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah

‘This dispute needs political solution’

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. Photo: K. MURALI KUMAR

Interview with Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah.

KARNATAKA Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has taken a calculated political risk in deciding not to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. The one factor that sets him apart from the other defiant Chief Ministers before him is that he has the support of the legislature and a resolution that binds his government from acting against the interests of Karnataka. Despite his hectic schedule in the past few weeks, Siddaramaiah found time to respond to Frontline’s questions. Excerpts:

There are several instances in the past of both States amicably resolving a potentially volatile situation in a distress year. This year that did not happen, and tempers are rising. What needs to be done in the short term, medium term and long term?

It has been my firm conviction that more than a legal solution, this dispute requires to be given a political solution. That difficulties exist in both States is well known. However with the principle of give and take, these problems can be largely solved. I am sure you will recall that when floods occurred in the metropolis of Chennai, our State was one of the first to pledge support both monetarily and with materials. It is this spirit of sharing that will douse fissiparous tendencies and keep us close to each other.

In the short term, the drinking water needs of Karnataka, which are unarguably about 28 tmc ft for Bengaluru city, Mysuru and Mandya, besides the 5,000 villages and other towns, until the end of January 2017 have to be considered as a human necessity. In the medium and long term, let us see what the Supreme Court holds in the civil appeals filed by Karnataka challenging the February 5, 2007, decision of the Cauvery Tribunal. The petitions will be heard by the Supreme Court on October 18, 2016. In fact, the only issue on which the State has filed a petition with regard to Section 5(3) of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act [ISRWD] is the subject of creating a reservoir at Mekedatu, whose water could be stored during a surplus year and released during years of deficit.

The dispute has a long history, but there are no formal institutional arrangements for incentivising negotiations. As a result, both States have exchanged harsh words, following which each has approached the Supreme Court for adjudication. What institutional arrangements would you suggest? Can such a mechanism be effective if it does not have punitive powers?

In a federal structure, the authority to intercede in issues [between States] rests with the Prime Minister. Being the Prime Minister he holds the key to persuade States to see each other’s point of view. It is for this reason that the Cauvery River Authority was headed by the Prime Minister. In 2013, the Supreme Court constituted the Supervisory Committee, which was notified by the Central government which also withdrew the earlier notification for the constitution of the CRA. However, we have been appealing to the Prime Minister’s conscience to consider interceding in both the Mahadayi and the Cauvery disputes. Previous Prime Ministers have intervened even without a formal arrangement such as the CRA. For instance, Indira Gandhi called for a meeting between Maharashtra, Karnataka and erstwhile Andhra Pradesh in the Krishna water dispute, thereby enabling Madras [Chennai now] to get 15 tmc ft of water for its drinking needs. Similarly, she ensured that Rajasthan, which is not a riparian State in the Narmada river water dispute, was able to receive water. In the Cauvery dispute, [Prime Ministers] P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh received delegations and tried to settle disputes to the best of their abilities. It is regrettable that leave alone intercede, we have not been able to persuade the Prime Minister of the day to even receive a delegation of Karnataka’s leaders who wish to make submissions to their Prime Minister.

You had appealed to the Prime Minister to intervene. What was his response? Why do you think that the Prime Minister is in the best position to find a solution? Have Karnataka and Tamil Nadu exhausted all options of sitting across a table?

In the previous answer, I attempted to throw some light on the response of the Prime Minister to the difficulties Karnataka is facing. By my very nature, I am an optimist and have always believed communication and collegiality to be the ultimate solutions to all problems. Both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka can sit across the table, but a beginning has to be made and that beginning has to be at the initiative of the Prime Minister as he is the head of the federation.

The Inter-State Council took some initiative in 2007-08 to explore solutions. The initiative did not take off as planned. Do you not think this might be a better forum for conciliatory talks between the two States?

The Inter-State Council met on July 16, 2016, after a gap of a decade. Perhaps, had this mechanism been strengthened and interaction been more frequent and conducive, this council would have been a good mechanism to smoothen issues and sort out long-festering problems faced by States.

Constitutional experts believe that once the Karnataka Assembly decides to go against the Supreme Court, it will strike at the very root of cooperative federalism. Is there no way out other than the legislature and the judiciary travelling on a collision course?

The Supervisory Committee is a body of experts drawn from the premier agency for water-related issues, that is, the Central Water Commission. This body is headed by the Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, Union of India, and has the Chief Secretaries of the four riparian States as its members. Agricultural experts, experts in water management and dam mechanics advise the Supervisory Committee, which recommended the release of 3,000 cusecs of water every day until September 30. However, the Supreme Court decided to double that figure and to direct Karnataka to release 6,000 cusecs of water every day until September 27.

As you know, the release of water when severe distress exists is an extremely emotive issue and several parts of both States have been wracked by violence. We have been largely successful in ensuring that law and order is maintained, but several intellectuals and legal luminaries have questioned the wisdom of the court varying the order of the Supervisory Committee, particularly since the Supreme Court has no technical assistance whatsoever. Further, the order to constitute a Cauvery Management Board [was given] despite the fact that the ISWD Act, 1956, makes it a legislative function to constitute the said Board.

The Court has heard arguments of the Government of Karnataka. Now, the people of the entire State have spoken in unison asking that drinking water, which is the most basic need of human existence, be protected.

Karnataka’s grievance rises from the 1924 agreement imposed on Mysore. Is it Karnataka’s view that there can be no fair resolution to the conflict unless the entire basis of the agreement and the award of the Tribunal are revisited? If yes, what would Karnataka consider an ideal agreement?

The Tribunal has largely adjudicated on the issues of the 1924 agreement and has also struck some variance from it. Of course, Karnataka feels that a pre-Independence agreement wherein the British suzerainty which was inherent to Madras in its agreement with the State of Mysuru, which was then ruled by the Maharaja, is the reason for Tamil Nadu getting a lion’s share of the water. However, we do feel that there are some other issues, such as leaving out two-thirds of Bengaluru city from consideration for allocation because it does not fall within the Cauvery basin, and the non-reckoning of the long water resource [groundwater] of Tamil Nadu despite the finding by the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal that it was to the extent of 20 tmc ft. These and some other issues are central to Karnataka’s case before the Supreme Court.

People of both States have been deeply affected by the tensions. What confidence-building measures will you take to restore the confidence of the people?

We have taken a series of confidence-building measures. We have made use of social media like never before to assuage the feelings of the people of Karnataka. Not only in my capacity as Chief Minister but across the board officers have been encouraged to let citizens know what is happening by ensuring that information is passed on quickly and that the citizenry is kept fully informed of any disturbances. This is the first time that such large-scale use of mainstream and social media has been made by any State government. I must stress here that we have made optimum use of uniformed personnel and kept them in visible locations to leave our people with a sense of abiding security.