A divided Tribunal

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

THE Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, (CWDT), which has been functioning since 1990, is expected to give its final award shortly. Entrusted with the work of resolving the main dispute over the sharing of Cauvery waters by Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry, the Tribunal ironically finds itself in the midst of a controversy involving its Chairman and the two members. By their separate orders on July 6, the two members, former High Court Judges N.S. Rao and Sudhir Narain, directed the Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry governments to submit their itineraries for an inspection tour by the two within a week, clearly indicating specific places that they would like the Tribunal to visit. The Chairman, former Supreme Court Judge N.P. Singh, however, disagreed with his colleagues. Through a separate dissenting order issued on the same day, he said that he had no objection to their inspecting sites in the Cauvery Basin, but that it should be done in such as way as to not impair the hearing of the arguments, which are held for only eight days in a month. The inspection, he said, was not only unnecessary at this stage, but also a drain on the public exchequer, as it would have no bearing on making a decision on the issues before the Tribunal.

Though the Karnataka government objected to the proposed inspection and pleaded for the reconstitution of the Tribunal in view of the differences between its members, the two members persisted with their plan as they felt that it would clarify the geographical aspects. In another order issued on August 3, the two members claimed that the Tribunal was working on more number of days than what it was before Justice Sudhir Narain joined it in February 2003. They claimed that other such tribunals had made similar inspections before announcing the final award. The Chairman, replying to this missive on the same day, through a separate order, reiterated his earlier stand.

Concerned about this lack of consensus, the Gandhi Sahitya Sangh Trust, a non-governmental organisation from Karnataka, appealed to the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the directions by the two members, and seeking an interim stay on the proposed inspection. Earlier, the Bench had asked the two members to defer their inspection for 10 days, from August 24. On September 10, it vacated the stay on the inspection, and reserved its verdict in the case. On October 26, it rejected the Trust's petition on the grounds that it did not have the locus standi to object to the proceedings before the Tribunal.

A Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Ruma Pal and Arun Kumar, described the separate orders issued by the Tribunal on August 3 as "entirely improper, and contrary to all norms of judicial etiquette". However, the Bench did not consider Karnataka's plea to reconstitute the Tribunal. The Karnataka government's attempt to file an affidavit to support the Trust's contentions, therefore, was viewed with suspicion by the Tamil Nadu government, whose counsel accused it of using the Trust as a proxy to delay the final award. Karnataka, however, argued that the serious discord within the Tribunal over the methodology to be adopted during the final hearing of arguments could deprive the final award of any semblance of objectivity and consensus.

Karnataka had doubted the Tribunal's impartiality at the time of the Interim Award in 1991, when the State was directed to ensure the availability of 205 tmc ft of water at Mettur from its reservoir from June to May till the final adjudication. The Tribunal had then directed the State not to increase the area under irrigation beyond 11.2 lakh acres using the Cauvery waters.

V. Venkatesan
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