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A judicial rap

Print edition : Dec 06, 2002 T+T-

ON November 15, it was the turn of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to face the music from the Supreme Court on the Cauvery issue. On October 24 and 28, Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna was at the receiving end of the Supreme Court's ire. The court took a "very serious view'' of his "deliberate non-compliance'' of its orders for release of water to Tamil Nadu (Frontline, November 22, 2002).

But the apex court's censure of Jayalalithaa was unexpected. A Bench comprising Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justice Arijit Pasayat was annoyed with her critical remarks on Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) he heads. The Bench insisted that she should withdraw these "insinuations''.

The Supreme Court on November 1 directed the CRA to take an early decision on Karnataka's request for a review of the CRA's order of September 8 for release 0.8 tmc ft of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu every day. Jayalalithaa saw red when Krishna wrote a letter to the Prime Minister's Office requesting him to convene a meeting of the CRA. For the past four years, Jayalalithaa has taken a consistent stand against the CRA, which she described as a "toothless wonder'', an "ineffective mechanism'' and "powerless''. She even demanded that it should be "disbanded''. She was annoyed after the CRA on September 8 reduced the quantum of water that Tamil Nadu should receive from Karnataka to 0.8 tmc ft from 1.25 tmc ft.

In her November 5 letter to the Prime Minister, Jayalalithaa insisted on "a minimum fixed agenda'' for the CRA meeting to enable effective participation of the Tamil Nadu government. She insisted that certain procedural regulations in respect of the business of the CRA as envisaged in rule 3 (2) of the Gazette notification setting up the CRA be followed. When the Chief Ministers of the four Cauvery basin States of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry who are members of the CRA met under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, there should be "a minimum of procedural wrangling since the CRA's decision affects millions of people in each State,'' she argued.

In the course of her letter, she took potshots "at the manner in which Tamil Nadu is being treated'' by Vajpayee. She alleged that the CRA's "tilt'' towards Karnataka "has now led Karnataka to believe that it can get the CRA to revise its earlier orders, that too with retrospective effect.'' She accused the CRA of giving a "warm treatment'' to Karnataka and a "raw deal'' to Tamil Nadu. The people of Tamil Nadu would lose faith in every member of the CRA "including the Prime Minister if the CRA does not function properly for which it was created'', that is for implementing the Interim Order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, she said.

Justices Sabharwal and Pasayat asked Jayalalithaa to withdraw these "insinuations'' within four days by writing a letter to Vajpayee. The Bench said that she must express full confidence in the CRA, the Prime Minister in particular. It said: "... You have to have faith in somebody, and some restraint has to be exercised by the person who is the Chief Minister of a State.'' The Bench wanted to know from Tamil Nadu counsel K.K. Venugopal whether or not Tamil Nadu had faith in the CRA. "If not, we will deal with the matter differently,'' the Bench said.

On November 16, Jayalalithaa wrote to Vajpayee, withdrawing her critical remarks, and expressed full confidence in him and the CRA. She said she had no intention to make insinuations against the Prime Minister and the CRA, and that her remarks were prompted by her desire to improve the lot of Tamil Nadu's farmers. While she made her November 5 letter public, the contents of the November 16 letter were not revealed.

The CRA was set up on August 11, 1998 to implement the Interim Order of the Tribunal, which mandated that the Karnataka government should provide 205 tmc ft of water to Tamil Nadu in a water year, from June to May. The CRA would also adjudicate in the sharing of available water by Tamil Nadu and Karnataka during a year of distress.

THE south-west monsoon brought insufficient rainfall in the catchment areas of the Cauvery in Karnataka from June this year. The row between the two States began when Karnataka refused to share the available water with Tamil Nadu. The row escalated into a stand-off when Krishna declared that he would not obey the Supreme Court's September 3 and October 4 orders and the CRA's September 8 directive (Frontline, October 25, 2002).

So Tamil Nadu filed two petitions against the Karnataka government for contempt of court. On October 24, the Supreme Court observed: "We are prima facie of the view that a deliberate non-compliance has taken place and it is contempt.'' Krishna tendered an unconditional apology to the Supreme Court. It was during the hearings on the contempt petitions that the apex court directed Jayalalithaa on November 15 to withdraw her "insinuations'' against Vajpayee and the CRA.

T.S. Subramanian