Sigh of relief

The 30-year-long dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of the Cauvery waters comes to a formal closure with the Centre gazetting the Final Order of the tribunal.

Published : Mar 06, 2013 00:00 IST

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa meeting S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers' Association and leaders of other farmers' associations at the Secretariat in Chennai on February 27.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa meeting S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers' Association and leaders of other farmers' associations at the Secretariat in Chennai on February 27.

IN a corner of the premises of the Government Museum in Egmore, Chennai, hidden from public view by trees and shrubs, is a colonial-era bungalow. There is no board outside to suggest what it houses. On February 20, there was a quiet, yet marked, sense of achievement among the office staff there. It was the Cauvery Technical Cell (CTC) of the Tamil Nadu government, and on the previous day, on a direction from the Supreme Court, the Centre had notified in its gazette the Final Order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT), bringing to a closure the 30-year-long dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on the sharing of the Cauvery river waters. The Final Order would be in effect from the date of its publication, February 19.

A few kilometres away, at Fort St. George, the seat of power, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, waving a copy of the Gazette of India, told reporters: “This is the best birthday present that I could ever have in my life.” Her birthday fell four days later.

She termed the Final Order’s gazetting “a great victory for me and my government”. She exulted: “After spending more than 30 years in politics, this is the first time in all these 30 years that I have experienced a sense of fulfilment and achievement because today we have permanently secured Tamil Nadu’s rights over the Cauvery waters…. It is also the happiest day for the farmers of Tamil Nadu, especially the farmers in the Cauvery delta districts.”

A. Mohanakrishnan, former Chairman, CTC, who had worked for over 20 years to win Tamil Nadu’s rights over the Cauvery waters, said: “What we got [in the Final Order] is good enough.” The contending States had been treated fairly by the tribunal, he said. “We got what we deserved and Karnataka got what it deserved. Everybody is happy with what they got.”

Jayalalithaa said it was necessary to gazette the award because it then became binding on all the parties. “And hereafter, Karnataka cannot refuse to obey the order of the tribunal,” she said. She criticised the Centre’s “delay” and “reluctance” to notify the tribunal’s interim award given on June 25, 1991. It was finally gazetted in December 1991. (A Congress government, headed by P.V. Narasimha Rao, was in power at the Centre then.)

In fact, in her reply to Governor K. Rosaiah’s address to the Assembly on February 8, the Chief Minister had explained: “Only when the tribunal’s Final Order is published in the Centre’s gazette will the order become a legal tender. The Cauvery Management Board (CMB) and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC), as suggested by the Final Order, will be set up. Even if there is insufficient rainfall over the Cauvery catchment areas, we will get our due share of water as per the distress-sharing formula. Karnataka will be unable to release water from its reservoirs for summer irrigation there. That is why, from the time the Final Order was announced, I have been insisting that it should be published in the Centre’s gazette.”

With a drought looming, the Final Order’s gazetting evoked all-round jubilation across the political spectrum and farmers’ associations in Tamil Nadu. All of them, including the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), led by M. Karunanidhi, were unanimous in demanding that Tamil Nadu’s goal now should be to get the CMB and the CWRC constituted to implement the final award.

The tribunal’s course

The Centre set up the tribunal on June 2, 1990, under the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, on the sharing of the Cauvery waters between Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry. It announced an interim relief on June 25, 1991. On February 5, 2007, seventeen years after the tribunal was set up, it gave its Final Order. The tribunal determined in the Final Order the total availability of water in the Cauvery basin at 740 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) at the Lower Coleroon Anicut site.

After reserving 10 tmcft for environmental protection and 4 tmcft for “inevitable escapages into the sea”, the Final Order allocated 270 tmcft to Karnataka, 30 tmcft to Kerala, 419 tmcft to Tamil Nadu and 7 tmcft to Puducherry. “Since the major shareholders in the Cauvery waters” are Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Karnataka should make available to Tamil Nadu 192 tmcft in a “water year” from June 1 to May 31 at the inter-State contact point at Biligundulu, it said. It prescribed monthly releases, in 10 daily intervals. “In case the yield of the Cauvery basin is less in a distress year, the allocated shares shall be proportionately reduced” among Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, it added. The Final Order was to supersede the agreements of 1892 and 1924 between the Government of Madras and the Government of Mysore relating to the Cauvery river system.

The battle between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka intensified from 1974, with Tamil Nadu asserting that the 1924 agreement did not expire in 1974 and Karnataka claiming that it had lapsed that year. Although the tribunal’s Interim Order directed Karnataka to release 205 tmcft of water a year to Tamil Nadu at the Stanley reservoir of Mettur dam, the issue became acute during years of distress when the southwest monsoon over Karnataka failed and Tamil Nadu failed to get its share of 205 tmcft. (The Interim Order had no distress-sharing formula.) Tamil Nadu had to repeatedly knock on the Supreme Court’s doors during distress years even to plant paddy saplings or save its standing crop.

The tribunal gave its Final Order in 2007, but the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, headed by Manmohan Singh, did not gazette it for six years. This despite the DMK, as Jayalalithaa pointed out, being a constituent of the UPA from 2004. Soon after coming to power in the State in May 2011, she tenaciously pursued the Cauvery issue and gave a memorandum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on June 14 requesting him to instruct the Union Ministry of Water Resources to gazette the Final Order and “place in position the Cauvery Management Board”. In a letter to him on October 17, 2011, she renewed her request.

The issue came to the fore when Tamil Nadu filed an application in the Supreme Court in early April 2012 seeking to restrain Karnataka from drawing water for summer irrigation from its four reservoirs—Krishnaraja Sagar, Kabini, Hemavathy and Harangi. Tamil Nadu argued that after the Final Order was given, Karnataka stepped up its summer cultivation of crops by drawing huge amounts of water from these reservoirs from February to May. Tamil Nadu could not meet its irrigation requirement for its kuruvai crop from June to September in the Cauvery delta districts because of a shortfall in the flow into the Mettur reservoir from Karnataka.

Tamil Nadu filed another application in the Supreme Court on April 17, 2012, seeking a direction to the Centre to publish the Final Order in its gazette under Section 6(1) of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. When the application came up, on January 4, 2013, the Supreme Court criticised the Centre for dragging its feet on notifying the Final Order although the Centre had told the court on December 5, 2012, that it would gazette the order by the year end. Justice D.K. Jain, who partnered the Bench with Justice Madan B. Lokur, told Fali Nariman, counsel for Karnataka: “We don’t want this hide-and-seek game from Karnataka of telling something in the court [that it had no objection to gazetting the final decision] and taking a different stand outside the court.”

Again, on February 4, 2013, the Supreme Court told the Centre that it had “abdicated” its “responsibility” by not notifying the final award and gave an ultimatum to notify it on or before February 20. The Centre complied and notified the Final Order on February 19.

At a press conference on February 20, Jayalalithaa recalled the last few years’ events when the Centre was “reluctant” even to convene a meeting of the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) and Tamil Nadu had to approach the Supreme Court to get it convened. She criticised Karnataka for its “intransigent stand”, “outright refusal to release water to Tamil Nadu”, refusal to obey the CRA’s orders, and flouting of the Supreme Court’s orders. “Finally, after 22 long years, we have got justice,” she declared. (Jayalalithaa first became Chief Minister in 1991.)

Although elated, it was business as usual at the CTC office. “After having got the Final Order in 2007, we have been battling to get it notified,” said C.R. Subramanian, Chairman, CTC cum Inter-State Waters Wing. “Although it has taken time, we are happy that it has been notified at least now. There is a sense of relief.” He called the Final Order “a reasonable award we can get in terms of quantity and pattern of release”.

Subramanian said the CMB would be a technical body comprising only irrigation experts, agronomists and some members of the Central Water Commission. “This is a board with authority,” he said. The CWRC will help the CMB in the latter’s day-to-day affairs and the CWRC will implement the CMB’s orders.

Said S. Ranganathan, secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Association: “The aim of the association has been achieved 30 years after its formation. We owe the Cauvery success to Mohanakrishnan.” He said that all the three Chief Ministers during this time, M. Karunanidhi, the late M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa, had recognised the need for setting up the tribunal.

When MGR was Chief Minister, he gave a letter to the Supreme Court saying that the association had the locus standi to file a case in the apex court to ask for Tamil Nadu’s due share of the Cauvery waters, that the association supported the State government and that the answer to the dispute lay in setting up the tribunal. “Karunanidhi improved upon it when he was Chief Minister from 1989 to 1991,” Ranganathan said.

The State Assembly, when Karunanidhi headed the DMK government, passed a resolution on April 24, 1990, that setting up the tribunal was the only answer to the dispute and that the State government was ready to join the association in partnering in the dispute’s resolution. After this, and on a direction from the Supreme Court, the V.P. Singh government at the Centre set up the tribunal on June 2, 1990.

In 1991, Jayalalithaa came to power and she retained everybody in the CTC, right from its Chairman to the lowermost employee. “The gazetting of the Final Order was accomplished thanks to Jayalalithaa’s consistent efforts,” Ranganathan said. In her next tenure as Chief Minister in May 2011, on a visit to Tiruchi in June, she said the Cauvery issue would be her priority. She repeatedly knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court either to get Tamil Nadu’s share of the Cauvery waters or to get the Final Order gazetted. “She believed in the rule of law. Her approaching the Supreme Court was phenomenally successful. It ensured not only the release of water but the gazetting,” said Ranganathan. He criticised the Congress’ “lip service” and its lack of “heartfelt involvement” in the issue.

Karunanidhi, who listed his efforts as Chief Minister to get the tribunal established, its Interim Order and Final Order passed, and the Final Order gazetted, said he was happy over the latest development. It proved wrong Jayalalithaa’s allegations that the DMK had aided the Centre in not gazetting it, Karunanidhi said.

While welcoming the gazetting, G. Ramakrishnan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); D. Pandian, secretary, Tamil Nadu unit of the Communist Party of India; and Dr S. Ramadoss, founder, Pattali Makkal Katchi, criticised the Centre’s inaction and delay in doing so.

Ramakrishnan and Vaiko, general secretary, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), wanted the CMB and the CWRC to be set up immediately to implement the Final Order. Dr Ramadoss said that the gazetting provided “legal protection” to Tamil Nadu’s rights over the Cauvery waters and that “Karnataka cannot refuse, from now on, to release water to Tamil Nadu”. B.S. Gnanadesikan, president, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, said the gazetting proved that the Centre was reasonable in its approach despite Karnataka Chief Minister Jagadish Shettar pressuring Manmohan Singh not to gazette the award.

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