And quiet flows the Cauvery

Published : Aug 15, 1998 00:00 IST

In the case of the long-festering Cauvery issue, conciliation has at last triumphed over confrontation.

V. VENKATESAN in New Delhi T.S. SUBRAMANIAN in Chennai PARVATHI MENON in Bangalore

DECADES-OLD dispute over the sharing of the Cauvery river waters between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka appeared to have been almost resolved in two days, on August 6 and 7, when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee held discussions with the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry. The dispute had proved intractable over the years despite several attempts to find a negotiated settlement, and it had recently threatened to develop yet again into a major conflict. However, the August 7 agreement seemed to satisfy both the main contenders, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, if one goes by the initial reactions.

The pattern in the last few years was that the dispute flared up during a season of water scarcity, when the rains failed or were insufficient, and Karnataka did not release the monthly quantum of water prescribed by the Interim Order issued in June 1991 by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal. However, Karnataka maintains that although it opposed the premise and terms of the Interim Order, which stipulates that it must ensure that Tamil Nadu receives 205 tmc ft of water at the reservoir in Mettur through prescribed weekly and monthly releases, it failed to stick to the schedule only in 1995-96. In the current year the rains were good and Karnataka has more than fulfilled its obligation of releasing the month-to-month quota from its reservoirs. Nevertheless, tensions escalated.

In what appears to be a climbdown on its part, Karnataka, for the first time since the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (it was set up in 1990 during V.P.Singh's tenure as Prime Minister) gave an Interim Award, agreed at the Delhi meeting on August 7 that there could be a scheme for giving effect to the Interim Award and all related orders issued subsequently. Karnataka had opposed the Tribunal and the Interim Award and this had proved to be the stumbling block in the way of any negotiated settlement. The Supreme Court had issued directions regarding the framing of a scheme for the implementation of the Interim Award. At the meeting in New Delhi on August 6, Karnataka Chief Minister J.H. Patel declared: "There is no need to frame a scheme at this stage when the Tribunal is still adjudicating and the final orders are due in about a year's time. This not only is redundant but also leads to complications which are avoidable."

A draft scheme was framed in May 1997 under Section 6 of the Inter States Water Disputes Act, when I.K. Gujral was Prime Minister. The scheme, which proposed the creation of an infrastructure for the implementation of the Interim Award, was sent in September 1997 to all the basin States for approval. Karnataka strongly opposed the scheme on the grounds that it put unfair restrictions on the State's access to water (Frontline, July 11, 1997). Tamil Nadu generally welcomed the scheme. The other basin States also sent their comments. However, no consensus could be reached.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, which heard the case last July, gave the Government time up to August 12 to try and resolve the issues relating to the framing of the scheme.

At the Delhi meeting on August 6, Karnataka claimed that it had released more than 205 tmc ft of water every year except in the deficit year of 1995-96. But, according to observers, the releases were not made according to the schedule drawn up by the Tribunal, which was intended to ensure the supply of water to Tamil Nadu when the State badly needed it.

THE Karnataka Chief Minister finally agreed to the creation of an Authority under the scheme to implement the Interim Award. The Authority will comprise the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of Karnataka, Kerala, Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu. The Authority, the Chief Ministers agreed, shall frame rules and regulations for the conduct of its business.

Ironically, Karnataka had also opposed the constitution of a Cauvery River Authority as mentioned in the draft scheme to give effect to the Interim Award. The Authority, according to the draft scheme, will consist of a three-tier 11-member authority, a 10-member Regulation Committee, and field organisations at seven structures/reservoir sites on the Cauvery. As a face-saver to Karnataka, the August 7 meeting modified the composition of the Authority so as to include its Chief Minister in it.

"The solution to the problem does not lie in the creation of a mechanism, or a regulatory authority, equipped with sweeping and draconian statutory powers," J.H. Patel said at the meeting. The draft scheme had empowered the Authority to take over the regulation of the structures and the reservoirs in case of non-compliance of the directions of the Authority. It also empowered the Regulation Committee, proposed to be created under the Authority, to ensure that Karnataka did not increase its area under irrigation beyond 11.2 lakh acres (about 4.53 hectares). Although the powers and functions of the Authority, to be created by the scheme approved at the meeting, are now unclear, it is obvious that it will not have the sweeping powers proposed to be vested with it in the draft scheme. Interestingly, the press note issued by the Government at the end of the talks does not call the Authority the Cauvery River Authority, as suggested in the draft scheme, probably to appease Karnataka.

It was also agreed at the Chief Ministers' meeting with the Prime Minister to create a Monitoring Committee consisting of the designated officers of the Central Government and the State Governments concerned. However, there was no consensus about the role, nature and functions of this committee. While Karnataka insisted that the Monitoring Committee should only assist the Authority, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry pleaded for empowering the committee to implement the Interim Award. Kerala remained neutral on this issue. Therefore, a drafting committee with the Cabinet Secretary as the chairman and the Chief Secretaries of the basin States as members was set up to go into this aspect.

Observers note that this minor disagreement and the lack of clarity about the powers and functions of the Authority could create problems in implementing the scheme. The Union Government's purpose in evolving a vague scheme appears to be to ward off any immediate pressure from the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), a constituent of the ruling coalition, and other political parties in Tamil Nadu to notify the earlier scheme, which had evoked strong protests from Karnataka. It is a deft move by the Government that will enable it to delay the notification of the scheme, as the Supreme Court has asked it only to resolve issues relating to the framing of the scheme before August 12. It is thus not clear how the Authority would arrive at decisions - whether by majority or by consensus. Karnataka has suggested that the decision of the Authority shall be by consensus, which means that the State could use the power of veto if a majority decision goes against its interests.

The Prime Minister indicated at the meeting that it was necessary that an appropriate national policy was evolved within the framework of which river water disputes could be amicably resolved in the shortest possible time. This conformed to Karnataka's known position in this regard, although it is not clear how a national policy, put necessarily in general terms, could be of use in solving inter-State river disputes. According to sources, the Prime Minister told the Chief Ministers that he had only two options: one, to present to the Supreme Court on August 12 a report that has been approved by all the States concerned, and two, to tell the Supreme Court, in the event of a breakdown of talks, that a consensus was not possible, and leave it to the Court to give a verdict that would be binding on the States. This apparently forced the contending States to show varying degrees of accommodation.

The success of the scheme is an acid test not only for cooperative federalism, but for the effectiveness of Central intervention in inter-State disputes. Certainly, the Prime Minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have reasons to celebrate at a time when the BJP's allies, in pursuit of their regional agendas, have kept the principal coalition partner on tenterhooks.

THE reactions of the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers to the agreement have been positive. While J.H. Patel hailed the agreement as one which accommodated the State's proposals, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi described it as a breakthrough. Speaking to mediapersons in New Delhi after the talks, Karunanidhi paid due credit to the former Prime Ministers V.P.Singh and I.K. Gujral and Prime Minister Vajpayee for the roles they played in evolving a solution to the dispute. Indeed, Karunanidhi was confident that there would be no hiccups in the drafting committee's work. He put it succinctly: "Let us pray that it reaches an amicable solution; after all, there was no war between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on this issue."

A relaxed Karunanidhi, who arrived to a warm welcome at the Chennai airport on August 8, told mediapersons that it was not a victory for any individual but a victory for the people and farmers of both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Reacting in a sober manner, he said, "A solution has been found without any ill-feeling among the people of the two States. A long-festering problem has been solved. A solution has been found without any fanfare, in a quiet manner."

Karunanidhi was confident that Karnataka would not contravene the scheme evolved at the talks because it was a "gentlemen's agreement", reached among the Prime Minister and four Chief Ministers. If there was any violation of the scheme, an appeal could be made to the Authority, he said.

The Chief Minister praised the approach of Vajpayee, who spent nine hours trying to achieve the breakthrough; he also thanked Defence Minister George Fernandes and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Jaswant Singh for their help in breaking the impasse.

The reactions of the political parties in Tamil Nadu were almost on expected lines. While the allies of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), such as the Tamil Maanila Congress, the Communist Party of India (CPI), and the Janata Dal, as also the Congress(I) and the BJP have expressed their happiness at the agreement, the AIADMK and its allies - the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Janata Party, "totally rejected" it. In a joint statement, the leaders of these four parties - Jayalalitha, Ramadoss, Vaiko and Subramanian Swamy - demanded that the Centre gazette the original draft scheme (of May 1997) before August 12 and present it to the Supreme Court on August 12.

They complained that the newly formed Authority was proposed to be converted into a "full-fledged political set-up" with the Prime Minister heading it and the four Chief Ministers being its members. The Authority enjoyed no defined powers and would not be able to take decisions by a majority vote, they argued. They pointed out that opposition from one State was enough to stall a decision.

The four leaders said that their parties had predicted at the all-party meeting convened by Karunanidhi in Chennai on August 3 that the draft scheme of May 1997 would be diluted at the New Delhi meeting and had demanded that this should never be accepted. "What we feared has happened," they said. "It seems that the draft scheme has been totally abandoned. Karunanidhi has given his consent to this...Without consulting anybody, Karunanidhi has given his consent to a new scheme to be drafted. He has taken a unilateral decision, which has gone against Tamil Nadu's interests," they alleged.

They said that when a favourable situation had come for Tamil Nadu to realise its demands and the Supreme Court had ruled out any more adjournments, it was objectionable that Karu-nanidhi should abandon the original draft scheme and accept a new Authority which enjoyed no powers. "Each time a solution is in sight, it has become a practice for Karunanidhi to ruin it. If Karunanidhi had not gone to New Delhi heeding our suggestion, we (the four leaders) would have found a good solution to the Cauvery dispute by strongly pressuring the Centre to gazette the draft scheme," they claimed.

In a sharp rejoinder, Karunanidhi said that the rejection of the agreement by Jayalalitha and her allies and the argument that he should have spurned the Prime Minister's invitation amounted to ridiculing coalition democracy. He expressed the fear that their views would harm the implementation of the agreement. The Monitoring Committee was set up not only to give advice but to frame rules and regulations, he said Interestingly, the AIADMK and its allies were among the 41 parties that authorised the Chief Minister, through resolutions at the all-party meeting, to take "appropriate and acceptable steps" that would help the Centre to finalise the draft scheme and notify it in the Gazette.

The AIADMK and its allies, including the Tamilaga Rajiv Congress, were represented at the all-party meeting by their second-string leaders. Along with seven other parties, they demanded first that the Chief Minister keep off the Delhi meeting. However, when a resolution was moved to the effect that he should take part in the meeting because it was a sequel to the Supreme Court's directive to the Centre and it formed part of the Centre's efforts to finalise the draft scheme, these parties gave their consent to his participation.

Jayalalitha, however, opposed the resolutions within hours. In an eight-page, polemical statement, she claimed that there was nothing to be achieved through talks with Karnataka. The statement said: "The New Delhi meeting of the Chief Ministers is only part of the delaying tactics adopted by the Centre. Even if it participates, Tamil Nadu is unlikely to get a favourable decision and the Karnataka Government will not concede anything."

The all-party meeting was an offshoot of a development in Delhi in the last week of July. Prior to the Chief Ministers' meeting, the Centre convened a meeting of the Chief Secretaries of the three States and the Union Territory of Pondicherry on July 29. The Tamil Nadu delegation was surprised when it received on the night of July 28 a copy of the modified draft scheme in which there was no mention of the proposal that the Cauvery River Water Authority should take over the management of the reservoirs in Karnataka if the latter did not implement the Interim Award. The Regulation Committee was retained, but an additional review committee was proposed.

According to the modified draft scheme, the Review Committee would be chaired by the Union Water Resources Min ister and its members would be the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Pondicherry and Kerala. All the members should be present to review any decision of the Authority.

It was in this backdrop that Karunanidhi convened the all-party meeting on August 3. In his prefatory speech, he said that although the provision for the Authority to take over the management of the reservoirs was favourable to Tamil Nadu, "we can discuss whether we can consent to its removal from the scheme because we believe in State autonomy." He pointed out that it might not always be possible for all members of the Review Committee to be present. He suggested that a decision could be taken either unanimously or by majority vote.

As for Karnataka, it is a different story. From a position of rejecting the draft scheme in toto, the Government of Karnataka is now prepared to accept the scheme, albeit with conditions. This is a significant step forward. Karnataka's demands on the functions of the Monitoring Committee have been fully met: the committee is to be primarily a data-collecting and advisory body.

It is a measure of the spirit of accommodation of J.H. Patel that for the purpose of an agreement he set aside several of Karnataka's earlier objections to the Interim Award - starting with the figure of 205 tmc ft of water which Karnataka is to release on a yearly basis to Tamil Nadu. "Both sides have won," he declared at a press conference after his return to Bangalore.

The negotiating team from Karnataka wisely decided that there was little point in maintaining the charade of the past: rejecting the Interim Award in public while complying with its terms on the ground. With the notification of the draft scheme, the Interim Award will govern water sharing until the final order of the Tribunal is made. More important, an official mechanism is now in place for the "sharing of distress in a year of water scarcity".

However, initially the negotiating team from Karnataka reacted to what has been called a "breakthrough" in the Cauvery talks very guardedly, and indeed with some measure of scepticism. "We reject the draft scheme in toto but are prepared to continue discussions with respect to the role and functions of the Monitoring Committee in the Drafting Committee that has been set up," a senior Cabinet Minister told Frontline. He said that there was no unanimity on the issue of the Monitoring Committee, with Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry rejecting Karnataka's position that the Monitoring Committee should have no executive powers or statutory functions but should restrict itself to "assisting" the Authority. "We have also not agreed to the ceiling of 4.53 lakh ha beyond which we cannot extend irrigation, as also to several other clauses in the draft scheme, such as the setting up of a field organisation," he said. "These issues will also come up before the drafting committee".

J.H. Patel has been careful to get a consensus from parties across the political spectrum at each stage of the negotiations. Representatives of the Congress(I), including former Chief Minister M. Veerappa Moily, BJP MLA H.N. Nanje Gowda, and former Chief Minister S. Bangarappa were in Delhi during the talks.

THUS, in the case of the Cauvery, conciliation triumphed over confrontation. S. Guhan, distinguished civil servant and intellectual who showed an abiding interest in finding a solution to the dispute until he died on February 12, 1998, had great faith in the conciliatory approach. A key advisor to Karunanidhi on the Cauvery issue, Guhan was of the opinion that the Cauvery system was one of the most exploited river systems in the world and there was little surplus water available from it. He believed that all river water disputes were amenable to solution if there was the will for conciliation. Guhan authored the much-acclaimed and thoroughly researched publication, "The Cauvery River Dispute, Towards Conciliation," published by Frontline. Paying tributes to Guhan, Karunanidhi said: "If Guhan had been alive today, he would have been very happy. I really feel his absence."

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