A complex case

Published : Oct 25, 2002 00:00 IST

Even as the Supreme Court directs Karnataka to implement the order of the Cauvery River Authority, the real issues involved in the inter-State dispute remain unresolved.

IN directing Karnataka on October 4 to release 9,000 cusecs of water (about 0.8 tmc ft) daily to the Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu in the manner indicated in the September 8 order of the Cauvery River Authority (CRA), the Supreme Court appeared to be concerned mainly with providing immediate relief to Tamil Nadu rather than addressing the serious issues raised in the Tamil Nadu's interlocutory application (I.A.) and the contempt petition against Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna and four others for wilfully disobeying the orders of the court.

The Bench adjourned the hearing on Tamil Nadu's I.A. and contempt petition to October 24. However, it allowed the CRA, headed by the Prime Minister, to modify the September 8 order, notwithstanding doubts about the CRA's ability to enforce its own orders.

Tamil Nadu's I.A. had challenged the September 8 decision of the CRA, which had reduced substantially the quota of water that Tamil Nadu was entitled to receive as per the Supreme Court's September 3 order. The I.A. expressed serious doubts about the CRA's approach towards settling the dispute by issuing ad hoc orders, without evolving a consensus on the Central Water Commission's (CWC) distress-sharing formula. The CWC had proposed a draft distress-sharing formula to which Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Pondicherry all parties to the dispute in varying degrees had expressed agreement. But Karnataka raised two or three major objections, thus making it difficult for the Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CMC) to arrive at a consensus that could become the basis for a decision by the CRA.

A distress-sharing formula is the key to resolving the crisis. Yet, instead of considering Karnataka's objections and finalising a draft formula, the CRA and the Supreme Court appear to have been bogged down by Karnataka's intransigence in the matter of releasing water to Tamil Nadu. The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal would be finalising such a formula in its final award, which is expected to be announced next year.

In the interim, the Tribunal had given the parties concerned the option of seeking its intervention to evolve a tentative, mutually acceptable formula, to share distress in a drought year. However, ever since the establishment of the CRA in 1998, the Tribunal seems to have abdicated this responsibility in favour of the CRA, despite Tamil Nadu's plea that the task of evolving such a formula was an adjudicatory function that the CRA was not competent to deal with.

In the aftermath of the recent crisis, with emotions in both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka running high, the task of finalising the distress-sharing formula has taken a back seat. In such a situation, instead of taking the CRA's role seriously, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has hinted that negotiations between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka could be a way out of the impasse.

In an apparent critique of Tamil Nadu, which has often approached the Supreme Court seeking justice, the Prime Minister questioned the State's move to rush to the court every time a dispute with Karnataka arose. But when questioned as to what remedy Tamil Nadu had if he could not enforce the CRA's orders seeking Karnataka to release water, the Prime Minister did not seem to have an answer. By recommending negotiations between the two States, perhaps the Prime Minister is admitting that the CRA has outlived its relevance. In that case, he should admit this before the Supreme Court, which seems to have placed immense faith in the CRA as a mechanism to sort out the dispute.

During the hearing on October 4, even though the Bench had the CMC's latest report on the drought situation in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu before it, it admitted that it was not competent to deal with the CMC's findings and that only the CRA could handle it. Therefore, with the CMC submitting its report, which is based on field visits to the Cauvery basin reservoirs and their command areas in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, there is likely to be yet another CRA meeting, although it is uncertain whether Karnataka will abide by the CRA's decisions.

During the hearing in the Supreme Court on October 4, Karnataka's senior counsel, Anil Diwan, argued that the court should await the outcome of the CRA's meeting in the light of the CMC's report rather than pass interim directions to Karnataka to release water. Despite acknowledging that the CRA was competent enough to take the right decision, the Bench appeared to contradict itself by issuing directions that could amount to pre-empting the CRA, and even prejudicing its decisions.

As per the CMC's findings, both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu require more water than the total available live storage in the four Karnataka reservoirs, which is estimated to be 45 tmc ft as of September 30. This figure does not include the expected inflows in October and November.

According to the CMC, while Karnataka requires 67.39 tmc ft for its standing crops, up to November end, Tamil Nadu would require 63 tmc ft for transplanting the samba crop in the Cauvery basin, which has to be completed by the end of October. In addition to this, as per the CMC's estimate, up to May 2003, Karnataka will require 14 tmc ft and Tamil Nadu 10 tmc ft water to meet their drinking water supply needs and to compensate for loss due to evaporation. As of September 30, the total availability of water in Tamil Nadu's Mettur reservoir was only 13.305 tmc ft, and the northeast monsoon generally sets in on the delta area towards the end of the third week of October, the CMC report says. However, the report is silent on how both the States can make up the deficit in their water requirements.

Karnataka's argument is that the sowing operations for samba in Tamil Nadu can be delayed by a few days but Karnataka's standing crops and drinking water requirements cannot wait. The water requirement for the samba crop is met through canal water supplies augmented by the northeast monsoon. As of October 1, farmers in Tamil Nadu have not been able to transplant the samba crop owing to inadequate water supplies for land preparation. But can it be delayed until the arrival of the monsoon? Or can the farmers go in for direct sowing (without preparing the land), whenever the monsoon arrives?

Tamil Nadu's response to Karnataka's suggestion was marked by suspicion, and an unwillingness to face the risks involved in changing the traditional pattern of cultivation and relying on the monsoon, which has proved erratic in the past.

As the CMC report reveals, the blame for the loss of kuruvai rice crop (June-September) cannot be attributed entirely to Karnataka's refusal to release water as per the Tribunal's Interim Order. The CMC report reveals that the majority of the farmers were not able to transplant and harvest the kuruvai crop mainly because of the failure of the southwest monsoon over the entire catchment area and the consequent delay in the release of water from Mettur, which began from September 6 rather than June.

All these developments strengthen the case for the linking of national rivers so that any shortfall in the water storage levels in one reservoir can be made up by surplus waters from another river. Indeed, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam underlined the need for this in his Independence Day-eve speech. A project that involves the networking of rivers is likely to cost Rs.70,000 crores and is likely to take a decade to reach completion. But once completed, the project will have numerous benefits for the environment and in the area of transportation, apart from putting an end to inter-State disputes.

The Supreme Court is set to hear a public interest petition seeking a directve to the Centre to evolve and implement a plan for a river network. Questions of cost and time notwithstanding, it appears to be the ideal solution for the festering Cauvery dispute. As of now there is no certainty that even the Tribunal's final award will result in a compromise between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

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