Contempt and compliance

Published : Nov 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Chastised by the Supreme Court, and with monsoon rainfall coming to his aid, Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna starts the release of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. But for the Cauvery delta farmers, it is a relief they cannot quite savour.

THE troubled waters of the Cauvery has resumed its flow from the reservoirs of Karnataka to Tamil Nadu once again. This, however, did not happen before the Supreme Court issued an unprecedented ultimatum to the Karnataka government to release water or face the legal consequences of disobeying its fiat. Chief Minister S.M. Krishna's open defiance of the October 4 order of the Supreme Court, which directed the State to release 0.8 tmc ft of water as laid down by the Cauvery River Authority (CRA), prompted the court on October 26 to make its most severe chastisement to date of the conduct of the State government in respect of water-sharing and of functioning as a unit in a federal polity. Sensing that the Supreme Court meant business when it declared its intention to punish the State for contempt of court, Krishna abandoned his defiance. He offered an unconditional apology to the Supreme Court, ordered the release of water, and clamped down on protestors who, under the banner of the Cauvery Hitharakshana Samithi, had taken to the streets in Mandya district opposing the release of water.

The Supreme Court, still smarting from the non-compliance with which its order was met, appeared not to be taken in by Karnataka's apology at the next hearing of the contempt petition on October 29. While Karnataka was directed to continue release of water, the court postponed its judgment on the contempt case to November 1.

During this time, the Krishna government dealt with the situation in Mandya with a firmness that was markedly absent during the earlier round of protests against the release of water to Tamil Nadu. Despite his political isolation within the State — the Janata Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Party, in addition to the many pro-Kannada groups, criticised his decision to release water — Krishna stuck with his State's commitment to release water.

At the hearing on November 1, the Supreme Court once again postponed its final verdict on the contempt petition, this time by a fortnight, to November 15, yet held Karnataka to a water release schedule by a fresh directive on water releases. The State is to ensure that 9,000 cusecs of water reaches Mettur every day until November 6. From November 7 to 15 the State is to ensure that 5,000 cusecs of water reaches Mettur every day. The court called for an early meeting of the CRA and stated that the schedule of water release is subject to any changes that the CRA might make.

Predictably, the State government has committed itself to releasing the water stipulated by the court. The copious rainfall in the catchment area in both States have come to Karnataka's rescue. Not only has it helped the State meet its water commitments, it is also likely to weaken the tempo of the Mandya protests.

It is not just the Congress(I) and the main Opposition parties in the State that have emerged from the crisis with their credibility at an all-time low; Krishna's image as a reasonable and moderate leader has also taken a beating. The recent developments affirm yet again the hold that narrow chauvinist politics has on the mainstream political tendencies in the State, as represented by the Congress(I), the Janata Parivar and the Bharatiya Janata Party, and on significant sections of the State's cultural activists and intelligentsia. Any release of water to Tamil Nadu was projected as an act of betrayal of Karnataka. Krishna sought to appease this constituency by acquiescing to their demand that water should not be released under any circumstances. He even took out a padayatra in Mandya district to win political support. It was a position he was forced to abandon when faced with the threat of punishment for contempt of court and the possible dismissal of his government. The recent developments showed that it was not water and its availability or need that determined the course of events but the compulsions of politics as perceived by the various political players in the State.

"I do not think that ensuring that the quantity of water stipulated by the Supreme Court reaches Mettur every day will be difficult in the present circumstances for Karnataka," Minister for School Education B.K. Chandrashekhar told Frontline. "Nor do I think that the Supreme Court has a tough punishment in store for the State on November 15. However, my request is that the CRA meet forthwith, and if the Prime Minister is not free to attend, then he must authorise the Deputy Prime Minister or the Irrigation Minister to chair the meeting. Both States can ask for relief as they see it," he said.

IN Tamil Nadu, the release of water by Karnataka is a victory that neither its farmers will be able to savour nor Chief Minister Jayalalithaa celebrate. The water has arrived, but all too late as it will not help raise the samba paddy crop. Delta farmers first lost their short-term kuruvai paddy crop when Karnataka failed to release water in June, July and August as per the Interim Order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

Krishna's defiance of the court's and the CRA's directives to release 0.8 tmc ft of water every day until October 31 ruined whatever chances there were of the long-term samba crop being raised. According to a State government official in Chennai, the water released from October 28 will irrigate the fallow land although ironically the land in the Cauvery delta districts in Tamil Nadu is fertile. He added, ruefully, "If Karnataka had taken this decision in the beginning of September, we could have cultivated samba." According to him, Karnataka has succeeded in raising paddy and sugarcane in about six lakh acres (2.4 lakh hectares) even as it denied Tamil Nadu its rightful share of water. Karnataka farmers cultivated paddy in about four lakh acres (1.6 lakh hectares) and sugarcane in about two lakh acres (0.8 lakh hectares). This paddy crop, which takes about 150 days to mature, will be ready for harvest by the end of December.

The financial loss to Tamil Nadu, its counsel K.K. Venugopal told the Supreme Court on October 24, with the farmers unable to cultivate the kuruvai and samba crops because of the non-release of water by Karnataka, stood at a colossal Rs.2,930 crores. (The kuruvai is raised in about three lakh acres (1.2 lakh hectares) between June and September, and the samba in about 11 lakh acres (4.4. lakh hectares) from September to January).

Now, the water that Karnataka has started releasing from its Krishna Raja Sagar dam from October 28 can at least be used to meet drinking water requirements in Tamil Nadu. The storage level in the Mettur dam on October 28 was a mere 13 tmc ft against its storage capacity of 93.4 tmc ft.

An official said that if Karnataka continued to release water and the northeast monsoon brought good rain, "we can build up 40 tmc ft to 50 tmc ft in the Mettur reservoir and raise samba to the extent possible". In other words, farmers who have raised samba nurseries in about 4,800 hectares in the Cauvery delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam, can hope to do the transplantaion. Even this is fraught with uncertainty because the intervening north-east monsoon should not damage the crop.

"The nurseries should be old enough to withstand the onslaught of the rain. If they are tender, they will be washed away by the rain. So we have to wait,'' explained the official.

Jayalalithaa too will be unable to celebrate the vindication of her stand because Karnataka's belated release of water has brought no cheers to Tamil Nadu farmers. From the beginning of this current stand-off in June, she reposed faith in the Supreme Court and was confident that she would get justice from it.

All the Opposition parties attacked her for her decision to approach the Supreme Court and give a wide berth to the CRA headed by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. As early as June 21, her Cabinet took three decisions: (1) Tamil Nadu will not take part in the CRA meetings because the CRA "is unable to implement effectively the orders of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal''; (2) Tamil Nadu will file a new case in the Supreme Court praying for a direction to the Centre to frame a new scheme wherein the Interim Order of the Tribunal and its final order, which is to be passed, will be implemented effectively; and (3) The Supreme Court will also be moved to implement the interim and final orders. Jayalalithaa later slapped on the Karnataka government petitions for contempt of court when Krishna refused to implement the Supreme Court's September 3 and October 4 orders.

In the nearly three-decade old dispute over the sharing of the Cauvery waters, the Supreme Court has always done justice to Tamil Nadu. When Tamil Nadu pressed for the formation of a Tribunal to solve this dispute and Karnataka opposed it, swearing its faith in a negotiated settlement, it was the Supreme Court that in 1990 passed orders for the formation of a Tribunal to adjudicate the dispute. Following this order, the V.P. Singh government set up a three-member Tribunal. When the Tribunal rejected Tamil Nadu's request to pass an interim order saying it had no powers to do so, the State government again approached the Supreme Court. The apex court ruled in 1991 that it was within the powers of the Tribunal to pass an interim order. In June 1991, the Tribunal passed an Interim Order, mandating that Karnataka release 205 tmc ft of to Mettur dam in a water year (from June to May), and prescribed weekly and monthly releases to meet the 205 tmc ft. Again in 1991, when the Karnataka government clamped an ordinance that stated that it would divert any amount of water required for its irrigation purposes, and the President made a reference about this to the Supreme Court, it struck down the Karnataka ordinance as being ultra vires of the Constituition. Now, the Supreme Court has taken a "very serious'' view of Krishna's defiance of its directives, and observed that "we are prima facie of the view that a deliberate non-compliance of the orders had taken place and it is contempt.''In the meantime, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and the Union Territory of Pondicherry are advancing their arguments before the Tribunal in New Delhi. The arguments can be broadly classified under three categories. They are: the 1892 and the 1924 Agreements between the Madras Presidency and the princely State of Mysore, and whether or not the 1924 Agreement expired in 1974; arguments on the availability of water supply; and equitable apportionment of water. The four parties to the dispute are now advancing their cases on the availability of water supply. Arguments have been completed on the Agreements. The Tribunal, which is headed by N.P. Singh, and has S.D. Agrawala and N.S. Roy as members, is expected to give the final orders in the first half of 2003.

The samba nurseries that farmers had raised on some 12,000 acres (4,800 hectares) using groundwater was in danger of rotting too following heavy rains, consequent on the arrival of the northeast monsoon, in the delta districts of Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam from October 30 to November 1. Thus it was "a double tragedy" for the farmers, who were already economically ruined.

"The crops, both directly sown and those raised on nurseries, will be washed away in these rains,'' an official said on November 1. Another official pointed to the danger of their beginning to rot.

However, farmers were enthused a little over the directive of the Supreme Court to Karnataka on November 1 to keep releasing 9,000 cusecs of water every day until November 6, and thereafter on the basis of the Interim Order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal.

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