The Congress Government in Karnataka arrived at its moment of truth on October 1 - whether to abide by the Supreme Court's “last chance” for it to release 6,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu for six days (October 1-6) or “face the wrath of law”.
With the long drawn out inter-state dispute over Cauvery at its nadir, vote-bank politics (ahead of 2018 poll) came to the fore to unite BJP opposition, out to wrest power, and other parties behind the Siddaramaiah’s Government's continued defiance of the apex court’s successive orders to release water to Tamil Nadu.
The inter-state tensions in South coincide with the Modi Government’s sounding of national alert on counter-terrorism measures, in the wake of LOC strikes, and the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms Jayalalithaa staying in the hospital for unspecified illness for over a week now. She is said to be “recuperating” well.
The Siddharamaiah Government had stood up defiantly against the first four orders of Supreme Court in September, specifying the quantum of water for short periods to be released to the lower riparian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and the Union Territory of Puducherry. Until late afternoon on Oct 1, the Chief Minister was in no mood to comply and had called an all-party meeting for the day.
Its plea was that the limited storage in its three dams could only meet drinking water needs of urban areas, which should be given greater priority than farming. Accordingly, it got a state Assembly resolution passed to strengthen its case before the apex court.
In the fourth order on September 27, the apex court had asked Karnataka Government to release 6,000 cusecs for three days from September 28 and report on September 30, as timely relief for Tamil Nadu farmers in the river delta region for their main samba crop.
Having worked up political passions, even this order was defied by the Siddaramaiah Government, no matter its grave impact on not just inter-state relations but the federal set-up and the functioning of the highest judiciary of the land.
At the Central level, a meeting held by Union Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharati with the two states, as suggested by the Supreme Court, on September 29 proved infructuous. Karnataka represented by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah took the stand that in a distress situation, water cannot be shared.
A statement of ailing Tamil Nadu Chief Minister read out by the nominee of Ms Jayalalithaa, Chief Secretary P Ramamohana Rao, upbraided her counterpart's continuing defiance of the Constitution and contempt of apex court and urged the Centre to ensure that Karnataka met the dire needs of TN farmers.
Karnataka tried to skirt round the apex court order by proposing an expert panel to assess “ground realities” and this was strongly opposed by the Tamil Nadu representative, given their core demand for the share of water in terms of the final award of the Cauvery Tribunal (2007).
Rarely has Karnataka met this requirement, indeed its appeal against the award is pending in the apex court. In the very few years of heavy rainfall, Karnataka had opened up the sluices of its dams to let excess water flow into Tamil Nadu.
Ms Jayalalithaa's statement also charged the Siddaramaiah government for having allowed “arson and violence” against Tamils in Karnataka, causing extensive damage to transport vehicles. In reaction, there were some incidents in Tamil Nadu as well but reportedly with the least damage to Kannadiga establishments.
Ms Uma Bharati said the differing views of two sides would be conveyed by the Centre to the Supreme Court through its Attorney-General. She took note of the Tamil Nadu’s reiteration of its demand for setting up of the Cauvery Management Board, as proposed in the Tribunal Award.
Resuming its Cauvery hearings on September 30, the Supreme Court slammed the Karnataka Government for flouting its orders thus far in a manner that dented the majesty of the law. Notwithstanding the state legislature resolution on the subject, the Division Bench of the Court said it would give “the last chance” for Karnataka to release 6,000 cusecs of water for six days from October 1 to 6, before "the wrath of law falls on the State".
The Court simultaneously asked the Attorney-General to ensure that the Centre sets up the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) by October 4 and told the states involved to nominate their representatives to CMB by this weekend. In a tight schedule, the Court said CMB should study the ground reality in both states and submit a report to it by October 6 - the next date of hearing.
Basically, Karnataka has not been in favour of CMB, stipulated in the Tribunal award which it has challenged. Its appeal is yet to be disposed of by the Supreme Court.
True, 2016 has been a year of stress as a result of drought conditions in some areas and poor rainfall, leading to inadequate storages in Karnataka’s three dams on Cauvery river. It is understandable that this year the state would not be able to meet its obligation under the Cauvery Tribunal's order (2007) on water-sharing.
The fact remains that the upper riparian state, where the Cauvery is sourced to Coorg, has irrespective of the party in power, failed in most years to meet water needs of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry, distancing itself from the Cauvery Tribunal award.
In its latest order on September 30, the Court cited Article 144 of the Constitution, which mandated all authorities to act in aid of the Supreme Court, and said, “Unfortunately, Karnataka, despite being a state, is flouting the order and in fact, creating a situation where the majesty of law is dented.”
As many of our chronic problems of under-development get accentuated, there have to be “out of box” solutions, mainly from our scientists, technologists and agro-economists for the most effective use of our available water resources for irrigation, industrial and domestic needs. Inter-linking of rivers may not be the ideal solution within certain regions.
Even the proposed Cauvery Management Board may not provide durable solutions, given the monsoon vagaries and continuous destruction of rain forests in many states including Karnataka and Kerala. Cauvery is no exception to the drying of most of our peninsular rivers. Farmers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu would thus be called upon to get used to growing crops which are less water-intensive than paddy and wheat and sugarcane, by shifting to pulses, millets, oilseeds and the like.
(The views expressedare strictly personal.)