Enough of confusion has been there for the past two decades....We will give the verdict in four weeks.” That was a three-member bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra reacting on January 9 to a petition on the Cauvery water sharing formula.The Bench is examining the validity of the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal’s (CWDT) award in 2007 on equitable sharing of water among Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. The four weeks are already over and Tamil Nadu is keeping its fingers crossed.
While the court is taking its time writing the judgment it reserved on September 20 last year, samba crops sown in over 2.5 lakh hectares in Tamil Nadu are on the verge of withering away for want of water. They urgently need wetting for two weeks but won’t get any from the Cauvery as Mettur Dam does not have enough storage.Ironically, both the Southwest and Northeast monsoons were decent this year unlike the drought last year. It did lead to inundation in some parts, but farmers by and large were happy. The twist came when weather gods ignored Chennai where all the disaster preparedness apparatus was concentrated and chose to test farming and fishing communities in the south-coastal areas of Tamil Nadu through Cyclone Ockhi in late November.
The cyclone flattened trees and buildings in Kanniyakumari and Nagapattinam districts, washed away roads, drowned many fishermen in mid sea and flooded fields that had standing crops. In the end, Ockhi became the first severe cyclone in 40 years to have travelled 2,400 km—from the Bay of Bengal near the Kanniyakumari coast to almost the Gujarat coast in the Arabian Sea.Many of those who lost their crops due to Ockhi went for resowing and are now praying they don’t lose them again. They can do little else as they don’t have the facility to tap ground water.
Anticipating the stress, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami a few weeks ago made an emergency request to his Karnataka counterpart Siddaramaiah. At a high-level meeting on January 29, he decided to lead a delegation to meet Siddaramaiah to seek at least 15 tmcft of Cauvery water to save the standing crops, knowing full well Karnataka will not release a drop—certainly not in an elections year. Karnataka’s water resources minister M B Patil promptly said his state was ready to host Palaniswami but won’t share the Cauvery.
Expecting Karnataka to be benevolent when it chose to flout the Supreme Court’s instructions since 2016 to release 2,000 cusecs to Tamil Nadu each day would be naive, and Palaniswami is anything but naive. There is no word yet on his appointment with Siddaramaiah, and EPS is recovering from cataract surgery, so political messaging apart nothing else has happened. Perhaps that was how it was meant to be.
After all, Palaniswami has to face local body elections in the near future after a bruising defeat in the R K Nagar bypolls, and the opposition will definitely make agrarian distress a campaign plank. Siddaramaiah too won’t mind being drawn into the matrix where he does not yield on the Cauvery, as his strong-arm tactics would suit his political positioning of fighting for Karnataka’s rights. And the Centre has chosen to remain mum.
Posturing apart, Tamil Nadu feels it has been deprived of its rightful share of the Cauvery, as there was needless haggling in various fora after the CWDT’s award in 2007. Remember the CWDT itself is a creature of the Supreme Court, so its award ought to have been written in stone and implemented straight away.
The award prescribed a formula for Cauvery water sharing in both normal and distress years and directed the creation of a Cauvery Management Board to oversee its implementation. Yet, it took six long years for the 2007 award to be notified in 2013. And the Cauvery Management Board was not even created despite numerous missives from Tamil Nadu to the Union government and multiple mentions before the Supreme Court.
Even assuming the Supreme Court fails to uphold the 2007 award, it will surely prescribe a new formula for water sharing and a mechanism to implement the order. Being the upper riparian state, Karnataka in any case will be a ‘giver’ of whatever quantity the Supreme Court decides. There will be a formula for distress years as well.
Though Karnataka, too, has its share of water scarcity issues, it cannot impound all Cauvery water. Will the verdict be implemented in toto or will Karnataka brazen it out as it did during the current hearing in the Supreme Court? Will it touch off another round of inflamed passions? We will know shortly.
Senior Associate Editor