Cauvery water dispute: All eyes on SC ruling and how Modi may get caught in crossfire

Tamil Nadu is eagerly waiting for the 16 September hearing of the Supreme Court: the state is hoping that the court will force Karnataka to release more water to start its summer paddy crop. Last Monday’s ruling by the court ensured that Tamil Nadu only got 13.6 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water over ten days, while it wants at least 35 more.

But before 16 September, Karnataka will go to the Supreme Court, asking for a "modification" of its order to release 15,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water which, over ten days, amounts to 13.6 tmcft.

But what is of immediate concern to both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is how the Cauvery Supervisory Committee will view the whole thing. The Supreme Court has asked this official committee to look into Tamil Nadu’s demand for more water before September 16. Both states are rushing to the committee with their own sets of statistics related to the availability of — and their respective needs for — the Cauvery water.

Karnataka has an even bigger expectation on 18 October. That’s when the petitions filed by Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and others, challenging the 2007 award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, are expected to come up for a final hearing.

A woman by the banks of Cauvery. Reuters

A woman by the banks of Cauvery. Reuters

In fact, the Tribunal’s water allocations had fallen short of the expectations of both the important Cauvery basin states. Karnataka was awarded 270 tmcft against its demand for 465, and Tamil Nadu got 419 tmcft while it wanted 562.

An important reason why Karnataka has decided not to defy the latest Supreme Court order to release water to Tamil Nadu is that it didn’t want to spoil the bigger case coming up on 18 October. Karnataka defied directives twice before, once in 2002 and then in 2012. Both times, Tamil Nadu rushed to the Supreme Court with contempt petitions to get water.

In the coming weeks, the apex court will also rule on other petitions including one from Tamil Nadu demanding the constitution of a Cauvery Management Board to execute water allocation.

Clearly, bigger battles are ahead in the water war, and the indications are that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may find himself tossed into the crossfire between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu at some point. In the latest episode of the dispute, the Modi government has so far been a mute spectator, but that is likely to end soon. There are at least two ways this can happen.

One depends on what the Cauvery Supervisory Committee will say. Headed by the Union Water Resources secretary, the committee consists of the Chief Secretaries of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Puducherry, besides officials of the Central Water Commission. It will be nowhere near finding a solution, but its observations will be a key input for judges for arriving at their final ruling on Tamil Nadu’s immediate demand on 16 September.

The committee’s recommendations may not leave either of the states or even both of them happy. So either Karnataka or Tamil Nadu, ruled by the Congress and AIADMK respectively, or both will point accusing fingers at the Centre—Modi, in other words.

Another development that could see Modi in a fix is Tamil Nadu’s petition demanding the constitution of the Cauvery Management Board. The Supreme Court refused to give this petition an urgent hearing and put it off to a later date.

The Tribunal had recommended the setting up of this Board on the lines of Bhakra-Beas Management Board for implementation of the 2007 award. The Board, in turn, was expected to form a Cauvery Water Regulation Committee to assist it.

Karnataka is dead set against constitution of such a board for fear that it will infringe on its freedom to manage its own water and dams, and the centre made no move to constitute it. The previous Congress regime, in fact, didn’t even dare to gazette the Tribunal’s 2007 award, though Jayalalithaa went on a day’s fast to demand it. The award was notified for implementation only in 2013 when the Supreme Court forced the Centre to do it.

The Congress evidently had no intention to risk the wrath of farmers in Karnataka, politically a key state for the party. And after Modi took over in 2014, the dispute hasn’t raged—till now.

Clearly, Modi too faces a similar conundrum when it comes to the constitution of the board: Karnataka is an important state for the BJP as well. In fact, the party hopes to wrest the state from the Congress in the state assembly elections less than two years from now.

The next twist in the Cauvery saga can also come, even before the Supreme Court’s September 16 hearing, from an escalation of tension in Karnataka. Twice in the past—in 2002 and 2012—Karnataka began releasing water under Supreme Court directives but suspended the supply following stepped-up violence.

Here are the important dates to watch out for:

Updated Date: Sep 08, 2016 12:25 PM

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