Supreme Court does a balancing act in Cauvery water dispute verdict

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New Delhi: In a ruling that marks the culmination of the longstanding Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court on Friday did a balancing act between the feuding neighbours even as it put supply of drinking water on a “higher pedestal”.

Under the new arrangement, Karnataka would have to release 177.25 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of water to Tamil Nadu as against an earlier quantum of 192 tmcft.

The court also allocated an additional 4.75 tmcft to Bengaluru to meet the drinking water and domestic requirements of the “global city”. As a result, Karnataka will now receive 284.75 tmcft as against the 270 tmcft it gets at present.

The new water sharing scheme will be applicable for the next 15 years, the court held.

Allocation to Tamil Nadu stands at 414.25 tmcft annually, which includes 10 tmcft on account of availability of groundwater. The states of Kerala and Puducherry would continue to receive 30 tmcft and 7 tmcft respectively.

The court also directed the central government to constitute the Cauvery Water Management Board within six weeks to supervise implementation of the order.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra said that Cauvery waters were a “national asset and no single state could claim ownership over it”. “The matter deserved to be adjudicated on a bedrock of equal status of states and doctrine of equability,” Misra said.

The Cauvery water dispute is more than 150 years old and has its origins in the 1894 and 1924 agreements for water sharing between then presidency states of Madras and Mysore. These agreements will remain in force despite the fact that the Reorganization Act, 1956, has taken effect, the order stated.

The judgment was passed on a batch of appeals by Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, challenging the 2007 award passed by the Cauvery River Water Disputes Tribunal which determined the utilizable quantum of water in the Cauvery at 740 tmcft.

The award had made an annual allocation of 419 tmcft to Tamil Nadu in the entire Cauvery basin, 270 tmcft to Karnataka, 30 tmcft to Kerala, and 7 tmcft to Puducherry. It was notified by the government in 2013. Out of the 419 tmcft allocated to Tamil Nadu, 192 tmcft would be supplied by Karnataka.

Over the years, the apex court has passed a series of orders setting different limits to the volume of water to be released by Karnataka to Tamil Nadu.

On 12 September 2016, the court asked Karnataka to release 12,000 cusecs of water per day for seven days, revising its earlier order of 5 September to release 15,000 cusecs per day till 16 September.

The state was thereafter directed on 20 September to release 6,000 cusecs of water a day to Tamil Nadu from 21 to 27 September. This was extended for three more days until 30 September.

Karnataka witnessed widespread violence and protests and approached the court seeking a week’s suspension of the order and its modification. The court then directed Karnataka to release 2,000 cusecs of Cauvery water every day to Tamil Nadu until further orders.

The court had in December 2016 said that it was within its jurisdiction to hear appeals against the 2007 Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal award after the centre and Puducherry opposed the appeals, saying that the Constitution of India expressly disallows the apex court from intervening in interstate river water disputes.

The verdict gives Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah and the Congress an unexpected boost in the run-up to the assembly elections, scheduled for later this year.

Siddaramaiah said that Karnataka is not claiming the verdict as some big victory since it is an inter-state dispute. “But the problems we had shared with the Supreme Court and the injustices we suffered, we have got some relief,” he said.

Harish Ramaswamy, political analyst and professor at the Karnatak University, Dharwad said that the verdict will definitely benefit the Congress as it will boost its prospects in Old Mysuru region.

However, he added that the chief minister would have to be careful about how he packages the verdict in north Karnataka, where the Cauvery issue has little or no significance. “It depends on how the Congress will market this in north Karnataka where there is the Mahadayi problem (with Goa),” Ramaswamy added.

Out of Tamil Nadu’s total allocation, the portions set aside for domestic and industrial use remain unchanged. At the same time, the court noted that the tribunal had ignored the issue of drinking water in the city of Bengaluru, for which an additional 4.75 tmcft was allocated.

Karnataka had contested the final verdict of the tribunal, arguing that a major share of the water will go to Tamil Nadu, leaving almost six Karnataka districts, including Bengaluru, without enough water for drinking and farming.

The Cauvery river originates in Karnataka and flows through Tamil Nadu and Puducherry before draining into the Bay of Bengal. Of its total catchment area of 81,155 square kilometres, 34,273 sq. km is in Karnataka, 44,016 sq. km in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, and 2,866 sq. km in Kerala.livemint