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Levee A Revolt

Karnataka can gladly focus on the pluses

Levee A Revolt
Srikanth Kolari
Levee A Revolt

"The judgement is good. It is satisfactory for all parties...the tribunal has done enormous work."
Fali S. Nariman, senior counsel for Karnataka before the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, on the February 5, 2007, water-sharing award

So, how fair is Karnataka's grumble against the final and unanimous award of the tribunal? Is it mere rhetoric—a result of a subnationalistic perch that the political class in the state has come to occupy over the decades, climbing down from which will be incorrect? Cauvery may be a river that flows in the south of the state, but it has become central to pan-Kannada identity. Anything to do with sharing its yield, however legitimate, is confronted with plain unreason. Everybody—from litterateurs to lawyers—feels duty-bound to "save" Karnataka by rejecting the award.

All the same, the verdict does pose the state with hard realities. That's why chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy has been sober in his response. Any questioning of the legal validity of the award or even a slightest law and order problem may rock his government. As a reminder, there's the September 2002 episode when S.M. Krishna was the CM. The SC had then issued a contempt notice to Karnataka for non-compliance with an order to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. Krishna backtracked, and had to apologise to the apex court.

This time around, Karnataka has said it would "appeal" against the award. However, the question is whether it can—the provisions of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956 equates the award to "an order or decree of the Supreme Court". Only, it has to be published in the gazette to become binding on the riparian states. The state can only seek "clarifications" on the award in the intervening period. It cannot attribute motives, so rejecting the award would mean failure to effectively present its own case in the last 17 years of proceedings.

Karnataka's chief complaint against the final award has been about the annual quantum of water release to Tamil Nadu from the state—192 tmc (thousand million cubic) ft. It was 205 tmc ft during the period of interim award. But the 15 years of data available on the quantum of release at the inter-state contact point of Biligudlu says a different story.

There have been only two major crisis years between 2002 and 2004—when severe drought forced the state to release only 109.45 tmc ft and 75.87 tmc ft water respectively. Otherwise, Karnataka has released water at an average of 230 tmc ft. As recently as 2005-06, it released 383.91 tmc ft—in 1994-95 it was 394 tmc ft. In short, the tribunal's award is well below the average outflow of water.

A finer point in the argument is the 'heavy' allocations during July-October. In August, the state is expected to release 50 tmc ft—ostensibly accounting for the rains. The quantum reduces with the arrival of the northeast monsoon (October-December) that benefits Tamil Nadu. The award even makes provision for a distress year: "The allocated shares may be proportionately reduced."

The other positives for Karnataka in the award are a rise in the ceiling on cultivation from 11.20 lakh acres to 18.85 lakh acres and allowing new (hitherto stopped) projects to harness the water. The state has also been freed from the clutches of two colonial-era pacts (1892 and 1924) between the governments of Mysore and Madras. But JD(S) MLA Mahima Patel, the state's special representative in New Delhi, isn't happy. "We wanted to cultivate 22 lakh acres, but now it's only 14 lakh acres. The tribunal hasn't considered the rich groundwater available in Tamil Nadu," he told Outlook. One isn't sure if these figures are an afterthought. As long as Karnataka views the Cauvery dispute as a rights issue of an upper riparian state and not as an effort at equitable sharing of water, such objections will continue to be raised.
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