The Big Story: Politics over propriety

On February 15, the Supreme Court of India put an end to the decades-long Cauvery river water dispute by making a few changes to the Cauvery River Water Tribunal’s final award in 2007. In the verdict, it categorically stated that the Centre has to form a scheme to implement the award within six weeks. This deadline falls on March 29.

The Centre, however, has shown utter disregard to this deadline, with Indian Express reporting on Tuesday that it may seek an extention of the deadline and move the Supreme Court again.

While union ministers have denied it, the reason for this failure to comply with the order is obvious. Karnataka will go to polls in May and the Congress government in the state has categorically rejected the idea of a Cauvery Management Board to oversee water sharing in the Cauvery basin.

On March 9, the Union Water Resources Secretary UP Singh, after meeting with chief secretaries of the three states and a union territory involved in the dispute, said the Supreme Court verdict only mentioned a “scheme” and not insisted on the Cauvery Management Board. As if on cue, Karnataka followed this meeting up by raising its voice for a fresh proposal for setting up what it called the “Cauvery Decision Implementation Committee”, something the tribunal award does not envisage.

The fundamental problem here is that Karnataka does not want to give up control of the Cauvery water. As per the tribunal award, the Cauvery Management Board will function independently to implement the water-sharing arrangement by forming the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee. This means it would not be possible for Karnataka to do what it has been doing for the last few years: deny water to other riparian states by claiming poor rainfall.

With the Congress in Karnataka opposing the formation of the board, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre has been forced to delay the implementation of the Supreme Court order given the political atmosphere in Karnataka. The party feels any move to contradict the Congress’s stand would result in electoral losses in south Karnataka, the Cauvery basin in the state.

The line taken by Karnataka is a clear obfuscation of the Supreme Court order. When the court said a “scheme” had to be formed, it did not mean a new scheme outside what had been proposed in the tribunal award. All through the verdict, the court emphasised the need to implement the final award. The Centre, by toeing Karnataka’s line, has clearly created a confusion which did not exist. On March 15, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a special resolution demanding the formation of the Cauvery Management Board. All states except Karnataka seem to be in agreement on its formation, with Kerala seeking certain changes in the composition of the board.

The larger question here is also the manner in which the writ of the Supreme Court has been undermined. The Cauvery dispute has been a thorn in the flesh of the judiciary. In 2016, Karnataka stubbornly refused to implement Supreme Court orders asking the state to release water to Tamil Nadu. This year, the Centre, for purely political reasons, has joined hands with Karnataka to undermine the judiciary by creating ambiguity in a verdict that was crystal clear in its intention.

While postponing the implementation of the Supreme Court order might help the Congress and the BJP electorally in Karnataka, it will end up eroding the very legitimacy of inter-state river water tribunals. If even Supreme Court orders are not implemented, what respect future tribunals would have is anybody’s guess.

The Big Scroll

Cauvery dispute: Supreme Court order provides no solution to central problem of distress years.


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