• Managing the Cauvery dispute

Judicial intervention often resolves questions that the executive finds too sensitive to handle. By directing the Centre to constitute a Cauvery Management Board within four weeks, the Supreme Court has created space for the water-sharing dispute to be handled in a scientific and responsible manner by a legally constituted technical body. The board, assisted by a regulation committee, is the mechanism prescribed by the Tribunal in its final order for implementing its award. It will be a technical body consisting of irrigation engineers and agronomists, and will have independent members as well as representatives of the basin States. It can formulate the manner in which water should be shared in a season of distress. The court’s intervention also exposes the helplessness of governments at the Centre in handling inter-State issues. It is part of a long historical pattern. It was at the instance of the Supreme Court that the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was formed more than a quarter century ago; and again, it required court orders to pave the way for an interim award to be passed in 1991, and for it to be notified in the Gazette of India later. It took another order for the Tribunal’s final award of 2007 to be notified in 2013, six years later. The court has done a significant service in nudging the Centre to provide a legal and technical framework for the equitable distribution of water.

This is not the first attempt to create an institutional mechanism. In 2013, the Centre notified the formation of a ‘Supervisory Committee’ consisting of the Secretary, Union Water Resources Ministry, as chairman, and the Chief Secretaries of the basin States as members. That the latest decision of the Supervisory Committee, which directed the release of 3,000 cusecs of water for 10 days to Tamil Nadu, did not find favour with either State shows the difficulties involved in managing inter-State disputes even through an institutional mechanism. The Supreme Court, too, has intervened to double the quantum of water to be released. All this shows that apart from permanent mechanisms, technical panels and seasonal adjudication, a spirit of accommodation is required among the basin States. Also needed is a clearer appreciation of the fact that the entire water yield in the Cauvery basin is not enough to provide for the requirements of both States. It is time for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to take a hard look at their agricultural economies: the area under cultivation, the number of crops per year and the water-intensive nature of the crops. Unless these are adjusted to suit the water availability, such disputes will keep surfacing.