New Delhi: Even as the legal battle between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu hots up, the fundamental principle that water of an inter-state river is a national asset and no single state can claim exclusive ownership over it has been conspicuously recognised by the Supreme Court.
Though water distribution has remained an epicentre of the dispute between the two neighbouring states, the present inning commenced after Tamil Nadu approached the apex court seeking directions to Karnataka for release of 24,000 cusecs for the remaining month commencing from August 14 to meet its “pressing demands of the standing crops.”
The application sought implementation of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) decision of 2007 (later modified by the Supreme Court in 2018) in its true letter and spirit.
Tamil Nadu also sought directions from the Supreme Court that Karnataka release water giving full effect to the stipulations made by the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA).
The plea was mentioned before a bench headed by CJI D.Y. Chandrachud seeking urgent listing and hearing of the matter. Acceding to the request, the Supreme Court notified that it will hear the application on August 25.
In the meantime, the Karnataka government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that Tamil Nadu’s application is “wholly misconceived” as it is based on an erroneous assumption that this water year is a normal one, and not a distressed water year.
It said that Karnataka is not obliged to ensure water prescribed for a normal year, because a distress condition has arisen in the Cauvery basin due to the failure of southwest monsoon.
The counter-reply filed by the state’s Water Resources Department said that Tamil Nadu’s demand for release of 24,000 cusecs from the reservoirs in Karnataka is based on an assumption that this water year is a normal water year.
“Tamil Nadu says it has started sowing Samba rice crop from July 15 onwards. If so, it is still at the transplantation stage,” it contended.
Further, its reply document said that Karnataka’s reasonable needs are at serious risk because the entire current storage plus likely inflow is not sufficient for the crops in Karnataka and for meeting the drinking water requirements of towns and villages, including Bengaluru.
When the matter was called for hearing on August 25, at the very outset, a bench comprising Justices B. R. Gavai, P. S. Narasimha and Prashant Kumar Mishra asked: “Why don’t you approach the CWMA? We do not have any expertise.”
On Tamil Nadu’s claim of non-implementation of CWMA directions, the Supreme Court ordered the water management authority to submit a report before the court by September 1.
“We do not possess any expertise in the matter… It will be appropriate that CWMA submit its report as to whether the directions issued for discharge of water have been complied or not,” it ordered.
Also, the top court declined to pass any interim direction relating to release of Cauvery water from Karnataka dams.
Senior advocate Shyam Divan, representing Karnataka, submitted before the top court that it has already released water pursuant to the directions passed by the CWMA and it takes three days time for water to travel to Tamil Nadu. He also apprised the top court that Karnataka has filed a plea before CWMA to review its earlier directions.
On the contrary, senior advocate Mukul Rohtagi, appearing for the Tamil Nadu government, said that Karnataka should immediately release water as there exists a huge water deficit in Tamil Nadu.
The matter might gain momentum after the top court has sought a report from CWMA and asked it to decide claims made by the two states, which is due to meet on August 26 to decide distribution of water for next fortnight between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
The Supreme Court has posted the matter for hearing on September 1.
As a matter of fact, Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC) on August 10 directed the State of Karnataka to release from its reservoirs 15,000 cusecs from August 11 for the next 15 days.
Later, this quantity of water was reduced to 10,000 cusecs by the CWMA in its 22nd meeting held on August 11.
The decision irked both governments. Karnataka said that it will request reconsideration of the order directing it to release water from Cauvery river to Tamil Nadu for 15 days.
Farmers in Tamil Nadu resorted to staging protests on the streets. Tamil Nadu said that around 4 million farmers and 10 million labourers will be affected as they depend on Mettur water for their livelihood, adding that agricultural operations, including amba cultivation, in the Cauvery delta are suffering for want of adequate water.
The CWMA and CWRC were established under the Cauvery Water Management Scheme, 2018, framed by the Central Government Under the Inter State River Water Disputes Act, 1956. These panels were formed for implementation of the final order passed by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) in 2007 as modified by the Supreme Court in 2018.
Karnataka offers a solution to the water scarcity saying that had the Mekedatu Balancing Reservoir-cum-Drinking Water project been constructed, the surplus water could have been used during the months of June and July to mitigate the distress in Tamil Nadu.
It has been aggressively mooting the construction of a dam at Mekedatu across the Cauvery river which has led to concerns in Tamil Nadu.
But, the DMK government in Tamil Nadu has openly stated that it would not allow the Karnataka government to construct a dam across Mekedatu flouting the Cauvery water agreement and had already taken the matter to the Supreme Court.