With the Supreme Court directing the Government of India to notify the final award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal by February 20, Karnataka has to brace itself to facing what it has dreaded all along: Surrendering the right of ‘ownership’ and management of the dams and control of the release of water from its side of the border to an independent Central agency.
On the flip side, Tamil Nadu, too, will have to do the same and hopefully, the game of political one-upmanship between the two state governments will come to an end.
At present the issue of sharing of Cauvery water between the four riparian states — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala — is being addressed as per the Tribunal’s interim award. Under the interim order, the prime minister headed the Cauvery River Authority (CRA) in which chief ministers of the all riparian states are members. A sub-committee, Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CMC) headed by the secretary, Water Resources Ministry assists the CRA.
Once the Centre notifies the final award of the Tribunal, institutions like CRA and the CMC will cease to exist and a new set of bodies like Cauvery Management Board (CMB) and Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC) will come into existence. The Tribunal's award will take effect within 90 days of its notification as stipulated in the Inter States Water Disputes Act.
The Cauvery Management Board will be headed by its chairman, of the rank of chief engineer having 20 years’ experience in irrigation sector in the government of India. Besides, senior officials from ministry of water resources will be its members. All the riparian states — Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala— and the Union Territory of Puducherry will have their representatives on the board, says the draft notification prepared by the Centre. This notification is currently being vetted by the Union Law Ministry.
The Cauvery Water Regulation Committee, a sub group headed by a member of the board, will be constituted to assist to the Board on water storage, crop cultivation and other related issues. The committee will comprise experts from irrigation, agriculture, animal husbandry, hydrology and related fields.
The Board’s primary task is to implement the recommendations of the final award of the tribunal on sharing of water. The prime minister or any other departments of the Centre is highly unlikely to interfere on this issue any more.
While Karnataka and other states will lose their supervisory powers over their reservoirs, the board will play a major role in administration, operation, maintenance, and regulation of supply of water from Cauvery and its tributaries to all four states. Karnataka hopes that there will be better accounting of water usage by Tamil Nadu and stricter monitering, so that Tamil Nadu’s demand will come down.
The Tribunal had determined the total availability of water in the Cauvery basin at 740 tmcft at the Lower Coleroon Anicut site. The panel gave Tamil Nadu 419 tmcft of water (as against the demand of 562 tmcft); Karnataka 270 tmcft (as against its demand of 465 tmcft); Kerala 30 tmcft and Puducherry 7 tmcft. For environmental protection, it had reserved 10 tmcft.
Though ensuring release of water from Karnataka to lower riparian states may not be a big problem when there is sufficient storage in reservoirs, the challenging task before the CMB will be to work out a formula for water-sharing in difficult years of deficient rainfall.
Soon after the gazette notification, the Tribunal’s interim order will cease to exist and the final award will be binding on the disputant states. Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have filed special leave petitions in the Supreme Court questioning various aspects of final award, which are being heard by the court, but it can not be a ground for non-compliance with the award on the part of any state. After its notification it cannot be put in limbo.
Advocates arguing for Karnataka say, still there is a ray of hope for the state. Though the tribunal has allocated 270 tmc feet of water to Karnataka, the state need not be disheartened as the chances of getting additional water will not end. The legal battle on water sharing will continue, and if Supreme Court gave additional direction on the issue, it will have to be implemented, they say.
The Tribunal had not touched on several issues including sharing of excess water, i.e. over and above 740 tmcft, in the basin area. Now, all the governments expect, the Supreme Court to address this issue during the course of its hearing of pending petitions. Still, it is a million dollar question whether an official committee will be able to handle the vexed water sharing issue without political interferences. As the final order of the Tribunal does not dwell on shelving of the CRA or CMC, Karnataka wanted them to continue, but none of the other states supported its stand.
Dismissing Karnataka apprehensions, an official in the water resources ministry says “the state is trying to rake up emotional issues rather than resolving the vexed issue”. As the Board chairman is a Central government’s senior official, there will not be any bias in its decision, says the official adding that all riparian states will be its members. As the board’s task is to implement the tribunal’s final order, there is no scope for sentiments here, says the official.
The Centre cites the example of the success of similar mechanisms in place in the Bhakra-Beas Water Management Board and the Tungabhadra Water Management Board to drive home the point that the Cauvery dispute is best managed by an independent expert body without politics coming in the way.