In trying to find a balanced solution to the Cauvery water dispute between upper riparian Karnataka and downstream Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, the Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice of India may have apportioned water on a slightly modified sharing formula. While the formula may not be based on any exact science and more likely derived from historical practices, the judges reiterated an important fundamental principle — no state can claim ownership of a river. The Helsinki, Campione and Berlin Rules of equitable water sharing were also upheld, as were national water policies. Even so, the collective scenario may leave room for further conciliation. The judges ruled in the best way they could while juggling various clashing arguments. A sense of relief at finality — at least for the next 15 years — having been arrived at is welcome, regardless of how the apportioning is viewed by the different parties.
If we were to pick one salient point of the judgment, it’s to do with the judges having addressed the historical uncertainties of decision-making on this issue to come forward with a formula that can be made to work. They also upheld the tribunal’s determination of the irrigated area of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. They even asserted that in six weeks a scheme for implementing the award must be put in place by the Centre without any wiggle room. This in effect validates the creation of a Cauvery Management Board. Looking at the order in its totality, it is difficult to either justify Karnataka’s elation or Tamil Nadu being downcast, even if in sheer physical terms Tamil Nadu is hit by a drop in its share by 10 tmc as it has 20 tmc of exploitable groundwater.
No one will begrudge the 4.75 tmc earmarked for Bengaluru’s drinking water needs as the IT capital of over a crore inhabitants is on a list of global cities like Cape Town most likely to run out of water. Where the entire Cauvery issue becomes irksome and tiringly political is in supervising the obligation of water release to downstream states. Irrespective of what the quantum of awards has been over three different centuries, in a dispute that began in 1880, the fact remains that far less water was allowed to flow below Billigundlu. The reasons may have been scanty monsoons or otherwise, but the highest amount of water released in most recent years has been 112 tmc in the current good monsoon year. Any formula is only partially fulfilled if the full realisation of water is not permitted. How this will be addressed without a national will to ensure fair play is a riddle that not even the judges’ collective wisdom would suffice to unravel. The Cauvery’s waters will remain contentious, which is a pity as the will to show the way forward has been shown by the Supreme Court.