SC refuses to intervene in Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka, TN

The court noted that the CWRC order for 13–27 September had taken into consideration the water shortage in the river

The Supreme Court of India (photo: National Herald archives)
The Supreme Court of India (photo: National Herald archives)

Ashlin Mathew

The Supreme Court refused to entertain an application by the Tamil Nadu government and said both the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA) and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC) were monitoring the water levels and requirement every 15 days, which the court asked the authority to continue doing.

A bench of Justice BR Gavai, Justice PS Narasimha and Justice Prashant Kumar Mishra pointed out that both the panels consist of experts, and hence the court would not interfere with the CWMA order that directed Karnataka to release 5,000 cusecs of water at Biligundlu for 15 days. The court noted that the CWRC had, in its order pertaining to the period of 13–27 September, taken into consideration the water shortage in the Cauvery river.

"These are rival claims. Tamil Nadu wants 7,200 cusecs; Karnataka is saying they can give only 2,000 cusecs," Justice Gavai said. "We are not inclined to interfere. They [CWMA and CMRA] are monitoring and reviewing it every 15 days. It is a body consisting of various experts and they have given their reasons."

Senior advocate Shyam Divan, appearing for Karnataka, stated that the CWMA order was against the interests of the farmers and people of Karnataka. But, it noted, the state had still complied with the order. "Karnataka doesn't even get the benefit of the north-east monsoons, which Tamil Nadu gets,” Divan underscored.

Appearing for Tamil Nadu, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi argued that the CWMA has reduced the amount of water to be released to 5,000 cusecs though it knows that 7,200 cusecs have to be released. He underscored that it was a distress year for everyone.

The Tamil Nadu government had submitted its petition to the Supreme Court on 14 August 2023, asking it to direct Karnataka to release 24,000 cusecs of Cauvery water daily for standing crops. The Karnataka government had submitted an affidavit stating that it wants its stand to be heard, so that it might protect the interests of its farmers.

Karnataka wanted to release water to its neighbouring state after taking into account its own needs for drinking water and crop irrigation in the Cauvery river basin. It had highlighted its worry over the rainfall deficit in the Cauvery region.

In Karnataka, there had been a water shortage in several districts since June, leading the government to prepare for a drought. Between June and mid-August, Karnataka recorded 499.4 mm of rainfall against the normal of 587.9 mm, which is a deficit of 15 per cent.

What was also worrisome is that in August, the state had recorded only 29.6 mm of rainfall, when the normal is 135 mm for the month, with the Indian Meteorological Department predicting isolated rain in the state over the next two weeks. Kodagu district, where the Cauvery river originates, has seen a rainfall deficit of 91 per cent this monsoon.

In the first week of August, the CWMA stated that the Cauvery basin reservoirs in Karnataka were facing a 42.54 per cent shortfall in inflow owing to poor monsoon in the catchment areas. The water in the dams on the river in Karnataka — Krishna Raja Sagara Dam, Hemavathy dam, Harangi Dam and Kabini Dam — were all at low levels and well below capacity.

In contrast, Tamil Nadu has had normal rainfall this season, but farmers in the region depend on the Cauvery for irrigation — which was why Tamil Nadu had sought the Supreme Court's direction for Karnataka to release 24,000 cusecs from its reservoirs. The state also wants the top court to ensure that Karnataka releases 36.76 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) for the month of September, making good the shortfall of 28.849 tmcft for the period of 1 June to 31 July.

A direction was given to Karnataka on 10 August to release 15,000 cusecs at Billigundulu on 11 August for 15 days. However, this was reduced to 10,000 cusecs by the Cauvery Water Management Authority, said Tamil Nadu in court.

An annual tug-of-war

Though the dispute has been raging since the late 1960s, the Supreme Court only intervened in 1990 and directed then prime minister VP Singh to constitute a tribunal. So the Cauvery River Water Authority was constituted, with the prime minister and the chief ministers of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala being in it.

The authority came up with several proposals, but things came to a head again in 2002, when the monsoon failed in both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

In 2007, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal gave its final verdict, against which first Karnataka and then Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court.

Eventually, in 2018, the Supreme Court lowered the amount of water due to Tamil Nadu to 404.25 tmcft from the 419 tmcft allotted by the tribunal. The apex court also allotted Karnataka 270 tmcft, which was 14.75 tmcft more than the tribunal's award.

In a normal rainfall year, therefore, Karnataka has to release 177.25 tmcft of water to TN from the inter-state Biligundlu dam. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said in meeting that 39.6 tmcft had been released till September 10, given the contingencies of the monsoon deficit and droughts.

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