What is sauce for the goose may not always be sauce for the gander. So while the notification of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was welcomed as a birthday gift by the Tamil Nadu chief minister, it was panned by both the political establishment and the people of Karnataka. Yet, just a month ago, both the states had declared that they had no objection to the notification, which has already had to wait for six years since it was awarded in 2007. Despite giving assent, Karnataka, it seems, wanted its clarification petition before the tribunal to be dealt with first. It would perhaps have been most practical for that job to have been disposed of before the notification; but without a chairman, the tribunal is prevented from working any faster. The state of the tribunal, together with the circuitous route the Cauvery issue has had to follow in and out of the Supreme Court, shows that back-pedalling on a decision has been the favourite exercise with political regimes at the Centre and in the states. That habit is likely to die hard, although the notification puts in place a Cauvery management board, and a water regulation committee to work under it. The board is supposed to function as an inter-state forum that will monitor the stipulated release of 192 thousand million cubic feet of water to Tamil Nadu by Karnataka every year and secure compliance, with its representatives placed in each of the eight reservoirs in the basin states.
As a legal framework for the beginnings of a solution to an acrimonious problem, the notification is undoubtedly a necessary instrument. But an equally necessary element in this arrangement is political will, which has never been found in sufficient amount. Had it been there, the Cauvery river authority, which had the responsibility to adjudicate under the leadership of the prime minister, would not have been such a miserable flop. It was the presumed bias of the CRA, and the political colour of the prime minister, that came in the way. The board may not escape a similar blame given that it can never hope to please all the parties in the dispute or to stop its politicization. It would be prudent for the riparian states to work towards an agreeable formula for water distribution during the distress years, an aspect that has not been addressed yet by the tribunalís award. Equally, the states should focus on reducing their dependence on the shrinking Cauvery waters.