When nothing else works, go to the Supreme Court. This seems to have become the mantra of every contending party foiled by an adamant opponent. Having failed to persuade Karnataka of its rights to its share of Cauvery water on the established pro rata basis in times of distress, Tamil Nadu turned to the Supreme Court. Ms J. Jayalalithaa’s appeal to Karnataka was based on the immediate need of farmers, whose standing kuruvai crop has reportedly already been destroyed by the lack of irrigation water and whose samba crop is now threatened. But this was not just a state to state appeal. There was no necessity for that, since there is a system in place for monitoring the flow in the Cauvery and deciding on the shares of water for the different basin states at normal times and in times of distress. There is the Cauvery River Authority with the prime minister at its head, as well as a monitoring committee and a tribunal. Sharing of waters among states has never been a peaceful activity. Agricultural production in the basins is a sensitive issue and an important factor in electoral politics as well as the overall economy of a state. Almost inevitably, regional chauvinism becomes an element in the negotiations over water and the tussles over the height of dams. In the absence of a national water grid, ad hoc decisions have often been taken to the Supreme Court for arbitration. The matter is far from legal in the broadest sense. For justice in water-sharing, what is needed is expert monitoring and updated technology. The various monitoring or directing bodies that Ms Jayalalithaa has had to face, for example, have been put in place by the directions of the Supreme Court to the government. Yet they are powerless if a state government decides to ignore them, as the Karnataka government evidently did. Therefore the Supreme Court. And the Karnataka government will follow the court’s interim order and release 1.25 thousand million cubic feet of water to Tamil Nadu daily until the monitoring committee puts in its report and the river authority comes to its decision.
It is a bizarre and somewhat alarming situation. Karnataka will listen to what the Supreme Court says, but not to the CRA till the court reiterates that the river authority’s decision is final. The entire system is turning out to be ineffective; it is almost as if the Supreme Court alone is vested with the fear-inspiring authority needed for compliance. Given the total lack of discipline and sense of civilized order among politicians, political parties and governments, the growing imbalance in the democratic structure comes as no surprise. The vacuum in administration and governance has forced on the judiciary the role of arbiter in matters beyond its purview.