Supreme Court Now Finally Settles The Cauvery Dispute



Coming straight to the nub of the matter, let me start at the very beginning by first and foremost pointing out that the Supreme Court on February 16, 2018 delivered a much-awaited 465-page landmark judgment in Civil Appeal No 2453 of 2007 The State of Karnataka by its Chief Secretary versus State of Tamil Nadu by its Chief Secretary and Ors with Civil Appeal No. 2454 of 2007 State of Kerala through the Chief Secretary to Government versus State of Tamil Nadu through the Chief Secretary to Government and others Civil Appeal No 2456 of 2007 State of Tamil Nadu through the Secretary Public Works Department versus State of Karnataka by its Chief Secretary Government of India & Ors. It marginally increased the share of Karnataka of Cauvery water. It also ordered a reduction of the allocation share for Tamil Nadu thus dashing their hopes of getting more water from Cauvery. There can be no denying that Karnataka has every reason to feel happy about it. 

While craving for the exclusive indulgence of my esteemed readers, let me inform them that a three-Judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra said Karnataka will be required to release 177.25 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water from its Billigundlu site to Mettur Dam in Tamil Nadu. This is a huge development with far reaching consequences! All parties must sincerely abide by what the top court has directed so unambiguously.

It is noteworthy that the earlier requirement under a February 2007 award by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT), was 192tmcft. But now that has been changed. The Apex Court also allocated an additional 4.75 tmcft to Bengaluru to meet the drinking water and domestic requirements of the “global city”. As a consequence, Karnataka will now get 284.75tmcft as against the 270tmcft it gets at present.

Be it noted, the allocation to Tamil Nadu stands at 414.25 tmcft annually, which includes 10tmcft on account of availability of groundwater. The state of Kerala and Puducherry would continue to receive 30tmcft and 7tmcft respectively. The Apex Court also directed the central government to constitute the Cauvery Water Management Boardwithin six weeks to supervise implementation of the order.

For my esteemed readers exclusive indulgence, let me also inform them that the Supreme Court by this landmark judgment sent out a loud and unmistakable message that, “Waters of an inter-state river passing through corridors of the riparian states constitute a national asset and no single state can claim exclusive ownership of its water”. Very rightly said! Who can question this?

Simply put, a three-Judge Bench of the Apex Court headed by CJI Dipak Misra said that, “The matter deserved to be adjudicated on a bedrock of equal status of states and doctrine of equability.” The Cauvery water dispute is more than 150 years old and has its origins in the 1894 and 1924 agreements for water sharing between then Presidency states of Madras and Mysore. The order stated that these agreements will remain in force despite the fact that the Reorganization Act, 1956 has taken effect. 

To put things in perspective, the top court largely upheld the 2007 tribunal decision and said the water allocation arrangement will exist for 15 years. It added that the tribunal’s order is binding. The allocation of water for Kerala and Puducherry remained unchanged.

Needless to say, this dispute over sharing of Cauvery water has been festering for an inexorably long period since the last 150 years. The 802-km long Cauvery river is also called the “Ganga of the South”. It originates in Kodagu district in Southern Karnataka and flows into Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. It flows mainly through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu with its basin covering parts of Kerala and Puducherry. Of its total catchment area of 81,155 square kilometers, 34,273 sq. km is in Karnataka, 44,016 square km in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry and 2,866 square km in Kerala.

Before proceeding ahead, it would be instructive to go though the history of this complex water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Only then will we be able to have a better understanding of this entire Cauvery water dispute. It runs as follows: -

1894: Water sharing agreement between the then Presidency states of Madras and Mysore.

1924: The British managed to finalise an agreement which was to function effectively for 50 years. Tamil Nadu and Puducherry would get 75% of the surplus water while Karnataka would get 23%. The remaining would go to Kerala. There were also restrictions imposed on how much land could be irrigated.

1970: The Cauvery Fact Finding Committee found that Tamil Nadu’s irrigated lands had grown from 1,440,000 acres to 2,580,000 acres while Karnataka’s irrigated area stood at 680,000 acres, resulting in an increased need of water for Tamil Nadu. Karnataka opposed this proposal.

2007: The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal holds that the two British era agreements valid but all states filed clarificatory petitions in the Supreme Court.

2013: Tamil Nadu files contempt petition in the Supreme Court against Karnataka. Chief Minister of Karnataka Siddaramaiah refuses to implement the decision to release additional water.

Sept 2016: Supreme Court directs Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs a day till Sept 15. Protests break out in Karnataka which releases water and files a plea to the Supreme Court order.

July 14, 2017: Karnataka seeks a reduction in the quantum of water it should release to Tamil Nadu.

Sept 20, 2017: The Supreme Court reserved its judgment.

Feb 16, 2018: The Supreme Court reduces Tamil Nadu’s share of Cauvery river water to 177.25 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft), down from 192tmcft allocated by a tribunal in 2007.

To be sure, the 3-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court comprising of CJI Dipak Misra, Justices Amitava Roy and AM Khanwilkar held categorically that, “In totality, we deem it appropriate to award the state of Karnataka an additional 14.75 TMC of water, i.e., 10 TMC (on account of availability of ground water in Tamil Nadu + 4.75 TMC (for drinking and domestic purposes including such need for the whole city of Bengaluru).” This is certainly a shot in the arm for Karnataka! Of course, Tamil Nadu is not very happy with this judgment.

Let me now jog my esteemed readers memory a little back. It was in February 2017 that the CWDT had determined the total availability of water in the Cauvery basin at 740tmcft. In a unanimous award, the tribunal allocated 419tmcft of water for Tamil Nadu, 270tmcft for Karnataka, 30tmcft for Kerala and seventmcft for Puducherry. It reserved 10tmcft for environment protection and fourtmcft for natural outlets into sea.

Truth be told, all the states had challenged the tribunal award before the Supreme Court which had reserved its judgment four months ago. After February 16 verdict, Karnataka has gained an upper hand as its share goes up to 284.75tmcft and Tamil Nadu’s share will now be down at 404.25tmcft. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah while apparently appearing delighted said that he was happy as the state got “some relief” while Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palaniswami appearing quite dejected from this Supreme Court’s judgment lamented that it was unfair to take into account the state’s groundwater levels.

As it turned out, in its landmark verdict, the Supreme Court placed drinking water requirements on a higher pedestal. It set aside the tribunal’s decision to “drastically reduce” Karnataka’s share of water, based on the argument that only a third of Bengaluru fell in the river basin and 50% of drinking water requirement would be met by groundwater. The Apex Court very rightly allocated 4.75tmcft for Bengaluru’s drinking water requirements, keeping in mind the “global status” of the city. Who can deny or dispute this?

It also cannot be lost on us that the tribunal had not taken into account the availability of 20 tmcft of underground water in Tamil Nadu and had rejected it as a conjecture. But the Supreme Court took into account the use of 10tmcft of this groundwater and deducted it from Tamil Nadu’s share of Cauvery water. Very rightly so! In conclusion, all the parties to the dispute must completely adhere to what the Supreme Court which is the highest court of the land has laid down in this landmark judgment! 

Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,

s/o Col BPS Sirohi,

A 82, Defence Enclave,

Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,

Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.



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