Tamil Nadu’s statewide rail blockade on the Cauvery issue, which has now ended, has brought Karnataka’s role in the dispute into intense focus yet again. Karnataka’s initial refusal to abide by the Supreme Court’s order to release Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu may have been not only contemptible, many legal experts believe that it amounted to a breakdown of its internal constitutional machinery. What is distressing, however, is that the chief minister and his Cabinet sought to conceal their omissions behind a resolution of the assembly, wrongly assuming that the writ of the Supreme Court would not run there. Strangely, Karnataka’s legal team attempted to renegotiate the court’s orders instead of abiding by them, virtually bargaining with the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, the state’s controversial approach in respect of acquiring water does not end with Tamil Nadu. The Mahadayi river dispute, between Karnataka and Goa, is another disturbing example of Karnataka’s water policy. While the state is desperately looking to divert river water away from the Mahadayi river, called Mandovi in Goa, it has faced legal hurdles because the river sustains nearly all of Goa’s drinking water and navigational needs. The Mandovi also feeds the fragile but ecologically rich Mahadayi Wildlife Sanctuary. For the time being, mercifully, Karnataka has been restrained by a specially constituted tribunal to not divert any water from the Mandovi to the Malaprabha river basin. Karnataka has claimed that it needs the excess water to meet its drinking water needs, although it is yet to substantiate this demand. In the midst of this dispute, which is currently being heard by a tribunal headed by an eminent former Supreme Court judge, Karnataka moved an interlocutory application, seeking an interim release of seven TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water to tide over what it claims is a drought.
What was unexpected, however, was Karnataka’s suppression of information in its application about its allocation of existing water resources. It was only later — during the course of heated arguments between Goa’s advocate general Atmaram Nadkarni and Karnataka counsel Fali Nariman — that it emerged that Karnataka had not disclosed that it was diverting enormous quantities of water to a Cola bottling plant in Dharwad and also to water-guzzling sugarcane plantations. If the requirement was genuine, the right approach for the state would have been to first commission an Environmental Impact Assessment.
What shocked many neutral observers was the state’s insistence before the tribunal that it be allowed to lift water without first considering its environmental impact — which is a statutory requirement.
Karnataka ought to now listen to expert environmentalists and hydrologists, and scrap the proposed diversion. Being the upper riparian state, it also owes a duty to its lower riparian neighbour to not act unilaterally.
Jai Dehadrai is an advocate in the Supreme Court
The views expressed are personal