The Cauvery resolution passed by the Karnataka assembly last Friday is a balancing act to calm a restive domestic constituency and address the Supreme Court, which has refused to accept the Siddaramaiah government’s plea that the state has no water to part with. The carefully-worded resolution, unanimously passed by the assembly, does not say the state will not follow the SC’s directive on water release. Instead, it points to the depleted storage in the Cauvery reservoirs and says that in the face of the acute distress the government can allow water to be drawn from the reservoirs only to meet “the drinking water requirements of the villages and towns in the Cauvery basin and the entire city of Bengaluru”. The Cauvery basin, of course, includes downstream Tamil Nadu, while water is sought by that state also for the current paddy crop. Karnataka, clearly, wants to separate the quantum of water necessary to meet household needs from that needed for irrigation purposes.
A nuanced approach is necessary to resolve the current stand-off. Though the Karnataka chief minister has said his government has no intention to disregard the orders of the court, it seems the state is most likely to ask for more time and a reduction in the quantum of water to be released downstream. State legislatures have in the past — Punjab and Karnataka in 2002, for instance — taken on the SC, causing a constitutional crisis. While, inter-state water-sharing disputes land in court after government-to-government talks fail, political parties must recognise that courts may not be the best place to resolve them. An enduring solution requires that there should not be a winner or a loser in a water dispute, which a court judgment is likely to result in. Governments will need to be sensitive to the other party’s claims and nuance their demands. Political parties will have to shun rhetoric and build consensus so that the needs of a river basin are met without compromising principles of equity.
Inter-state river water-sharing pacts are likely to be contested by the states in the basin for a variety of reasons. Historical usage patterns, reflecting the imbalance in the development of the basin, are likely to be questioned as less developed regions seek more water. Odisha and Chhattisgarh are now headed for a stand-off over the Mahanadi and tensions are on the rise in Karnataka and Goa over the Mahadayi waters. Parties and governments need to adopt reasonable positions on inter-state rivers and acknowledge their common stakes in enduring solutions.