Cauvery River Judgement: Water Sharing Disputes and Role of Judiciary in India
A number of districts in both states are dependent on the Cauvery for irrigation, while Bengaluru gets its water from the river. The dispute of water sharing became a national problem after the re-organization of the states in 1956. Post to the partition of states, there have been protests in both the states regarding the same. In the late 20th century, Tamil Nadu was opposed to the construction of dams on the river by Karnataka.
Karnataka’s argument was that the 50-year time period for the 1924 agreement had ended in 1974, thus it was not obliged to stick to the regulations anymore, especially since the river originated in the state. This instigated a huge debate in the entire Tamil Nadu as the state is completely dependent on Cauvery for its survival.
The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) was constituted in 1990 by the Centre to resolve the dispute following a Supreme Court order. The tribunal gave Tamil Nadu 205 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) in an interim order in 1991. From 1990 to 2016 there has been a lot of discussion over the matter but a final settlement was never realized between the states.
Finally, on 16 February 2018 the bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices Amitava Roy and A M Khanwilkar gave a unanimous verdict making a minor change in the 2007 award of the CWDT, which had, of the total available 740 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of water, allotted Tamil Nadu 419 tmcft, Karnataka 270 tmcft, Kerala 30 tmcft and Puducherry 7 tmcft, while keeping aside 10 tmcft for environment protection and 4 tmcft as inevitable discharge into sea.
Authoring the judgment, CJI Misra said the share of Karnataka was increased by 14.75 tmcft because the CWDT had not taken into account two crucial factors –
(a) the availability of 10 tmcft groundwater to Tamil Nadu from the Cauvery basin and
(b) 4.75 tmcft of water required to satiate the drinking water requirements of residents of Bengaluru, a city with “global status”.
The Court also focused on the point that, “Drinking water requirement of the overall population of all the states has to be placed on a higher pedestal as we treat it as a hierarchically fundamental principle of equitable distribution.”
When it comes to the strengthening of Natural resource management policy in the nation, judiciary has been a pro-active player and from time to time it has laid precedents which offer an interesting insight into the way these judgments have been delivered by the courts of law. This ruling has also highlighted a very subtle aspect of this entire issue that is the institutional framework governing such water sharing arguments. A robust institutional framework—and a transparent one to ease state and public buy-in—is a must. Without that cooperative approach, India’s water dispute resolution is unlikely to see much improvement.
The Apex Court by upholding the approach of the CWDT, while slightly modifying its award, has boosted the prospects of a viable water-sharing arrangement among the States and has clearly underscored that no single State has primacy in accessing water resources and that rivers are national assets of a country which belong to each of its citizens, thus upholding the ancient “public trust doctrine”. The Court has also recognized the principle of equitable distribution of Inter-State Rivers in its true sense and balanced the competing genuine demands and interests of each State, by drafting a pragmatic sharing arrangement.
Author: Anushka Arora (Volunteer, Gati Foundation)