Triggering Water Wars

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Karnataka’s water-sharing policy raises questions of impropriety. And Cauvery is not the only river under dispute. The Mahadayi is also a point of contention, this time with Goa

By Jai Dehadrai

Is Karnataka’s river water sharing policy suspect? Does it raise questions of impropriety? The state’s  initial refusal to abide by the Supreme Court’s  orders to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu may not only have been contemptible, but many legal experts believe that it amounted to a breakdown of its internal constitutional machinery.

This could have potentially jeopardized the state government had the center invoked President’s Rule. In such a scenario, the president would assume the powers of the state governor and could dissolve the assembly if there is compelling evidence of unconstitutionality.

What is distressing, however, is that the Karnataka chief minister and his cabinet sought to cloak their omissions behind a resolution of the state assembly—wrongly assuming that the writ of the Supreme Court would not penetrate it. Strangely, Karnataka’s legal team attempted to renegotiate the apex court’s orders, instead of abiding by them, virtually bargaining with the highest court in the land.

Unfortunately, Karnataka’s controversial approach when it comes to acquiring water does not end with Tamil Nadu. The Mahadayi river dispute, between Karnataka and Goa, is another disturbing example of the government’s questionable water policy.

Unfortunately, Karnataka’s controversial approach when it comes to acquiring water does not end with Tamil Nadu. The Mahadayi river dispute, between Karnataka and Goa, is another disturbing example of the government’s questionable 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.

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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 not to divert any water away 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 presently being heard by the tribunal headed by an eminent former Supreme Court judge, Karnataka moved an interlocutory application seeking an interim release of 7 TMC of water to tide over an alleged drought.

What was unexpected, however, was Karnataka’s suppression of certain incriminating information about its allocation of existing water resources in its application. It was only later, during the course of heated arguments between Goa’s advocate-general Atmaram Nadkarni and Karnataka’s 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.

Karnataka’s brusque attempt to allot itself water, under the guise of an interim relief, may have been aimed at accumulating political capital. If the requirement were indeed genuine, the right approach for the state would have been to first commission an environmental impact assessment.

What shocked many neutral observers was Nariman’s insistence before the tribunal that the state be allowed to lift water without first considering its environmental impact— which is both, a statutory requirement and also the law laid down in a catena of Supreme Court decisions.

But be that as it may. Karnataka ought to now pay heed to expert environmentalists and hydrologists, and scrap their proposed diversion. Being the upper riparian state, Karnataka also owes a duty to its lower riparian neighbor to not act unilaterally. Nariman would do well to advise his clients (assuming that he still holds the brief) to respect the law of the land and the dictates of the Supreme Court.

The author is an advocate in the Supreme Court

Lead picture: (L-R) Pro-Kannada organisations staging protest rally as part of their Karnataka Bandh called against Supreme Court’s verdict on Cauvery water issue in Bengaluru. Photo: UNI; Mahadayi River (Mandovi in Goa), which is at the centre of controversy. Photo: www.goaprism.com          

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