The Karnataka legislature on Friday unanimously passed a resolution, stating that water from the Cauvery must only be drawn for drinking water, effectively declining to release water to Tamil Nadu. With this decision, the state government may invite the Supreme Court’s ire.
Backed into a corner by the low levels of water in the reservoirs and mounting political pressure, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah convened a joint legislature session on Friday to take a call on whether to implement the Supreme Court’s September 20 order to release 6,000 cusecs of water to Tamil Nadu.
Both Houses passes unanimous resolutions, stating that Karnataka was making this decision under “acute distress” as the combined storage had reached alarmingly low levels”.
Siddaramaiah is not the only Chief Minister who has been pushed into such a position. His predecessors, SM Krishna and S Bangarappa, too faced similar circumstances but ultimately complied with the Supreme Court’s orders. Siddaramaiah’s position, however, maybe unprecedented.
During his tenure as CM, SM Krishna temporarily defied the Supreme Court’s order on the release of Cauvery water in 2002. On October 4 that year, the Supreme Court had ordered the Karnataka government to release 0.8 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu. The Karnataka government, however, refused to release the water.
On October 26, the Supreme Court severely criticised the SM Krishna government, and issued it an ultimatum to release the water or face charges of contempt of court.
As a result, Krishna was forced to issue an unconditional apology, deal more firmly with protestors in Mandya and release the water mandated by the Court.
Luckily for the Krishna government, copious rainfall in the catchment areas of both states eased the situation in time. However, Krishna’s popularity took a serious beating after that, and he has not been very active in state politics since then.
S Bangarappa’s tenure witnessed violent riots during which many lives were lost. On June 25, 1991, the Cauvery Water Disputes’ Tribunal passed an interim order directing the Karnataka government to ensure that 205 tmcft of water reached Tamil Nadu in a year, between June 1 and May 31. In a bid to outmanoeuvre the Tribunal, Bangarappa passed an ordinance in July to nullify the interim order. Later that month, the Supreme Court struck down the ordinance.
In December, the central government published the interim award in the gazette, making the order binding on the Karnataka government. Kannada groups declared a bandh and goons began roaming the streets from December 13, attacking Tamil-speaking people. The government officially maintains that 18 people were killed.
The vandalism and arson witnessed in Bengaluru on September 12 this year, was of a very different nature and under different circumstances, too. Two people lost their lives, but investigation is still underway on whether it was directly related to the vandalism seen that day. One person at least, died of bullet injuries after police fired into the crowd.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s position is unique. The state government maintains that the water left in the reservoirs is simply not enough to implement the order of the Court and meet the drinking water needs of Bengaluru, Mysuru and Mandya, for which the river’s water is primarily used.
Given that the Court had in the past threatened SM Krishna – a fellow Congress party member leader – with contempt proceedings, Siddaramaiah has to tread carefully. Disobeying the Court’s order invites contempt charges by default: anyone can move a contempt motion, even if the SC doesn’t take suo moto cognizance of it.
In the event that the state government does not implement the SC order, the Chief Secretary is liable for contempt proceedings.
However, senior advocates say that the government could find a way out if it could prove that the contempt was not wilful. Former Advocate General Ashok Haranahalli told The New Indian Express that the government could argue that implementing the SC order was impossible, thereby resulting in contempt.
Unlike Bangarappa’s tactic of passing an ordinance, Siddaramaiah chose the route of political consensus, which may work in his favour. In Ashok’s opinion, Siddaramaiah’s decision to hold an all-party meeting followed by a joint legislature session, may work in the state government’s favour in the SC.
Other senior advocates, however, opine that disobeying the Supreme Court sets a bad precedent, even though it could be argued that the drinking water needs of a state come before the irrigation needs of a neighbouring state in a riparian dispute.