To explain the Supreme Court (SC) judgment in the Cauvery River Water Dispute case to Bengalureans, let me present a scenario.
Imagine you have a very large family that keeps growing. You want to build one single high rise building to accommodate all of them on different floors. You apply for permission. However, the authorities permit you to build a mere six floors. You choose to violate the permission. You keep building additional floors and you stop only at 19.
Your family jostles for space to occupy the building. While some of your family members manage to occupy the building, 45% of them can’t be fitted in due to the lack of space. They stay put on the sides. The authorities take notice of your violation and want to raze the building to the ground. You rush to a Court. However, you forget to tell the Court that you have already built 19 floors. So, the Court doesn’t know this vital fact about your building. It makes a few calculations and tells you that it is giving you some relief by allowing your building to have 4 more floors – over and above the licensed six floors. And, the authorities are directed to enforce that your building limit itself to 10 floors and to keep a watch over you. Would you celebrate this turn of events?
Depends on how things are first communicated to you by your lawyer. How would you react if you were told, without any sugar coating, that the building is now legal only to the extent of 10 floors, and that the authorities would demolish the nine unlicensed floors.
This is the future Bengalureans find themselves facing after the SCs judgment on Friday. But the lawyers for the Karnataka government welcomed today’s SC verdict. So did uninformed common people and political party members , who have held celebrations at a few places in Karnataka. But, reality is bound to creep up on all very soon.
Bengaluru’s share in Cauvery waters
It is a fact that most lawyers have a hard time digesting that the Constitution of India expressly bars the SC from deciding inter state river water disputes (Article 262). Accordingly, a different scheme exists for resolution of these disputes.
The Central government constituted the Cauvery River Water Dispute Tribunal in 1990. In February 2007 it issued its final judgment. Let us touch here only on the aspects that concern the drinking water needs of Bengaluru in the Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry.
In the area of water sharing, there is a long-held rule around the world. That is, only people living within the river basin can claim that water. Accordingly, cities like Belgaum or Hubli in Northern Karnataka cannot claim water from the Cauvery water – just as as Bengaluru cannot claim any water from the Mahadayi river in Northern Karnataka. Also, the Tribunal or the Courts do not recognise the demand of any specific city or town for its water. The responsibility for earmarking water for specific areas is the job of the concerned State government.
In its representation to the Tribunal the Karnataka Government had sought a large quantity of water for its drinking needs. The Tribunal made its calculations and awarded only 8.75 tmc (thousand million cubic feet) as the drinking water supply for all the villages, towns and cities in Karnataka as their share of drinking water from Cauvery. All the four States appealed against the decision in the SC. Meanwhile, the Tribunal’s Order was not strictly implemented and Tamil Nadu repeatedly complained to the SC about such non-implementation by Karnataka.
It appears that the Karnataka Government never informed the SC about the actual state of facts with regard to Bengaluru’s present water consumption. Remember the scenario painted in the beginning? The verdict of the SC brings about a similar solution to Bengaluru– shave off 9 floors from your 19-floor building
While cities like Bengaluru, Coorg, Mandya, Mysore, Hassan and the numerous towns and villages were supposed to manage with just 8.75 tmc of Cauvery water for their drinking needs in keeping with the terms of the Tribunal’s Order, Bengaluru went on to draw 19 tmc annually. To repeat, Bengaluru is already drawing 19 tmc annually from the Cauvery river each year; 45% of its population does not have access to this water and resorts pumping out deteriorated and fast-depleting groundwater. From a population of about 45 lakhs and a size of 226 sq km in 1991 (when the Karnataka Government was cautioned by the Tribunal to keep Bengaluru’s growth in check), Bengaluru has now swelled to a population of 1.35 crores and measures 773 sq km officially, and about 1000 sq km in reality.
The SC for its part also made a detailed calculation and proceeded to say that more water must be awarded to Bengaluru as it had grown immensely in recent years. So, the SC has increased the drinking water share of Karnataka by 4.75 tmc. Thereby, what was awarded by the Tribunal as 8.75 tmc for Karnataka is now 13.5 tmc only. And, remember that this 13.5 tmc is the supply for all the cities, towns and villages situated in the Cauvery basin including, Bengaluru.
More importantly, the Cauvery Monitoring Committee will be established shortly and it is asked to ensure that these ‘careful allocations’ are not breached. So, Bengaluru, that is already drawing 19 tmc of Cauvery water and can only feed 55% of its population, will now be asked to drastically cut water consumption so that all sister cities, towns and villages in the Cauvery basin in Karnataka make do with just 13.5 tmc annually. Would you celebrate this turn of events?
So, which segment of Bengaluru’s population will first see its water taps turned off? I can foresee who will be hit the hardest – poor and middle-class neighbourhoods and the slums.
It appears that the Karnataka Government never informed the SC about the actual state of facts with regard to Bengaluru’s present water consumption. Remember the scenario painted in the beginning? The verdict of the SC brings about a similar solution to Bengaluru– shave off 9 floors from your 19-floor building!
We cannot blame the SC for what it has done. In fact, it has done an unprecedented thing for Karnataka by modifying the Order of the Tribunal and has accorded more water to Bengaluru despite knowledge of the fact that much of it falls outside the Cauvery basin.
As a Constitutional lawyer (and without regard for the Cauvery water dispute and the ramifications that flow to the riparian States from the SC’s judgment) I am now worried if the SC has opened up a Pandora’s box by explicitly going against a Constitutional injunction to keep out of inter-state river water disputes.
India has 14 very large inter-state rivers, and nine out of her 44 medium size rivers are inter-state rivers. States that were diligently following the orders of Tribunals in other inter-state river water disputes may now line up before the SC asking for similar modifications in their cases as well. God alone knows what lies in store for the parts of our country facing water shortage in the future.
What is certain, however, is that Bengaluru is poised for a disaster. And, you should know whom to blame. It is the Karnataka Government for not even informing the SC about how much water Bengaluru currently draws from the Cauvery.
If I am asked for a legal solution to solve Bengaluru’s woes, I will be honest to admit I don’t know the answer. I don’t think anyone else knows either. It is time for us to admit that Bengalureans have been left in the lurch. Do press the panic button, if you have to.
(KV Dhananjay is an advocate at the Supreme Court of India)