Sharing the Cauvery

Will talks between Karnataka, Tamil Nadu CMs mark the return of political decision-making to the dispute?

After an interregnum of 15 years, the chief ministers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu will meet to discuss ways out of the Cauvery water-sharing stalemate. This sudden spirit of conciliation was prompted by the Supreme Court, which asked the two CMs to "sit together" before November 30, when the court will hear a petition by the Tamil Nadu government asking Karnataka to release 52.8 tmc of water by February 2013. The last bilateral meeting, held in 1997, had yielded no significant results. Indeed, after the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal was formed in 1991, decisions on the long-festering conflict had largely moved out of the political arena and into the realm of courts and tribunals.

The fragile equilibrium achieved by the tribunal's interim order of 1991 has been broken mainly during distress years. With water lying low in the catchments, both states have suffered from shortages this year. Karnataka released less than the stipulated amount during its cropping season, citing distress conditions. With growing protests in the state, it also broke with the Cauvery River Authority's directive to release 9,000 cusecs a day to Tamil Nadu till October 15. The cropping season in Karnataka is now over and the retreating monsoons have brought some relief to Tamil Nadu. This window of respite could help the states work out a distress sharing formula. Yet, the political dividends of maintaining maximalist positions on both sides remain high. With Tamil Nadu's samba crop in peril, J. Jayalalithaa will be reluctant to cede ground, especially since much of her support base lies in the riparian regions. Karnataka goes to the table with heavy demands for water stemming from rapid urbanisation, particularly in Bangalore.

For both states, sharing the Cauvery is an emotive issue, with deep roots in their political and popular cultures. It is because political positions were so congealed that the dispute moved to the courts. Of course, courts can only announce winners and losers; they cannot replace the give and take of a political consensus. The bleak history of political negotiations on the dispute does not offer much hope for these talks. But both parties are, perhaps, 15 years wiser.

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