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The failure of the monsoon in Karnataka has predictably produced the latest iteration of Cauvery crisis, with the Karnataka government succumbing to popular protest and stopping the scheduled release of water to Tamil Nadu, even at the risk of creating a constitutional crisis. While the quest for an acceptable solution, particularly for distress years, continues, no resolution seems to be on the horizon, given that the claims by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu appear to depend on competing legal discourses.
Unlike other inter-state river disputes, the Cauvery basin is over-developed and the demand for irrigation and drinking water continues to rise, making such crises inevitable. During years with normal rainfall, the overflow is sufficient for Tamil Nadu's requirements. But the distress years invariably cause a crisis, and even the Cauvery tribunal did not offer a formula for distress year distribution. It did suggest the principle of proportionate adjustment but recognised that any crisis will have to be handled politically and hence left the actual management to the prime minister-led Cauvery River Authority (CRA).
It is this principle of proportionate adjustment that the agitating Kannadiga unequivocally rejects. He is oblivious to Karnataka's image elsewhere, especially in Delhi, as unreasonable, obstructionist and unneighbourly.
For the protesting farmer in Mandya and the activist in Bangalore, all the water that originates in Karnataka ought to be used in the Kannada-speaking regions of the Cauvery basin. Their claim is but a weak articulation of an absolute assertion of an upper riparian state's rights over water secured in its catchment area. Hence the argument that the water in the reservoirs of the Cauvery and its tributaries is barely adequate for Karnataka's needs.
This argument is bolstered by what might be called a folk theory of natural justice, on which Karnataka's claim for equitable distribution rests. Since the river originates in Karnataka and more than half its waters are secured there, the control over Cauvery water, especially that collected in its reservoirs, ought to remain with the Kannadigas. What the agitating Kannadiga finds puzzling, and what has added intensity to the agitation, is the rejection of his plea by the PM and the SC. He repeatedly asks if the SC and the PM are aware of the facts regarding water storage levels and the minimal requirements of Karnataka. If so, why are they demanding release of water to Tamil Nadu?