New government to face first test over Cauvery waters

Bangalore, June 8 (IANS) The new Congress government is set to face the heat over sharing the Cauvery river water just as it completes a month in office next week. Karnataka may have to release river water to Tamil Nadu even though the monsoon is yet to hit the state.

"The monsoon is still weak," the met department in Bangalore said, though many areas in the state received good pre-monsoon showers.

Karnataka, like many other states, is hoping that the monsoon would be good this year. It was very poor last year, leaving four-fifths of the state, including Bangalore's outskirts, under severe drought.

While a bad monsoon year leads to an intense dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing the Cauvery water, the problem for the new Congress government in Karnataka is that the party is also leading the central government.

With the Lok Sabha elections due in a year, the Congress at the national level has to do a fine balancing act to keep both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, where it is pretty weak, happy. This is because the central government would be the arbiter if the two states continue to wrangle.

Though the dispute has been in the Supreme Court for several years now, and often the apex court has ordered Karnataka to release water, it has also been directing the central government to resolve the dispute.

The water of the Cauvery river, which originates in Karnataka and flows into the Bay of Bengal, is shared by Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, as per the 2007 award by the Cauvery Disputes Tribunal. The award has, however, been challenged in the Supreme Court by Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

The dispute becomes acute in a bad monsoon year, though the tribunal has given a "distress sharing" formula, as the two states have been contesting its fairness.

The Congress returned to power in Karnataka on its own, after nine years, in the May 5 assembly election, and Siddaramaiah took over as chief minister May 13.

On June 12, the Cauvery Supervisory Committee, set up by the central government on the Supreme Court's order, will meet in New Delhi to decide on the quantum of water Karnataka has to release to Tamil Nadu in June.

The committee is headed by the secretary in the union ministry of water resources and has the chief secretaries of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry as its members.

The committee met for the first time June 1 to consider Tamil Nadu's demand for 1.2 TMC feet (thousand million cubic feet) of Cauvery water in the first 10 days of June for its rice crop.

Karnataka said it had no water in its reservoirs and wanted the committee to wait till June-end to see how the monsoon, which usually hits the state June 7, behaves.

Rejecting Karnataka's demand, the committee has called the June 12 meeting in which a decision on the quantum of water to be released immediately to Tamil Nadu might be taken.

Siddaramaiah and the Congress party would be in a tight spot, as he has ruled out any release in June, when Karnataka's farmers too need water at the beginning of the sowing season.

Ahead of the June 12 meeting, an all-party meet in Bangalore Thursday decided to seek a reduction in Tamil Nadu's share, particularly in the four months from June to September.

The Cauvery tribunal has awarded Tamil Nadu 134 TMC feet of water from June to September. Karnataka wants this reduced to 97.82 TMC feet.

This is going to raise Tamil Nadu's hackles at the June 12 meeting.

The Congress will have much to be grateful for if the monsoon showers bring down plentiful rain.

(V.S. Karnic can be contacted at vs.karnic@ians.in)