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Today in Cauvery: SC threatens ‘wrath of law’ but has few options • Draws battle lines for 6 Oct climax

6 October is likely to be the climax in the ongoing Cauvery hearing in the Supreme Court, if one were to interpret today’s outcome in Court No 4 in the afternoon.

The apex court today directed Karnataka to release 6,000 cusecs every day to TN from Oct 1 to 6.

We explain who said what at today’s hearing and what it may mean in practice.

So, finally, the Supreme Court acknowledged that Karnataka’s defiance of its orders to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu would invite the wrath of law!

Well, that is how Justices Dipak Misra-Uday Umesh Lalit bench’s order reads at the end ("The State of Karnataka should not be bent upon maintaining a stand of defiance, where the wrath of law fall on them").

But it does not elaborate what the wrath of the law would be.

So, how did it all begin today? One thought the bench would run out of patience today.

No, the bench appears to be giving a long rope to Karnataka to amend its attitude, and fall in line.

One can read some strong signals from the bench today that it means business, rather than just using some strong language, for the sake of the media.

First, it heard the Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi give an account of the efforts of the Union Water Resources Ministry in arranging a meeting between the feuding States, to discuss the issue across the table, and incorporated the minutes of the meeting in the order dictated at the end.

Second, it also recorded the correspondence between Karnataka’s counsel, Fali Nariman and the Chief Minister of Karnataka, to show who is responsible for the state’s defiance.

Today, when Nariman took a holier-than-thou attitude, keeping a distance from the political executive, the bench showed its appreciation of his helplessness and restraint.

Third, it said it understood Tamil Nadu’s “anguish”, although Justice Dipak Misra told its counsel, Shekhar Naphade, that there could be a better word to describe its agony.

What do strong signals from the Supreme Court look like?

It advanced the deadline for constituting the Cauvery Management Board, which has to send experts to visit the site, and assess the situation in reality. The board has to be constituted within three days, as the AG showed his readiness to try, and saw no difficulty in trying.

Remember, Karnataka was responsible for delaying the formation of the board, which the Tribunal’s final decision in 2007 made it mandatory.

(Read more about the background in this explainer on the dispute).

So, Karnataka appears to be losing the next round, even if it has stood its ground this time.

The Board’s decision will be binding on it, because its members will be there in the board.

The second signal is that when the AG requested that he could offer some solutions in the chamber of Justice Dipak Misra, Tamil Nadu opposed it and Justice Dipak Misra himself declined the offer, saying it should be decided in the open court.

Why did the AG want a private meeting with the judges?

It is not clear what the AG wanted to suggest in chambers, which he could not in the open court.

But he did say that the Centre is a hapless spectator in the entire drama.

And the bench made the usual observations on the majesty of law, and how it is threatened by Karnataka’s defiance?

Of course.

But it also observed that there was an infraction of its earlier orders, and took note of Karnataka’s difficulties as well. It is a balancing act, in one way.

So, what can happen on 6 October?

It will take note of the newly constituted Board’s report on the real situation on the ground, and how much water Karnataka can spare, before deciding what to do next?

But if its non-compliance continues, what would be the bench’s options?

There’d be very limited options, of course.

Any symbolic punishment like a day’s imprisonment for the chief minister for contempt, would only make him a hero in the state.

Remember, it brought to notice Article 144 of the Constitution, which requires all authorities, civil and judicial, in the territory of India to act in the aid of the Supreme Court to implement its orders.

So, the expectation is that it can direct the authorities, overlooking the political executive, to implement its orders.

But one has to wait and see how it exercises this option.

But don’t expect dismissal of the state Government through a court’s fiat. It is not going to happen.

Nor will the Centre take this risk, even though the defiance may constitute a breakdown of the Constitution.

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