Farmers bear the brunt of political games

Farmers of Northern Karnataka have been demanding speedy implementation of the Kalasa- Banduri project even as the dispute resolution by the tribunal is likely to take a long time.

The agitation by the farmers of Northern Karnataka for the waters of the Kalasa Banduri, the two tributaries of Mahadayi, has turned out to be a struggle in the vacuum as it were. For there is absolutely no chance of their demand being met, overwhelming support all over the state including the film world notwithstanding.

The Government of Karnataka has its hands tied. It has given an undertaking to the Tribunal over a year ago that till the dispute was adjudicated, it would neither use nor divert water from the two tributaries. It has also complied with the directive of the Tribunal to plug vents of the interconnecting canal to carry the water to the Malaprabha basin. For reasons best known to itself, the state government has kept this information as a closely-guarded secret.

The Central Government in general and the Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi, in particular cannot intervene, when the Tribunal is seized of the matter. One may at this juncture remember how the then Chief Minister, Mr. Krishna escaped just by hairs breadth from being penalized by the Supreme Court, when he tried to “monkey” with the Supreme Court’s directions on the Cauvery Water dispute.

Thirdly, the Tribunal has still a long way to go before it can complete its work. It has just framed the issues for discussion and the elaborate process of examination of witnesses and cross examination is yet to follow. It is now in its second term of three years, which expires next year. And if the job cannot be done by that time, granting of one further extension of tenure cannot be ruled out.

Fourthly, Goa’s “touch me not” attitude forecloses any options of resolving the question of sharing the water through bilateral/multilateral talks.

The question under the circumstances is what made the farmers take a plunge into the agitation? The answer is simple. They do not know the nuances of the dispute. They have been deliberately put in the dark by the political establishment of Karnataka, the Congress, the BJP, and the JDS, which held the reins of power individually or severally all these years, ever since the proposal was mooted in 2001-02.     

A long way to go l The agitation for the Kalasa Banduri water for irrigation has entered a stalemate, with no option but to wait till the matter is adjudicated by the Tribunal, the wide backing, it has received from different organistions including film world notwithstanding.

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State Government cannot do anything to meet the demands of the agitating farmers since it has already given an undertaking to the Tribunal that it would not use the water till the matter is adjudicated by the Tribunal. Besides farmers’ needs are not reflected the state government’s proposal, since water is sought not for irrigation but to meet drinking water requirements of Hubli Dharwad and a couple of villages on the banks of the Malaprabha. 

The Central Government in general and the Prime Minister cannot intervene when the issue is seized by the Tribunal. 

As a dominant riparian state, Goa is vehemently opposed to diversion of Mahadayi, which is the parent river of Kalasa Banduri on grounds interalia of adverse impact on coastal ecology and environment and hence does not countenance any mediation.

Project to tap the potentials of Kalasa Banduri originated in the year 2000; more than a decade after Goa had vetoed the proposal for harnessing waters of the parent river Mahadayi. 

Envisages construction check dams to let 7.56 tmcft of water flow into the river to firm up the storage at the Malaprabha dam on the downstream.

The government had clearly told the agitated farmers at that time, the project officially was to meet drinking water needs, it was a project meant to meet the aspirations of the farmers of the command area of the Malaprabha who are not getting water because of the chronic shortage of storage in the Malaprabha dam. 

Goa has kept a constant vigil while Karnataka suffered due to ambivalence and hesitation. Goa got the clearance given stayed, moved for the constitution of the Tribunal, make it functional, all through the good offices of Supreme Court while Karnataka remained apathetic to counter hurdles being placed by Goa.

The Tribunal is in the final phase of its work: claims of the respective states recorded; seventy issues for discussion have been finalized and cross examination is slated to start and the decision is expected by 2016.

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The agitating farmers still do not know that the State has not been officially pleading their case either before or after the formation of the Tribunal. It is implicit in the original plea made by the State government when it sought the permission of the Union Ministry of Water Resources for diverting 7.56 tmcft of water from Kalasa Banduri.

The government merely stated that the water is needed to augment drinking water needs of the growing twin town municipal corporation of Hubli Dhaward and some villages on the banks of the river Malaprabha (which was totally debunked by Goa, which said Hubli Dharwad needs could be met by 0.81 tmcft only)

Why the farmers demand for water for irrigation, had to be camouflaged under the name of drinking water project, is not clear. The only charitable explanation that can be given is that the State government perhaps desired to avoid the tortuous and time-consuming route of going through the Tribunal route, which apparently did not happen. Since the State could neither prevent the delay nor avoid the Tribunal, why should it flinch from bringing officially on board is not clear.

Maybe the irrigation requirement was the hidden agenda for the consumption of Centre and the Tribunal, but certainly not for the ryots of the command area of Malaprabha project, who firmly believed since the beginning, that the scheme has been conceived solely for their benefit. And hence, all the anger and frustration, which is getting manifested in the current agitation, one way or the other.

It has been a totally justified demand as far as the farmers are concerned as a way out of the chronic shortage of water in the Malaprabha dam. The plan of extending irrigation to the parched lands coming under Malaprabha project through the Right Bank canal has gone awry, as a consequence.

The shortage in the dam was estimated at 10 tmcft of water. The government had two options open. One was to cut down the command area commensurate with the availability of water in the dam or seek the diversion of water from another river basin. Hence, the focus came on Mahadayi. Both the east flowing Malaprabha and west flowing Mahadayi, take birth in the forest-rich Khanapur taluk of Belgaum district, coming under the Western Ghats area. Malaprabha flowed east to become part of the Krishna basin. And Mahadayi, in its western march entered Goa and flowed as Mandovi to keep its date with the Arabian Sea.

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Goa shot down the proposal immediately in the very initial phase. But the proposal was revived in a different form years later, when the Congress Government led by Mr S M Krishna assumed office in 2000. Its Minister for Water Resources, Mr. H K Patil who comes from the Malaprabha command area worked on the idea of tapping the waters of the two of its tributaries namely Kalasa and Banduri, got a scheme prepared, got the administrative approval and succeeded in getting the “in principle” clearance from the Union Ministry of Water Resources in April 2002. The proposal envisaged tapping 7.56 tmcft of water from Kalasa and Banduri and diverting the same to the Malaprabha basin to firm up the storage at the Malaprabha dam.

This was perhaps the only good thing that happened. Afterwards, it got sucked into a maze of bottlenecks like Goa’s protest, apathetic attitude of the Centre coupled with intra-party wrangle within the Congress and inter-party wrangling between the Congress and the BJP in Karnataka.

The first blow came when the NDA government at the Centre bowed to the pressure tactics of the then Goa Chief Minister and present Defence Minister Mr. Manohar Parikkar to stay the “in principle” clearance within five months. The pressure exerted by Mr. Parikkar was so much that the Secretary of the Ministry, who had given the clearance to Karnataka, was “kicked up”. Goa let no grass to grow under the feet, kept up pressure on the Central Government, knocked the doors of the Supreme Court to seek the constitution of the tribunal and later when the Centre failed to provide infrastructure to enable the Tribunal to function. In contrast, the handling of the situation by Karnataka was inept, indifferent and what not.

The second blow came when H K Patil, the Karnataka Minister for Water Resources, who was pursuing the project with determination and vigour was divested of his portfolio in the same year by Mr. Krishna. This was attributed to internal feuding between two supporters of Mr. Krishna, namely Mr. Patil and hisbête noire Sivakumar. Mr. Krishna might have chosen to trust Mr. Sivakumar more than Mr. H K Patil, but it did incalculable harm to the project in the form of loss of a strong advocate.

From then on and till now, Karnataka has seen five chief ministers including the present one. The Congress has ruled the State for a period of around seven years in two phases, with a spell of coalition with the JDS, and the BJP held the reins on its own for the remaining term, including the days of coalition government with the JDS in between.

None of the governments and the chief ministers pursued the matter seriously as the situation warranted to get the stay on the project vacated, or in filing interim application seeking use of water which could be adjusted against the share of the state as and when determined.

So much so that none of the chief ministers chose to lead a delegation to convince the prime minister of the imperative need to take up the project. Mr. Siddaramaiah was the first chief minister to do so. But this was more a political move than any bonafide desire to seek redressal of the grievances of the agitating farmers. Neither the BJP lifted its fingers to get justice done to Karnataka, when the NDA government ruled Delhi nor did the Congress do so, when the UPA was at the helm of affairs in the national capital. As a consequence, Karnataka’s voice remained totally unheard in New Delhi and every time it was Goa, which called the tunes, with Karnataka remaining docile all the time.

Each of them has a bagful of acts of omission in zealous advocacy of the farmers’ cause in New Delhi. Now that the agitation by the farmers is reaching a crescendo, both the BJP and the Congress are indulging in a blame game.

The hopes of the farmers were finally sealed by the Siddaramaiah government when it gave undertaking to the Tribunal not to divert or use the water till the case was decided.

This happened more than one year ago. And the BJP has not even bothered to protest. Both the parties are more interested in politicizing issues rather than striving to meet the aspirations of the people putting aside their political differences.

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