POLITICS

Siddaramaiah Is Trying To Ride The Cauvery Issue To Woo The Farmer Back

It is a win-win situation for Siddaramaiah.

06/09/2016 3:41 PM IST | Updated 06/09/2016 4:12 PM IST
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Police officials detain a pro-Karnataka activist as he shout slogans to protest against the verdict of Cauvery water dispute in Bangalore, India, Monday, Feb. 5, 2007.

Kurubur Shanthakumar, the president of the Karnataka Sugarcane Growers Association, is an angry man. Angry with the Supreme court, angry with Tamil Nadu and the most angry with the Karnataka government and chief minister Siddaramaiah.

"Siddaramaiah is anti-farmer. He is not even arguing the Cauvery case properly in the Supreme Court, which is why Karnataka has been ordered to release water to Tamil Nadu. He did not bother when 1560 farmers committed suicide in 2015-16. Of them, 258 killed themselves just in the two Cauvery districts of Mandya and Mysuru,'' says Shanthakumar.

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Pro Karnataka activists lie on the ground as they shout slogans to protest against the verdict of Cauvery water dispute.

Mandya is on the boil, the bandh on Tuesday a visual manifestation of the anger. Farmers in this sugarcane belt of Karnataka say they have had enough of government apathy. Mention Siddaramaiah's Narendra Modi-like 'Dil ki Baat' radio address last July and they flare up.

Because instead of announcing relief measures, the CM blamed the private moneylenders for the mess and reeled out statistics to show that suicides under his watch were less than suicides in the previous regime. The farmers were convinced Siddaramaiah's heart did not beat for them.

On August 26, Tamil Nadu went to Supreme court, asking it to order Karnataka to release 50000 cusecs, saying its kuruvai or the summer crop in seven districts, through which the Cauvery flows, was withering. Karnataka argued that with just 51000 cusecs in its reservoirs, heeding Tamil Nadu's request was out of the question. It agreed to give 10000 cusecs while Tamil Nadu scaled down its demand to 20000 cusecs. The apex court nailed the compromise formula at 15000 cusecs.

According to the award of the Cauvery River Water Tribunal in 2007, Karnataka is meant to release 192 TMC feet of water to Tamil Nadu. But that is in a good year and the problems start when the rains fail Karnataka. The Centre also is to blame as both the UPA and NDA have dragged their feet on the formation of the Cauvery Management Board, which should ideally mediate between the two warring neighbours.

Even before Tamil Nadu went to the Supreme Court, the war of words had begun. Tamil Nadu accused the upper riparian state of building dams to alter the course of the river. Karnataka in turn, claimed Tamil Nadu was letting too much water go waste into the sea.

"Karnataka should not release a drop of water. Let it be contempt of court. Farmers here are also suffering.''

But beyond the technicalities of cusecs and acres, the Cauvery issue is essentially political in nature. While Jayalalithaa shot off a letter to Modi, Karnataka is feeling the pressure of politically powerful farmer groups that have asked the government not to give in.

"Karnataka should not release a drop of water. Let it be contempt of court. Farmers here are also suffering,'' says Shanthakumar, who plans to lay siege to the Kabini reservoir with thousands of farmers on September 7.

Karnataka Irrigation minister MB Patil says with Kodagu and Hassan, the two main catchment districts for Cauvery, recording 27 per cent and 23 per cent rainfall deficit respectively, the water available in the Cauvery dams is just about sufficient to quench the thirst of Bengaluru, Mysuru, Mandya and Maddur.

In the past, politicians on both sides of the river divide have upped the ante, the most famous being Jayalalithaa sitting on a 80-hour-long fast in Chennai in 1993. With self-immolation attempts and the Tamil film industry extending support to Jaya, her fast had the desired effect of the then PV Narasimha Rao government rushing its Water Resources minister to Bangalore and Madras to call for truce. That bout of Centre-bashing helped elevate Jaya's stature in the Cauvery delta. In 2002, then Karnataka chief minister SM Krishna undertook a 100-km padyatra from Bengaluru to Mandya.

It is a win-win situation for Siddaramaiah. The crisis allows him to repair his image among the farmers and play both statesman and politician at the same time. Remember, Cauvery is his backyard and he is more than likely to do an improvised version of SM Krishna. The Karnataka Congress gameplan is to initially put up a united front against Tamil Nadu and then shift gears to attack the BJP and its government in New Delhi for not doing anything to make Tamil Nadu bend and soften its position.

It is the BJP that finds itself in a bind. Sources in the party say their first response will be to support the government in its effort to ensure against parched cities and fields. But if it finds the CM deriving political mileage, Plan B will kick in. It will then harden its position and accuse the state's legal and irrigation teams of failing to protect Karnataka's interests.

The BJP, that has little political stake in Tamil Nadu will find its Karnataka unit put pressure on Modi to force Jayalalithaa to come to the discussion table. It is ironical that more than Siddaramaiah, it is BS Yeddyurappa who will be expected to save Cauvery water for Karnataka.

Deve Gowda of the JD(S) is sitting pretty. The original farmer leader will train his guns at just about everyone to retain his hold over this powerful Vokkaliga belt, which is the backbone of his party. Siddaramaiah's only concern will be not to lose space to his former boss.

But oblivious to the outside world, what happens on the ground is different. An old-timer, familiar with the Cauvery dispute says back channel talks usually ensure water is released while keeping up public posturing of going at each other's throat.

Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi too will play their politics over Cauvery, though neither is likely to pull a 'fast' one. The Farmers Association of Tamil Nadu has threatened to stop power supply to Karnataka in retaliation. Karnataka brushes off such threats saying the Neyveli Lignite Corporation is a central government undertaking and the Tamil Nadu establishment does not control its power output.

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Pro Karnataka activists lie on the ground as they shout slogans to protest against the verdict of Cauvery water dispute.

But oblivious to the outside world, what happens on the ground is different. An old-timer, familiar with the Cauvery dispute says back channel talks usually ensure water is released while keeping up public posturing of going at each other's throat.

"The water is quietly released by Karnataka in the night on condition that Tamil Nadu should not make the release public. So the agitation takes place during the day and milked by politicians on both sides,'' he says.

Public transport on both sides of the border was cancelled on Tuesday and is likely to be hit this entire week. Agitators are trying to whip up a Kannadiga vs Tamil sentiment over the river that embraces Karnataka and Tamil Nadu equally. The Cauvery, that is also referred to as Dakshina Ganga or the Ganges of South India, clearly has been polluted with hatred and petty politics.

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