Cauvery dispute: SC verdict likely to arouse public passions, spark off political posturing in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu

"Where is the Cauvery?'' asks P Ayyakannu, president of the Tamil Nadu unit of the South Indian Rivers Interlinking Farmers Association. "I see the standing crops drying in 8 lakh of the 10 lakh acres in the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu in front of my own eyes.''

Ayyakannu and fellow farmers sat in protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi for 41 days last year. They sat with skulls and bones of farmers who had died a natural death or committed suicide after being unable to clear their debts, they stripped to mere loincloth to highlight their plight and some of them even ran naked in front of the prime minister's residence. Nothing worked and worse, in the elitist corridors of power in Lutyen's Delhi, it was dismissed as gimmickry. It is no surprise then, that hours before the crucial Cauvery river water verdict is to be delivered by the Supreme Court, Ayyakannu is not very optimistic.

"Our prime minister met the leaders of the two AIADMK factions, Edappadi Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam, to ensure a patch-up. But he had no time or interest in listening to our woes,'' points out Ayyakannu. It is obvious there is a lot of bitterness arising out of the manner in which the farmer in Tamil Nadu has been treated, both by regimes in New Delhi and Chennai.

Protests in Bengaluru over the Cauvery river. File image. PTI

Protests in Bengaluru over the Cauvery river. File image. PTI

Karnataka wants an upward revision from the 270 TMC ft allotted to the state (of the total 740 TMC ft in the river basin) by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal in 2007 and farmers in the state are equally anxious about the verdict. Their contention is that they too have had to cut down on the area under agriculture in the Cauvery delta districts so that the meagre water is first made available for Bengaluru's drinking water needs.

"If they give a good report, which gives more water to Karnataka, we will welcome it. If it is partial to Tamil Nadu, we won't be happy,'' says Kurubur Shanthakumar, the president of the Karnataka Sugarcane Growers Association.

Shanthakumar is clear that the farmers in Karnataka won't be happy if the apex court orders the setting up of Cauvery River Water Management Board. In fact, Karnataka has maintained that it is against the formation of the Board. In 2013, the then Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa had approached the Supreme Court asking for the formation of the Board.

"We do not want a Management Board,'' says Shanthakumar. "If there are no rains and we see a situation in which our farmers are committing suicide, the Cauvery Board will still insist on Karnataka releasing water downstream to Tamil Nadu. That won't be fair to us.''

What this will mean is that the release of water will depend on Karnataka's benevolence. Shanthakumaran justifies his hardline position by pointing to farmer suicide data. Karnataka is in the top three states in India in terms of farmer suicides. In 2015-16, 1,560 farmers committed suicide, of which 258 killed themselves just in the two Cauvery districts of Mandya and Mysuru.

So, in view of such a position on the ground, is the Supreme court verdict likely to result in a permanent solution that will be acceptable to both sides?

"It is impossible to find a water-sharing formula that both states will be happy with. One side will be left high and dry, literally,'' says PR Pandian, president, Tamil Nadu farmers committee. Tamil Nadu was awarded 419 TMC feet by the Tribunal and is expecting an upward revision as well.

But farmers in Tamil Nadu are already apprehensive about the verdict after what Union minister of state for finance and shipping, Pon Radhakrishnan said on Wednesday. The trust deficit is so huge that even though it is the Supreme Court that is delivering the verdict, the Tamil Nadu farmers suspect the Centre's intentions.

"Tamil Nadu is no longer a peaceful state. Naxalites, Maoists, Tamil extremists and Islamic terrorists have joined hands against the administration, which was evident during the Jallikattu agitation last year,'' Radhakrishnan had alleged. Farmers point out that the Jallikattu agitation in Madurai and Chennai in January 2017 was led by students and farmers, and to label them as extremists, they fear, is a pointer to things to come if they protest against the Cauvery verdict.

The election in Karnataka in May is another reason for Tamil Nadu's apprehension that the upper riparian state, irrespective of the verdict, will not abide by it. It will give the Congress government a chance to show that its heart beats for the Kannadigas by hardening its position over the Cauvery. Given that the Cauvery basin is the political arena where the Congress will lock horns with the JD(S), one can expect the ruling party to exploit the post-verdict situation to its advantage. The BJP, which is hoping to come to power in Karnataka and has little political stake in Tamil Nadu, is likely to follow suit.

"It will 100 percent be a political issue,'' says Shanthakumaran. "We are clear that we first want more water for Bengaluru and want restrictions on area under cultivation farming in the Cauvery delta to go.''

The emotional issue of the 765 km-long Cauvery river has seen violent flare-ups in the past, the most recent being in September 2016 when Tamilians were assaulted in Bengaluru and Kannadigas bore the brunt of Tamil fury in Tamil Nadu. The two states will have to articulate their reaction to the verdict, while taking care they do not arouse regional passions on both sides of the border.


Updated Date: Feb 15, 2018 21:29 PM

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