Cauvery issue continues to cast shadow over Karnataka polls as all parties claim to support state's interests over Tamil Nadu's

A railway train zipping past lush green fields in Srirangapatna, about a half hour's journey from Mysuru, makes for a perfect picture. Except that it won't stay that way for long.

"The crops that you are seeing now will soon wither away because the water level at the Krishna Raja Sagar dam has reached dead storage," says farmer leader KS Nanjunde Gowda, who has been fielded by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from Srirangapatna constituency of Mandya district for the upcoming Karnataka Assembly election.

 Cauvery issue continues to cast shadow over Karnataka polls as all parties claim to support states interests over Tamil Nadus

Representational image. PTI

Fielding Gowda was a strategic move part of the BJP's attempt to capture the farmer vote that used to go to the Janata Dal (Secular), as HD Deve Gowda's outfit projects itself as a farmers' party. It is also an attempt to make inroads into the agrarian constituency given that the BJP government at the Centre is accused of being anti-farmer.

Furthermore, Mandya is in the heart of the Cauvery delta, a region that turns into the epicentre of protests whenever Karnataka and Tamil Nadu get into a tiff over the release of water downstream. The 16 February verdict by the Supreme Court had asked the Centre to formulate a "scheme" within six months for management of the release of Cauvery water. This deadline expired on 29 March, leading to flared tempers in Tamil Nadu, which accused the BJP in New Delhi of looking at the dispute through the Karnataka political prism.

The Centre subsequently secured an extension of the deadline till 3 May. On Friday, the Centre requested the court for two more weeks' time to submit its proposal, by which time results of the Karnataka election would have been announced.

Perhaps aware that nothing will happen over the Cauvery legally, so far, no political party has taken an aggressive position over the issue. That is also because all of them are united in opposing the formation of the Cauvery Management Board.

Except Darshan Puttaniah. The 40-year-old candidate fielded by Swaraj India from Melkote constituency is incidentally also supported by the Congress, a part dead set against the formation of the board. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah even wrote to the prime minister expressing his party and government's opposition to the formation of the board, as that would take control of release of Cauvery water away from Karnataka.

"The board should be formed, but not just with bureaucrats from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry and the Centre. It should also have representatives from the farming community of these states who understand the ground situation better. This is the only way we can regulate this better," Puttaniah said.

Others do not agree. They point out that the situation in Karnataka is as bad as if not worse than Tamil Nadu. Subhash, a farmer, objects to Karnataka being made to look like the villain of the piece every time Tamil Nadu needs water. He says even though the final court order gave more water to Karnataka, in real terms, it amounts to nothing.

"It's not as if we are brimming with water and still don't wish to part with it. Our situation is more critical than Tamil Nadu's. What the court has done is like taking away Rs 1,000 from our pockets and given us Rs 100 instead," Subhash said.

The south Karnataka farmer's confrontational approach has its roots in the dire situation on the ground. According to farmer associations, in the last five years, more than 300 farmers have killed themselves just in Mandya. "This election, our priority is to elect a leader who will speak on behalf of farmers," says Mahesh. "Mandya grows Rs 2,000 crore worth of crops and we do not get the right value because of water shortage."

What is perhaps needed the most in this crisis is for someone to look closely at the crop the farmers choose to grow. Paddy and sugarcane are highly water intensive and there is an urgent need to switch to crops that need less water. However, that is easier said than done, as the economy is driven by sugarcane, and jaggery factories are powerful entities here. So it is impossible to drastically cut down on the area under cultivation of sugarcane.

How is the Cauvery issue then playing out in the run-up to the 12 May election in Karnataka? For one, each party, especially in the Cauvery delta constituencies, is going out of its way to talk about how it protected the state's interests even when Tamil Nadu was agitating for adherence to the Supreme Court order. It is this 'Karnataka First' approach that candidates in the contest think will get them the support of the ryots.

On the campaign trail, the tragedy is there are no solutions offered to the Cauvery dispute, only homilies. The real test for the new government will come after 15 May when the Centre is duty bound to abide by the verdict. That's when the real politics over Cauvery shall begin.

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2018 16:09:39 IST