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Mood in Karnataka

Print edition : Sep 14, 2002 T+T-

Release of Cauvery water sparks protests in Karnataka.

BELLIGERENT statements and frayed tempers. Burning of effigies of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, road and rail blockades, bandhs, blocking of water release, courting of arrest. The protest in the Karnataka districts of Mandya, Mysore and Chamarajanagar over the State government's decision to release water from the Kabini reservoir to Tamil Nadu took a variety of forms. The fact that the State government itself had little choice in the matter, given the direction from the Supreme Court, hardly mattered to the protestors. On September 7, more than a thousand farmers gathered at the Kabini reservoir and barged into the control room and closed the crest gates to block the release of water from the dam.

In their opinion, it was better for the Chief Minister to face contempt proceedings than sacrifice the interests of the farming community by letting out water. Given the surcharged atmosphere that amply reflected the distrust and suspicion between the two States, hardly anyone was prepared to listen to the few voices that pleaded that the "colourless waters of the Cauvery not be given a political colour". The protesting farmers were also not impressed by the Karnataka government's decision to waive the interest (amounting totally to more than Rs.120 crores) on the loans of farmers in the Cauvery basin.

The protests, especially spirited in Mandya, the home district of Chief Minister S.M. Krishna (there was a day-long bandh in Mandya on September 7 over the issue, causing hardship to residents and commuters on the busy Mysore-Bangalore highway) turned violent. Farmers sporadically stopped traffic on the highway at a number of places including Mandya, Maddur, Siddalingapura, Srirangapatnam, Koppal, Baburayana and Palahalli. Protestors threatened to lay siege to and take over Karnataka's four main reservoirs in the Cauvery basin - Krishnarajasagar (KRS), Kabini, Hemavathy and Harangi - and even cut off drinking water supply to Bangalore (at Torekadanahalli, near Malavalli) and Mysore cities in a bid to prevent the release of water. They called upon the Krishna government to reject the Interim Order of the Tribunal, which directs the State to release 205 tmc ft of water.

The gist of the argument is that when Karnataka itself does not have adequate storage in its reservoirs for even the standing crop and crops were withering especially at the tail-end of the command area of the Cauvery basin, releasing water to Tamil Nadu amounted to a sell-out by the State government. Of the approximately 2.75 lakh acres (about 1.1 lakh hectares) of land irrigated from the KRS reservoir, those areas at the mouth-end do not face too many problems. However, those at the tail-end, such as at Malavalli and Maddur taluks, have suffered extensively. There has not been enough water for the sugarcane crop and farmers fear that the sugar content would come down.

According to officials from the Department of Agriculture, the release of water will cause considerable hardship to farmers at the tail-end. Explained an official: "There has already been damage to both dryland and wetland crops in the irrigated areas of the Cauvery basin. Water has not been released from the anicut, so there is not enough water even in the KRS reservoir. This has meant that the sowing of paddy which should have been over by July is not complete. Water has only been released for standing crops. While paddy has been affected in Tirumakudlu Narsipur taluk, dryland crops such as groundnut and ragi have been damaged in Heggada Devana Kote, Hunsur and Nanjungud taluks. Both sown and unsown crops have been affected by the lack of water. The already sown crops have been affected by the dry spell, while the unsown crops have been affected for want of rains." According to officials, on an average up to 45 per cent of the crops have been affected.

Given the situation, the department has advised farmers not to go in for a kharif paddy crop. Farmers whom this correspondent met said that they were inclined to go in for semi-dry crops such as oilseeds (groundnut and sunflower) and ragi, or semi-wet ones such as a coarse variety of paddy. Officials denied that farmers in the basin were wont to taking up a third crop. "The first crop is a sure crop but this year even this has been affected. Prospects for the second crop this year are bleak. We have told farmers that water will be released only for their standing crop. They have been asked not to plant new crops... A government notification has been issued on this."

With regard to suggestions that crop patterns be changed, officials averred that theoretically it was possible. But in practical terms it was very difficult to change the mentality of a farmer. Farmers will have to take a collective decision. That may not be possible. Some of them may want to grow only paddy, and water from these fields could seep and spoil semi-dry crops in the neighbouring field.

LEFT with no choice but to release water, Karnataka chose to do so from the small Kabini reservoir since inflows and outflows from here are generally good and also because farmers from Mandya and Mysore districts would not concede lightly releases from the KRS. (It is from Kabini that a fair share of the 205 tmc ft of water as per the Interim Order is being released.)

But irrigation experts averred that if 1.25 tmc ft is released every day from the Kabini (according to the Karnataka government, it had a live storage of 8.76 tmc ft on September 5, but reliable sources say the figure was actually 14.85 tmc ft), given this year's poor inflows the water will be exhausted within a fortnight, despite moderate rains in the Kabini's catchment areas in Wyanad, Kerala.

Once that happens, Karnataka will have no option but to let water out from the Hemavathy (the live storage was 15.44 tmc ft, as per government statistics on September 5) or Harangi (7.51 tmc ft) reservoirs (unless the CRA decides otherwise). Karnataka is not yet in a position to utilise fully the waters from the Hemavathy, for many of the irrigation canals are yet to be completed. However, when farmers in the Hemavathy reservoir's command areas, mainly in Hassan and Tumkur districts, realise what is happening, there is bound to be unrest.

Currently the agitation, which is fast turning political, is being spearheaded by the Mandya Jilla Raitha Hitarakshana Samithi, which has in turn roped in farmers' organisations such as the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), student groups (including schoolchildren) and like-minded bodies. A number of 'Cauvery Action Committees' have been constituted at the taluk level. Among the leaders are G. Madegowda, a former Member of Parliament waiting to settle old scores with Chief Minister Krishna (both hail from the region and vie for Vokkaliga votes) and the KRRS' K.S. Puttanaiah.

Said an agitated B.R. Satish, a sugarcane farmer from Hallebodanur in Mandya district: "We are prepared to sacrifice our lives over the issue. Pressure from the top is forcing Krishna to release water. We are not prepared to release even a drop of water to Tamil Nadu."

Saner voices expressed the view that it was ridiculous to say that water cannot be released to Tamil Nadu. "There are paddy crops worth crores of rupees in the Thanjavur delta. The question is where and how you release the water. Instead of blocking traffic and sitting in dharnas, politicians should go to their constituencies and explain this to the agitating farmers," said one observer.

There is also a problem of siltation in many of Karnataka's canals and reservoirs. Indiscriminate deforestation in the catchment areas is causing this. This leads to the diminution of storage and flow. According to informed sources, though every year lakhs of rupees is spent on desiltation, shoddy work ensures that it is all ineffective. Contractors often hand over canals and reservoirs after desiltation just prior to the water being let in, so that their work cannot be inspected.

The releases from the Kabini have not affected farmers in the vicinity of the reservoir much since most of them do not cultivate paddy. Rice farmers in the taluks of Tirumakudlu Narsipur, Nanjungud and Kollegal are affected more. No wonder that some farmers from Tirumakudlu Narsipur melodramatically jumped into the overflowing waters of the Kabini on September 5.

S. Devaraj, a farmer from Karimanti in Srirangapatnam taluk, echoed the sentiments of the farmers at large when he said: "My sugarcane crop has already been damaged because of a lack of water. If the coming (northeast) monsoon fails, even the sugarcane crop that I am now planting will go waste. The yield will be low. The waters stored in our reservoirs are only for Karnataka's farmers."