People's Initiatives

Voice of the family

Print edition : October 14, 2016

At a seminar in Bengaluru in March 1992, where the people's initiative to amicably resolve the Cauvery dispute was launched. (From left) M.D. Nanjundaswamy, B.K. Chandrasekhar, H.N. Nanje Gowda and Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mannargudi S. Ranganathan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers Welfare Association. Photo: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

THE fact file of the century-old dispute shows some moments of warmth, affability, reconciliation and spontaneity among the riparian right holders of the Cauvery river living in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

There was much violence after the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal awarded its interim order in 1991, which saddened right-minded people in both States. Farmers in the Cauvery basin, no enemies to one another, watched helplessly as what was for them a livelihood issue was turned into a war of political opportunism and linguistic chauvinism by some vested interests. A tiny group of right-thinking people, intellectuals, farmers and water experts from both States, distressed over the violence in 1991 and seeking an early but mutually agreed solution, mooted a strong people’s initiative.

The idea received a spontaneous response from both sides, and a people’s initiative was started in 1992. Mannargudi S. Ranganathan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Famers Welfare Association, said: “When the issue on the right to waters was snatched away from the farmers, we foresaw the worst. But this initiative played a significant role between 1991 and 2002.” The heart and soul of the initiative was the late S. Guhan, a distinguished civil servant and former Secretary, Finance and Planning, Tamil Nadu government. He was also a Senior Fellow in the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS).

The “noble and non-political initiative”, as Ranganathan described it, was supported by stalwarts from all walks of life. Among them were N. Ram, then Editor, Frontline; B.K. Chandrasekar, former Minister of Karnataka; H.N. Nanje Gowda, former Irrigation Minister of Karnataka; Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer; Manavalan, former Tamil Nadu PWD Chief Engineer; and farmers’ representatives such as V. Durai Manikkam, Lalgudi G. Kanakasabhai and Dr M.D. Nanjundaswami, president of the Karnataka State Farmers’ Association (Karnataka Rajya Ryutha Sangha, or KRRS).

Ranganathan has been involved in almost all official and other farmers’ initiatives for decades. Talking to Frontline, he pointed out that the 1991 violence, which affected many innocent daily wage earners from Tamil Nadu, sowed the seeds for a new beginning. “For the first time, the farmers’ representatives of both the upper and the lower riparian States of the Cauvery basin were seen together in Bangalore [now Bengaluru] in a meeting, which I attended. Though this happened in early 1992, the friendship and camaraderie continued for nearly a decade thereafter,” he said.

There were some magical moments of understanding and reciprocity. “For example, in September 1999, when a batch of Karnataka farmers belonging to the KRRS were preventing the release of water from the KR Sagar dam, I immediately contacted Dr Nanjundaswami and explained to him the precarious condition of the standing crop in Tamil Nadu and requested him to send a team to the delta to assess at first hand the needs of Tamil Nadu farmers. The dynamic leader of Karnataka farmers readily agreed,” Ranganathan said.

This humane approach led to a constructive exchange of views, enabling the farmers of both sides to understand the issues at the ground level, and diminishing the role of irrelevant people. A team led by Kodihalle Chandrasekara and three others from Karnataka visited many tail-end pockets of the delta and also the Grand Anicut. The team interacted with delta farmers and officials and assessed the situation on the ground. The next day, there was a pleasant surprise for the delta farmers. A press report claimed that Nanjundaswami had appealed to the Karnataka government to release at least 25 tmc ft of water to the Thanjavur delta to save the standing crops in the delta. “Such was the bonhomie we enjoyed at that time,” Ranganathan said.

Start of Cauvery family

The exercise suffered a setback in 1998 with the sudden demise of the principal coordinator, Guhan. In the vacuum created by his death, there was a lull in the exchange of views and direct contacts between farmers in the two States. 2002 was yet another year of drought and worry. Jayalalithaa, who was the Chief Minister at that time, filed a contempt petition in the Supreme Court against her Karnataka counterpart, S.M. Krishna, who refused to release water. Once again, tempers were getting frayed.

“At that crucial juncture, the water expert Professor S. Janakarajan of the MIDS told us about his successful endeavour to bring about an understanding between the farmers and tannery owners of Ranipet in Vellore district where pollution caused by tanneries had rendered irrigation impossible and made groundwater unfit for drinking. He suggested that a similar model could be tried between the lower and upper riparian farmers of the Cauvery basin,” Ranganathan recalled.

The “Cauvery Family”, as it was rightly named, was revived by the relentless efforts of Janakarajan. The non-political exercise was a revolutionary concept in any water-sharing dispute among riparian entities. The renowned parliamentarian Era Sezhiyan inaugurated it. Ranganathan said that he saw the initiative as beneficial for farmers of both States, especially in an environment where two important sane voices had fallen silent, those of Guhan and Nanjundaswami. Nanjundaswami passed away in 2004.

“We readily agreed to help Janakarajan to reopen the avenues of bilateral understanding,” Ranganathan said. Fortunately, the KRRS was commanded by an impressive leadership that included K.S. Puttannaiah, Basavaraj, K.S. Subbiah, who died recently, Shantakumar and Kodihalle Chandrasekara. They were sensitive to Tamil Nadu’s woes. The delta team comprised Ranganathan and other farmers’ representatives including Rajaram, Ajeetan, Gandhipithan, Kannan and Sathyanarayan. Both teams resumed talks under the banner of the “Cauvery Family”. The Family gained significance on both sides of the border with leading political parties such as the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other organisations and political parties fully supporting the initiative.

Search for a solution

The Cauvery Family meant business right away. The members entered into a series of constructive dialogues and discussions on the basis of the Tribunal’s verdict before undertaking a detailed tour of many ayacuts of the delta in Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur and Thanjavur districts and Karaikal in the Union Territory of Puducherry. “Similarly, we visited all the reservoirs in Karnataka and their ayacuts and exchanged views and hydraulic details with not only the official teams but also with farmers,” Ranganathan said.

Ramaswami R. Iyer, former Secretary to the Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, and B.S. Bhavanishankar, an authority in water engineering, offered their expertise to the Family. Ranganathan said that the deliberations and discussions were appreciated by leading Indian and international bodies like the Indian Institute of Science, the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, and the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, Islamabad. Several East African countries of the Nile basin also appreciated the exercise.

After 2012-13, the Family became a passive entity and political parties in both States usurped the issue once again. The Family had met over 18 times in the years between 2003 and 2012 and held extensive studies and constructive discussions to evolve acceptable formulas of sharing. These, said Ranganathan, would be relevant to any neutral bodies of water engineers and managers even today.

He was upset over what he called “senseless violence” in Karnataka on September 12 in which hooligans burnt down 45 luxury buses and scores of lorries, cars and motorbikes that bore Tamil Nadu registration numbers. “This has revived for me the painful memories of the grim happenings of September 12 in 1991, when the Tribunal award favoured Tamil Nadu and the riots that came thereafter,” he said. “The bandh announced then by the Kannada film hero Rajkumar against the screening of the television serial Tipu Sultan was appropriated overnight by political groups and was turned into a bandh against the gazetting of the interim award of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal in Karnataka. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao endorsed the award on December 10, 1991. Earlier, there had been periodic flare-ups in Karnataka over even regular openings of reservoirs across the Cauvery for Tamil Nadu. But nothing could match the intensity of these two outbursts [those on September 12 in 1991 and 2016].”

He said that anything that was linked to the issue was getting politicised. “When M. Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister in 1972, he withdrew a petition from the Supreme Court on the issue of instructions from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Everyone in Tamil Nadu criticised him for bowing to the Centre’s pressure. But I said that the Chief Minister had done a diplomatically right thing, since he attached a rider to the promise he gave to the Prime Minister by saying that he would go to court again within six months if Karnataka failed to fulfil its commitment,” he said.

Calls to revive the Cauvery Family have become louder after the recent violence. A media report from Bengaluru said that Puttannaiah, a member of the Cauvery Family and the president of the Sugarcane Farmers Association, Karnataka, had expressed his desire to revive the Family. The report said that he met the Karnataka Chief Minister in this regard. The response from the Chief Minister, according to the report, was “favourable”. Many in the social media also have urged concerned individuals to reactivate the Cauvery Family.

Farmers should be encouraged to sort out their issues between themselves. The States must assist them. “If the governments at the Centre and the States recognise the ‘Cauvery Family’ and support its reactivation, we are sure its efforts will bring about acceptable ways to share the water,” Ranganathan said.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran