Growing trust

Print edition : July 04, 2003

A non-official dialogue in Bangalore on the water dispute makes significant headway in strengthening confidence-building measures between the farmers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

in Bangalore

The dialogue in progress. Unlike the official interactions between the two States on the issue, the Bangalore process was free of rancour.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

A MEETING, or `dialogue', on the Cauvery water-sharing dispute was held in Bangalore on June 4 and 5. Farmers, agricultural and irrigation experts, representatives of non-governmental organisations and journalists from the Cauvery basin States participated in the second such interaction. It was conducted in an atmosphere that was free of the rancour that has marked official interactions between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on the issue. It was facilitated by the Chennai-based Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS). The ongoing dialogue process appears to have given a new momentum and direction to the attempts to resolve the dispute.

The spirit of the dialogue was in marked contrast to the surly and contrary mood usually witnessed at the meetings of the Cauvery Monitoring Committee (CMC) or the Cauvery River Authority. It also appears to have broken the impasse that had been reached on the issue at the official negotiations. The dialogue process is moving towards some of the core issues of the dispute, namely water sharing, distress-sharing, and cropping and water-use patterns. If sufficient headway is made, the outcome of the negotiations could well be incorporated in the Final Order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, expected within the year. It is towards this end that the dialogue process is directed.

Ramaswamy R. Iyer, former Secretary, Water Resources, Government of India, told Frontline: "Although fairly pessimistic at the start of this exercise, I was surprised at the level of cordiality amongst farmers from both States." An expert on water resources, Ramaswamy Iyer has been an active participant in the dialogue. "The refrain of the meetings has been, `We must find an answer'. Goodwill must now be translated into concrete results. How should water be shared in times of plenty, and how should it be shared in a difficult year? These two questions must be addressed," he said.

If building confidence amongst the water users of the two States who are unsympathetic to one another's needs was the achievement of the Chennai dialogue held this April (Frontline, May 23), the Bangalore initiative took the exchange a significant step forward. While strengthening confidence-building measures by sharing information and clearing misconceptions, the organisers and participants of the Bangalore dialogue also broached the thorny issue of water sharing between the two States. This issue is at the core of the dispute. Water-sharing between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu during years of normal rainfall is governed by an arrangement that satisfies neither State. During periods of drought or water scarcity, this unhappy arrangement breaks down completely. The sharing of shortage, therefore, is perhaps more critical than the sharing of plenty, and the Bangalore meeting has taken a definite step forward in addressing this aspect. V.K. Natraj, Director, MIDS, told Frontline: "We have formed a committee of around 20 persons with adequate representation from the farming community in both States to work on evolving a water-sharing formula." He added: "The Bangalore dialogue has taken the dialogue process beyond the discussion of generalities. It is now poised to deal with concrete issues involved in the dispute."

K.S. Puttanaiah, Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha leader.-K. GOPINATH

The committee comprises nine farmers' representatives from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. They include S. Ranganathan and Arupadhi Kalyanam from the Cauvery Delta Farmers' Association in Tamil Nadu, K.S. Puttanaiah and K.C. Basavaraj of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) in Karnataka, and G.C. Byya Reddy and K. Balakrishnan from the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu units respectively of the All India Kisan Sabha. Ramaswamy R. Iyer; H.N. Nanje Gowda, former Minister of State for Irrigation in Karnataka; and D. Gangappa have been nominated as advisers to the group. V.K. Natraj; S. Janakarajan, Professor at MIDS, who was instrumental in initiating the dialogue, and T.N. Prakash of the faculty of the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, have been nominated as conveners of the group. The group will try to evolve both a water-sharing formula and a distress-sharing formula acceptable to both parties. The committee will meet in Thanjavur on July 14 and 15. A meeting of the committee will be held on June 28 at the residence of Nanje Gowda, who will not be able to travel to Thanjavur as he is unwell.

Farmers' representatives from both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were enthusiastic about the dialogue process which, they felt, has played a role in clearing the air of mistrust and ignorance. "The dialogue has served to clear several misconceptions," said Puttanaiah, the popular leader of the KRRS. His insistence on speaking in Tamil at the meeting was much appreciated by the participants from Tamil Nadu. "We in Karnataka now know that only two crops are cultivated in the Thanjavur delta, and not three, as we always believed. Our friends from Tamil Nadu now know that our crops do not consume excess water," Puttanaiah said. According to him, semi-dry crops are grown on as much as 60 per cent of the 11.80 lakh acres of the Cauvery command area. Paddy and/or sugarcane is grown on only 30 per cent of the command area. The remaining 10 per cent of the area is planted with horticultural crops.

Beneath the layer of goodwill generated by this exchange, there was an unmistakable sense of urgency amongst the participants about the need to get down to the real issues. And here the differences persist and these surfaced occasionally during the course of the meeting. Basavaraj of the KRRS, for example, made it quite clear that his constituency believed that the Supreme Court rulings were against the interest of his State, and that the Final Order of the Tribunal would not be acceptable if it was seen to be unfair to Karnataka. Participants from Tamil Nadu chose to emphasise the need for water sharing, while participants from Karnataka underlined the need for water conservation in the Thanjavur delta. This is a restatement of the view long held in Karnataka that the Thanjavur farmers waste far more water than they use, an accusation that they deny vehemently.

Notwithstanding the involvement of the KRRS in the agitation against releasing water to Tamil Nadu at the height of the water crisis in December 2002, Puttanaiah and his colleagues took a far more accommodative approach during this round of discussions, although their emphasis was, expectedly, on water conservation. "Both sides have agreed to exchange teams to study agriculture and land use in the two basins," Puttanaiah said. "We have suggested that a small dam of 10-20 tmc ft storage be constructed between Hogenekal and Mekedatu, which would give Karnataka power and Tamil Nadu water. We also feel that the construction of a small barrage of two to three tmc ft storage capacity between Mettur and the Grand Anicut to store excess water would help Tamil Nadu farmers," Puttanaiah said. He was hopeful that the dialogue would dispel the opposition in Tamil Nadu to the Cauvery Nigama, a body recently set up in Karnataka to oversee the modernisation and desilting of tanks and canals. The KRRS has suggested a project to divert the flows of the Nethravathi to the Hemavathi in Karnataka. "Discussions on the sharing of water must be conducted ideally in times of plenty and not during drought," said Puttanaiah. "Much can be solved if we all speak frankly. We are all Indian farmers and have a common destiny," he added.

S. Ranganathan, secretary, Cauvery Delta Farmers' Association.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

Predictably, the meeting of the CMC held in New Delhi a few days after the dialogue ended in a deadlock over the distress-sharing formula. The routine meeting had none of the goodwill nor the commitment to addressing core issues in a spirit of give and take that was in evidence at the Bangalore dialogue. The CMC has also set up a panel to be headed by the Commissioner (Projects) of the Union Water Resources Ministry and comprising technical personnel from both States to study the distress-sharing formula.

At the inaugural session of the dialogue, speaker after speaker expressed the view that the intractable Cauvery dispute could be resolved only if the farmers and the water users themselves came to an agreement through an understanding of each other's problems. In his inaugural address, D.M. Chandrashekhar, a former Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court, stressed the need for a cordial atmosphere for talks. C.T. Kurien, noted economist and former Director of the MIDS, presided over the function. N. Ram, Editor, Frontline, and Satish Chandra, a distinguished former bureaucrat, addressed the session. Ram lauded the effort made by farmers and citizens to bypass the "non-productive official process". The Centre should play a "good offices role" rather than a mediatory role in a dispute, which had significant implications for federalism, he said.

Satish Chandra warned of the shrinkage of water availability in a situation of stagnating agricultural productivity and population growth. He warned that the Cauvery would not be able to meet the growing needs for irrigation and drinking water unless its water is used efficiently.

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