DK Shivakumar, the Karnataka president of the Congress party, pulled off a massive show of strength on Sunday in his home turf Kanakapura. He kicked off a 10,000-strong padayatra — a walkathon — from Kanakapura to Bengaluru, approximately 139 km away, demanding that the Karnataka government start building a reservoir at the confluence of the Cauvery and the Arkavathi rivers to increase drinking water supply to Bengaluru. At the starting point of the padayatra for the Mekedatu project, thousands of people were gathered behind DK Shivakumar, despite COVID-19 restrictions and the weekend curfew in Karnataka. And while the state — headed by the BJP — has not made any detentions, it seems even some Congress leaders in Karnataka are uncomfortable with DK Shivakumar’s campaign. This, despite the fact that several national and state level Congress leaders were hand-in-hand with DKS as the padayatra kicked off, including former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Mallikarjuna Kharge, Shivakumar’s brother DK Suresh, senior Congress leaders Dinesh Gundu Rao, HK Patil, Lakshmi Hebbalkar, Eshwar Khandre, and Krishna Byre Gowda.
On the ground, thousands of people are gathered — some wearing masks, some letting them slide under their noses, some not bothering with any COVID-19 safety measures. And at a time when Karnataka, Bengaluru especially, is seeing a massive rise in COVID-19 infections and the beginnings of a third wave, some Congress leaders believe such a show by DK Shivakumar at this moment will not sit well with the public. According to sources in the party, a majority of Congress MLAs from Bengaluru, led by Ramalinga Reddy, have said that even if the padayatra continues, it must stop at the outer limits of Bengaluru and not enter the city. They’re worried that any correlation between this campaign and a rise in infections in the city will hurt the party's chances in polls; while the state will see Assembly elections in the first half of 2023, the Bengaluru city civic polls are set to be held before that, and leaders are worried what the padayatra would mean for their results in these polls.
The padayatra kick off point is the Sangama — the confluence of Cauvery and Arkavathi rivers in Kanakapura — where the controversial Mekedatu reservoir is planned. The ground is filled with several humongous cutouts of Congress leaders, but none as prominent as DK Shivakumar. Folk artistes are dressed up for the event with drums and music to rouse the crowd. The 10-day campaign has been in the planning for at least three months, and the pomp and show of the first day showed this.
The padayatra has been organised to demand the speedy implementation of the controversial Mekedatu reservoir project, which would provide additional drinking water to Bengaluru and generate hydroelectricity. The project has been opposed by the Tamil Nadu government in the Supreme Court, because this is the only spot from where the Cauvery river flows into Tamil Nadu without barriers. While the Supreme Court is yet to give a verdict on Tamil Nadu’s petition, many in Karnataka — which first came up with the idea for the project in 2019 — want the state to go ahead with it before the Supreme Court gives any verdict. The National Green Tribunal has given a go-ahead for the project, and several leaders say that is enough reason to start constructing the reservoir.
Interestingly, it was the BJP-led government in 2019 that came up with the idea. However, for the Congress which is hoping to gain the lost political ground in the state, and for DK Shivakumar who is hoping to build his support base, water is the emotional issue they’re banking on. DK Shivakumar, who is also the MLA for Kanakapura, had earlier called the event “simply a walk for water” and claimed that it can be allowed as the COVID-19 guidelines only ban political rallies during the weekend.
Meanwhile, the Karnataka government led by Basavaraj Bommai on Sunday did not make any efforts to detain the key Congress leaders or supporters for violating the weekend curfew or other COVID norms. According to political observers, the BJP did not want to give further public attention to the Congress campaign by detaining high profile leaders — or seem like they are against a project for giving more water for Bengaluru. Speaking to the media on Sunday, CM Bommai said, “I have called a meeting of important leaders of our party and senior Ministers, where we will discuss several issues including Bengaluru development, Mekedatu project and the padayatra. When cases regarding the project are pending, as a responsible political party, who have been earlier in power, and being fully aware of the system, the law, what inter-state water dispute is, court and tribunal orders, they should not have gone ahead with the padayatra, but politics seems to be important for them. People will decide,” he said.
Speaking about organising the padayatra despite the curfew, Congress leader Krishna Byre Gowda said, “We also take COVID-19 seriously, we don’t want to cause a hazard for anyone. Whatever norms the government prescribes, we are willing to work with them.” He also accused the ruling government of not having clear-cut COVID-19 norms.
The padayatra is scheduled to go on till January 19.
With inputs from Aditi Kumar