Mahadayi dispute: Why the forgotten demands of K’taka farmers is a poll issue

Farmers in Gadag and Dharwad regions accuse political leaders of using the Mahadayi dispute to garner votes, while refusing to solve their water woes.
Mahadayi dispute: Why the forgotten demands of K’taka farmers is a poll issue
Mahadayi dispute: Why the forgotten demands of K’taka farmers is a poll issue
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Hot dusty roads, parched lands yearning for water and distraught farmers waiting for a good bout of rainfall – these are the markers of Nargund, a drought-riddled area in Karnataka’s Gadag district. But more importantly, it is the birthplace for the Kalasa-Banduri agitation – which has been alive for over four decades.

With elections fast approaching, the farmers of Nargund feel angry, ignored and have begun to lose hope. “In August last year, when the tribunal (Mahadayi Water Dispute Tribunal) gave its verdict, everyone was so happy. We were finally going to get water that would irrigate our lands. The government ruined that for us. Now we have no water,” says Shivappa Banappa Doddakere, a 67-year-old farmer from Nargund.

Shivappa's empty plot of land, where is cotton crop dried up

Shivappa is referring to the Karnataka government’s decision to move the Supreme Court in November 2018 against the decision of the Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal to allot 13.4 TMC water to the state. The Kumaraswamy-led government had filed a special leave petition with the Supreme Court stating that the tribunal’s order was contrary to the decision of the top court in the Cauvery water dispute case, which mandated the equitable sharing of water among riparian states in a river water dispute.

The Mahadayi water sharing dispute concerns the usage of water from River Mahadayi. The issue has been a bone of contention between Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra since 2003.

On August 14, 2018, the Mahadayi Water Dispute Tribunal issued a verdict stating that 13.4 TMC water from River Mahadayi would be allotted to Karnataka. Of the 13.4 TMC water, 5.5 TMC could be used for drinking and irrigation purposes, 8.2 TMC was to be utilized for power generation, whilst 1.12 TMC and 2.18 TMC was to be used for the Kalasa and Banduri streams respectively.

“If we had got the 1.12 TMC water, our lands would not have dried up. I have been growing cotton and jowar since the last 40 years. There were times when I grew 500 quintals of cotton. Now I am riddled with debt of Rs 7 lakh,” Shivappa laments.

Will anti-incumbency help the BJP?

With the elections approaching, residents of Gadag and Dharwad region express anger against the state government for not allowing the water to flow into the Kalasa and Banduri streams. The angry farmers in the region, say that their lives have been used as free passes for political leaders to gain votes.

“The Central government was willing to give us the water promised by the tribunal. Everyone was happy and we all welcomed it. The state government opposed it. The Water Resource Minister DK Shivakumar and Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy were all telling us that they would follow the tribunal’s order. When the verdict came out, they realized that the issue was coming to an end. That’s when they turned on us. They approached the court so the Centre put the tribunal’s verdict on hold. We became the scapegoats once again. It was a cruel political game,” alleges Soubhagyama Chikkerur, a 36-year-old farmer in Chikkanargund.

Farmers in the region say that leaders across political parties have stopped addressing the issue of farm loan waiver, drought during the various election campaigns. Their growing disillusionment is also due to complete apathy from the state government in addressing their issues in a timely fashion, they say.

“No one talks about it anymore. No one can come to us and ask for votes by promising to solve this problem because we have been betrayed again and again,” Soubhagyamma adds.

According to Vijay Kulkarni, the man who spearheaded the Kalasa-Banduri protest, time and again, politicians have come in the way for farmers when they needed the water to survive. Looking back, Vijay says that the protesting farmers had almost tasted victory in 2003 but the issue was sidelined by state Congress leaders for political gains.

He recalls that the Vajpayee government had in 2003 assured them that they would get water, but it was never to be. Vijay Kulkarni blames leaders of the Karnataka Congress, alleging, “They got the Congress leaders in Goa to begin an agitation against the Kalasa-Banduri movement. Until then, there was no opposition to our protest. Until then, our problem was only about convincing the state and central governments to give us water. The state leaders sabotaged our chances in 2003 just because they knew the BJP would score a point with the people in the region if the water flowed through our fields.”

Vijay Kulkarni at his home in Chikkanargund

According to Kulkarni, the people of Nargund and the surrounding areas of Gadag have not forgotten that betrayal. He says that the state government did the same thing a second time when it filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the tribunal’s order, thereby stalling the process of water being released to the Kalasa and Banduri streams.

How the BJP made inroads into Congress bastion

In 1980, after the construction of the Navilutheertha Dam the then Chief Minister of Karnataka –SR Bommai had imposed a cess of Rs 1,500 per person in the Nargund region to recover the cost of constructing the dam. 

Angered by this, the farmers in Nargund rose up in rebellion against the government as the water from the dam was not reaching the farmers in the region. Popularly known as the Nargund rebellion, this marked the beginning of the Kalasa-Banduri movement.

For over eight years, successive governments led by Congress and the Janata Dal, sat on the demands of the farmers to bring in more water to the region. The Janata Dal government led by SR Bommai had also promised to connect River Mahadayi with the Malaprabha river. This plan too fell flat. Finally, in 1989, Chief Minister SR Bommai signed an MoU with the Goa government to construct a dam across the Kalasa stream. This proposal ended up in the backburner as well.

The farmers in Nargund and Navalgund waited for six more years, hoping that the state government would take action and that the dam would finally be built. With no move being made to construct a dam across the Kalasa and Banduri streams, anti-incumbency for the Congress and Janata Dal, which had dominated the political scenario in Karnataka grew.

“The farmers had been agitating for six years after the 1989 MoU was signed. Besides, when the Janata Party disintegrated, the strong Lingayat leaders moved to BJP. This was simply because the Janata Party has always been anti-Congress. This was also one of the reasons why the BJP began gaining ground in North Karnataka,” says Ashok Chandragi, a former journalist and political analyst.

This made it easy for the BJP to break into a bastion of the Congress – the Dharwad North segment. During the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, with the promise of constructing a dam across the Kalasa stream, BJP’s Vijay Sankeshwar bagged the MP seat. 

Ever since, the segment has remained a BJP bastion. After delimitation in 2008, the Nargund and Navalgund areas became a part of Haveri Lok Sabha segment. This segment was created in 2009 and ever since, has been a stronghold of the BJP. 

"There is anti-incumbency not for the candidate but for the state government. The people feel betrayed by the Congress and hence they end up voting for BJP. This time too, the BJP has a chance of winning here because of the way the ruling party handled the Mahadayi issue," says Ashok Chandragi adds.

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