There is a statewide bandh in Karnataka today. Several Kannada and farmer outfits protest against the “Centre’s apathy” towards the Mahadayi dispute. Needless to say, that daily life has been disrupted badly in Karnataka. So, what is the Mahadayi dispute that has arrested the pace of the state that never stops. First of all, a little background.
The northern part of Bayaluseeme region in Karnataka is the second most arid region in the entire country, next only to the Thar Desert. The region which consists of the Ballari, Bidar, Belagavi, Kalaburagi, Raichur, Vijayapura, Dharwad, Gadag, Haveri, Yadagiri, and Davanagere districts is largely a dry region. It is extremely drought prone and often faces acute shortage of water. In 2001, Karnataka suffered from its worst drought in 15 years with 23 of out of then 28 districts reeling under severe drought.
The SM Krishna led government came up with the proposal to implement the Kalasa-Banduri Nala project in 2002 which had been in the pipeline for several years as means to prevent frequent water crisis situations in Dharwad, Belagavi, and Gadag districts.
The objective of the project is to create two barrages over the two tributaries of the Mahadayi or the Mandovi River which are the Kalasa and the Banduri as the name of the project suggests.
By building these barrages, Karnataka intends to divert 7.56 TMC of water to fulfil the drinking water needs of the Dharwad, Belagavi, and Gadag districts. Out of these, Dharwad and Gadag are especially drought prone. The Dharwad district consists of the twin cities of Hubballi-Dharwad which is the second largest city in Karnataka. The plan to share water from the Mahadayi had been in place from the time of the SR Bommai led government in Karnataka. The then Chief Minister Bommai had had a verbal agreement with his Goa counterpart Pratapsinh Rane in 1989 itself regarding this issue. However, the Bommai government soon collapsed and the whole project went into a limbo before it was revived by the SM Krishna government in 2002.
The Karnataka government had even managed to get the approval of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led government at the centre. Just as it looked as though the project would finally take off, the Manohar Parrikar led government in Goa raised objections against it and claimed that it would harm the flora and fauna of the state. This time, the Congress was in power in Karnataka and the BJP was in power in Goa with the NDA being in power at the centre. The NDA government put the project on hold and Karnataka’s wait got prolonged. The matter again went into a limbo till 2006 when it was revived by the HD Kumaraswamy led government which was a coalition consisting of the Janata Dal (Secular) or the JDS and the BJP. This time, the Congress was in power in Goa and the UPA was in power at the centre.
Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy and Deputy Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa laid the foundation stone for the commencement of the Mahadayi project in the Khanapur taluk of Belagavi district.
The Goa government which had Pratapsinh Rane as the CM. Yes, the same Rane who had agreed to share water in 1989 now opposed the project. The UPA government constituted a tribunal known as the Mahadayi Water Disputes tribunal to look into the matter and once again Karnataka had to wait.
In 2007, Goa faced elections and during one of the campaigns in the state, the Congress President Sonia Gandhi declared that her party would not allow Karnataka (which had the JDS-BJP government in power) to implement the Kalasa Banduri project. She also stated that tourism in Goa is the most important activity and her party would continue to support it. This was a shocking statement made by the Congress President. She seemed to have forgotten that it was her party’s government that had come up with the project in 1989 and in 2002. It was also her party’s government in Goa that had agreed to share water with Karnataka in 1989.
In 2014, there was another change. This time, Goa was under the BJP rule with Parrikar again being the CM, Karnataka was under the Congress rule with Siddaramaiah being the CM, and the BJP led NDA government was in power at the centre. Parrikar was replaced by Laxmikant Parsekar later in the year as Parrikar was made the Defence Minister in the Narendra Modi led government. The Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal meanwhile started examining the case and on July 2016, it rejected Karnataka’s claim. The verdict came as a great shock to many farmer organisations and the general public of Karnataka who had been raising awareness about the project ever since the tribunal started examining the case.
The tribunal indicated that the legal team representing Karnataka had failed to convince it that the 7.56 TMC was being wasted in the sea and by diverting it, Karnataka would be able to utilize this amount of water which is being wasted. Karnataka had every right to be disappointed because in case of a water dispute, the claim of the lower riparian state is usually valued more than that of the upper riparian state and Karnataka has firsthand experience of this in the Kaveri water dispute that the state has with Tamil Nadu which is the lower riparian state in this regard. So, similarly, Karnataka which is the lower riparian state in the Mahadayi water dispute had its claim rejected and the state rightfully appealed against it.
Now that elections are around the corner in Karnataka, the issue has again resurfaced in the political scenario with both the Congress and the BJP using it as a poll plank. The two parties have traded charges against each other and both of them intend to exploit this issue to win the elections that are scheduled to be held this year. The Congress is asking for the intervention of PM Modi in the matter whereas the BJP is opposing it and saying that the Congress unit of Karnataka should convince its Goa counterpart and it would do the same with its Goa unit. In this political fistfight between the Congress and the BJP across Goa and Karnataka, the people of Dharwad, Gadag, and Belagavi districts who are suffering because even after 29 years, there has been no solution found for their water woes. If Kalasa Banduri Nala project cannot be implemented because it harms the environment as per Goa’s claim, then what is the alternative solution for this problem in the districts concerned?
If environment was that threatened by the project, why did Pratapsinh Rane agree to SR Bommai’s request way back in 1989? Or for that matter, why did the NDA government approve the project in the first place in 2002?
Could it be possible that the powerful hotel-resort lobby in Goa that cuts across party lines, is opposing the project because it perceives that it is against its interests? Otherwise, what could be the reason why Sonia Gandhi spoke about the project and tourism in the same tone way back in 2007?
Why couldn’t Karnataka’s legal team convince the tribunal in 2016? All these questions need some valid answers and 2018, the year in which Karnataka goes to polls; will this be the year where we get all the answers? Will 2018 see the Kalasa Banduri project being finally implemented? Or will Karnataka be disappointed once again? Only time will tell.