Monday, 7 April, 2008

Hogenakkal issue: Time to love thy neighbour?

G V L Narasimha Rao

The laying of the foundation of the Rs1,334 crore Hogenakkal project—expected to provide drinking water to about three million people in Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri districts of Tamil Nadu—by the state’s chief minister M. Karunanidhi on 28 March has blown into a full-scale controversy involving the neighbouring state of Karnataka.

Karnataka is opposed to the project on the grounds that its share of the Cauvery waters will be affected and that the picturesque waterfall of Hogenakkal belongs to it, thereby making Tamil Nadu’s scheme illegal, a charge denied by the Karunanidhi regime.

Tamil Nadu says that the Hogenakkal project was approved in 1998, after it gave the go-ahead for use of the Cauvery waters for the Banagalore city in 1997 when Karnataka’s Deve Gowda was the prime minister. Karnataka is opposing the Hogenakkal project citing refusal of successive governments in Tamil Nadu to take up some irrigation and drinking water projects on the Cauvery river in the state.

Karnataka is currently in election mode with elections to the state assembly being scheduled in the month of May. In the midst of preparations for the poll, the row with Tamil Nadu is proving to be embarrassing for the Congress party, one of the principal contenders for power, as the ruling party of Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), is a coalition partner of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre. The DMK government in Tamil Nadu is also actually dependent on the Congress for its outside support. The DMK has been a troublesome ally for the Congress-led UPA even earlier with its now infamous “there is no Ram” affidavit in the Supreme Court on the Sethusamudram project.

The two neighbouring states are frequently in conflict, with the spirit of cooperation completely missing. The current conflict is reminiscent of the long-standing rift between the neighbouring states on the Cauvery water sharing issue. The verdict of the Cauveri Water Tribunal last February was resented in Karnataka as it is generally believed that the regional parties of Tamil Nadu wielded enormous power at the Centre and arm-twisted the ruling coalitions in New Delhi to get favourable decisions.

Water is a highly volatile and emotive issue. Water affects the livelihoods and quality of life of people and thus can stoke strong emotions. Usually, projects that are meant to provide drinking water tend to be less controversial on humanitarian considerations. But, many states have constructed irrigation projects under the pretext of drinking water projects. Various states such as Karnataka, Maharastra, and Tamil Nadu have been accused by their neighbours on this score.

Filmy connection
In the movie-crazy southern states, the line between politics and films is very thin. True to this tradition, film stars in both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have championed the interest their respective states.

Rajnikant, the super star of Tamil cinema, said: “I unequivocally condemn Karnataka for this reprehensible act of denying us what is rightfully ours.” He came strongly against senior Karnataka’s Congress party leader S.M. Krishna and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief ministerial candidate B.S. Yediyurappa for opposing the project.

Rajnikant’s unusually aggressive statements are an eloquent statement of his political intent as rumours continue to float that he is contemplating the launch of a new political party in the near future. Even as Rajnikant cautioned Karnataka politicians against using the issue for narrow political gains during the ensuing assembly elections, he has made a strong political pitch for his own political launch as a crusader of Tamil rights.

The strident tone of Rajnikanth—Marathi by descent— surprised many as the matinee idol was born and brought up in Karnataka and worked as a bus conductor there before migrating to Chennai to star in Tamil films.

It is this Marathi connection of Rajnikant that has given critics of poor Amitabh Bachchan yet another opportunity to trade punches with him. In the recent weeks, Bachchan has become the favourite whipping boy for all and sundry for not doing enough to promote marathi manoos (typical Marathi man). Why should Amitabh do anything to promote Mumabai and marathi manoos? Has he done anything to damage, destroy or run down Mumbai or Mumbaikars? Still, the competitive chauvinism of the Shiv Sena and its break away outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), seems to have no limits.

The peace in Karnataka appears fragile. Every time there is a dispute with Tamil Nadu, cinema houses screening Tamil films are attacked, cable operators are threatened and asked to block telecast of Tamil channels, and buses from Tamil Nadu are torched. Kannada film industry rues that non-Kannada films rule the roost in Bangalore and seriously jeopardize the Kannada film industry. Can you force non-Kannadigas to watch Kannada films? After all, the majority of Bangaloreans are non-Kannadigas, much like the majority of Mumbai’s residents are not Marathi.

With Bangalore threatening to turn out to be another Mumbai, there is a need for sparring states to settle matters amicably, lest the two of the country’s most progressive states set a bad example in neighbourly relations.

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development and Research Services, a research consulting firm.


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