The Hogenakkal fires are being doused. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has put the project on hold until a popular government takes over in Karnataka. S.M. Krishna has hailed this “magnanimous gesture”, describing him as an elder statesman. The Karnataka bandh is being called off. Some sporadic violence may continue in both states, but things will probably settle down soon. It is nevertheless necessary to ask how and why this trouble happened, and how a recurrence can be prevented.
Whatever the merits of the Hogenakkal project, two things seem to be clear. First, it is said to be a drinking water project. Among water uses drinking water has the highest priority. The quantity of Cauvery waters involved in this project is very small — 1.4 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) — and it is to benefit certain drought-prone areas in Tamil Nadu. Second, Tamil Nadu says it is an approved project. The fact that Japanese funding is available for it seems to indicate so. Tamil Nadu also says that at a meeting in 1998 the project was cleared and that the two states agreed not to raise objections to each other’s drinking water projects. This seems to be borne out by a report in the media about the details of what happened in 1998.
Why then did the flare-up occur? It was clearly caused by Yeddiyurappa’s visit to Hogenakkal and his objections to the project, adding a dubious territorial dimension to it. He must bear the responsibility for starting all the trouble. The explanation that suggests itself is that in the context of the forthcoming elections he saw some political mileage in this. Perhaps he did not quite realise the forces that he was unleashing. It is a pity that his statement was not repudiated by the BJP leadership, considering particularly that it was under the auspices of the NDA government that the project is said to have been approved; but of course such repudiations do not happen in Indian politics.
Some leaders and opinion-makers in Tamil Nadu responded to Yeddiyurappa’s statement, and eventually, at the foundation-stone ceremony, Karunanidhi asserted categorically that the project would go forward despite objections. He has been accused of using excessively strong language. Perhaps he could have expressed himself in milder and more measured language. However, so far as one can see, he did not say anything that warranted the violence that erupted in Karnataka.
Once Yeddiyurappa raised the issue, politicians in Karnataka did not dare to say that he was wrong. They too found it necessary to question the project. What could be Karnataka’s objections to the project? It may suspect that the project has irrigation and power components as well. Tamil Nadu denies this. Karnataka may also be apprehensive of the backwater effects of the project, though one has not heard this point made. All this can easily be resolved through mutual discussions or through Central mediation. However, the principal Karnataka argument seems to be that Tamil Nadu should not have undertaken the project at a time when the Cauvery dispute is still before the tribunal and the Supreme Court through petitions. This seems to be an afterthought. Tamil Nadu’s answer is that the small quantity of water involved in the project would come out of the share allotted to the state by the tribunal; that the project would not create a new claim to Cauvery waters; and that Karnataka had agreed to the project in 1998.
Whatever the merits of these arguments, it was very unfortunate that certain groups in Karnataka decided to mount an anti-Tamil agitation on this issue. It is not clear what the Tamil language or films or TV channels have to do with the rights and wrongs of the project. The candid explanation is that there is an undercurrent of anti-Tamil feelings on the part of some groups — only some groups — in Karnataka, and that it rises to the surface on occasions of this kind. It happened in 1992 too.
Neither Deve Gowda nor Krishna said a word in condemnation of the violence. By ascribing it to provocation by Karunanidhi, they seemed implicitly to justify it. Violence in Karnataka was followed by violence in Tamil Nadu. Commercial and passenger transport between the two states was disrupted. Filmstars in both states began rallies and protest fasts. Trouble was spiralling out of control.
At the Central level there was a deafening silence. Neither the BJP nor the Congress leaders said a word. The fact is that the responses of political leaders at all levels, local, state and national, were determined by electoral calculations. This shows the distorting power of elections. We rightly take great pride in our elections as impressive demonstrations of Indian democracy, but they have their negative aspects too.
Eminent persons and intellectuals in both the states could have issued statements calling for peace and harmony. So far as one knows, that did not happen. What is the explanation for the silence: prudence or cynicism or pusillanimity?
In reality, this is not a water issue at all. It is the eruption of a latent Kannadiga-Tamilian ill-feeling. This may now be a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, but it may grow into an enormous problem if left unattended.
Good sense seems at last to have prevailed, but this is a fragile peace. Genuine harmony needs to be restored between the Kannadigas and the Tamils. A great responsibility in this regard rests on persons of goodwill in both states. Will they rise to the occasion?
The writer is a former secretary, water resources, in the Government of India