Panaji: Ever since his decision to tamely fall in line with the BJP’s strategy to stoke the Mahadayi water dispute before the Karnataka election, chief minister Manohar Parrikar has waded into a needless controversy opening him up to severe criticism at home.
After a rushed pre-Christmas meet called by BJP chief Amit Shah with former Karnataka chief minister B. S. Yeddyurappa, Union ministers Ananth Kumar and Prakash Javadekar and MP Prahlad Joshi, a letter emerged with Parrikar promising to “not oppose a reasonable and justified quantum of water” from the Mahadayi for the drinking water needs of north Karnataka on “humanitarian ground” (sic).
The letter, addressed to Yeddyurappa – who as BJP’s Karnataka president is no constitutional authority for bilateral talks between states – has been seen as nothing more than a cynical political ploy to upstage the Congress with the Karnataka elections just around the corner. On Wednesday, BJP workers blocked the highway at Nargund in the Gadag district of Karnataka to “condemn the stand of the Congress in Goa” on the issue. A few days earlier, buses from Goa to Karnataka had to be cancelled for a day over heightened tensions across the border.
Had Parrikar been really moved by a sudden drinking water “crisis” in the neighbouring state, he would have agreed to bilateral talks with its official representatives, rather than running down Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah in his pressers: “How can I trust Karnataka Congress chief minister? By the time talks start, BJP will be in power in Karnataka,” was his combative response to why government to government talks had not been called if the matter required such an urgent response.
The inter-state dispute over sharing the waters of the Mahadayi (Mhadei in Goa) has persisted for three decades. Tensions escalated in early 2002 after the Centre’s in principle nod allowing Karnataka to divert 7.56 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water from the river’s basin that skirts the borders of Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra, though 78% of it lies within Goa. The 111 km long river which becomes the iconic Mandovi downstream, runs through 76 km in Goa, 35 km in Karnataka. Whether under a Parrikar government (in 2002 and 2012) or a Congress one, Goa has been consistent in opposing the inter-basin diversion of the waters by Karnataka, arguing before the Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal that it would trigger an ecological disaster in this state and the Western Ghats, causing an ingress of salinity 46 km upstream.
Parrikar’s sudden capitulation comes just as everything was going Goa’s way in the courts, say environmentalists, who are enraged by his politically-motivated “sellout” of the state’s interest, practically reversing a bitterly fought and hard-earned advantage. The CM’s assurance runs counter to his own government’s take in the courts which has disputed Karnataka’s claim to scarcity of drinking water in the Hubli-Dharwad region, saying the scarcity, if it existed, had been created by the “deliberate” diversion of water meant for drinking purposes to irrigate water-intensive cash crops in the region. In July 2016, the Mahadayi tribunal nixed the Karnataka plea to divert the 7.56 TMC water to its Malaprabha reservoir. Just five months ago, the Supreme Court disposed of a long-pending petition by the Goa NGO Mhadei Bachao Abhiyan (MBA) after Karnataka’s lawyer assured the bench that the state would not resume work on the controversial Kalasa canal (which Goa has opposed) without environmental approvals.
Yet, work on the project – which is almost complete – continues with little regard to commitments in the court or Goa’s concerns, according to environmentalist and MBA member Rajendra Kerkar. Kerkar, who travelled to the site at Kankumbi around Christmas to take pictures, told The Wire that the canal, some 3.17 km from Goa, skirts the Mahadayi wildlife protected zone and stands just 500 metres from the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary. He wonders how Parrikar proposes to supply drinking water from the Mahadayi basin to the Hubli-Dharwad region which is over 150km away. He calls Parrikar’s assurance to Karnataka “unrealistic”.
Committed environmentalists like Kerkar are the least of Parrikar’s problems as he comes to the end of a controversial year in power in March. Dependent on the support of unpredictable allies like the Goa Forward and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and some independents to keep the BJP afloat after it lost the election last year, Parrikar has appeared increasingly vulnerable politically after his decision to return to Goa. His acquiescence to the dictates of the BJP’s central leaders like Shah and Nitin Gadkari who’ve been calling the shots on the big-ticket projects like national highways and massive coal imports through Goa – including now the Mahadayi diversion – against the wishes of the locals, has weakened his position in the state.
Ami Goenkar (We Goans) an umbrella organisation of 21 NGOs has recently taken shape to oppose any water-sharing talks with Karnataka. They’re demanding that Parrikar withdraw his letter to Yeddyurappa if he wants to keep them from coming out to the streets. In a world of depleting water resources, no politician can afford to let down his own constituency. Parrikar might learn that to his own political cost in the days to come.