On Cauvery, Angry Politicians Must Listen to the Wisdom of their Farmers

Ordinary citizens are disgusted and angry that they are put to hardship on the whims of unregulated mobs. Can we allow vested interests to hold everyone to ransom?

Men ride a motorcycle past a lorry in Bengaluru, which was set on fire by protesters after the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 12,000 cubic feet of water per second every day from the Cauvery river. Credit: Reuters

Men ride a motorcycle past a lorry in Bengaluru, which was set on fire by protesters after the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 12,000 cubic feet of water per second every day from the Cauvery river. Credit: Reuters

Year after year, when the Cauvery water issue rears its ugly head, I wonder, are we one country only when it comes to cricket or Pakistani terrorism? Where’s our famous unity in diversity? My husband, born to Keralite parents, grew up in Bangalore. His parental home and memories are of old Bangalore. We moved to the Nilgiris decades ago. I had a Kannada-speaking grandfather and a Tamil great grandmother. With a foot in each state, its easier to view all arguments in a more balanced, less partisan manner. Additionally, we’ve been connected to farmers and farming in both states for decades too.

Is it really about water? The farmers of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are both far more civilised about the entire issue, and its resolution, than the media gives them credit for. We listened to farmers in Mandya district, apparently the epicentre of the farmers’ agitation. We left Bangalore at 7 am hoping to avoid the really strident protesters. Approaching Mandya town on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, the police had created a diversion, preventing people from driving through the main street of Mandya town. It was only 8:30 am, but there was already a decided buzz. Groups of people huddled together talking about what could happen, exchanging news. But, the familiar weather-beaten farmers’ faces were friendly and helpful. My husband and son, both fluent in village Kannada, chatted with them, making general enquiries about the situation in general, apart from asking advice about the best way to get to Mysuru. My husband, who farmed corn, ragi and watermelons, among other things decades ago, always bonds with farmers. The empathy is almost tangible, the farmers respond instantly.

“Farmers everywhere need water. Karnataka or Tamil Nadu. But what can we or the government or anybody do if the gods do not give us water? Will the strikes and violence give farmers more water? If we get more in Karnataka, then our brothers in Tamil Nadu will get less and vice versa. Somehow we have to share. But this is not the way,” said one village elder, pointing to the ashes of a coconut tree that lay across the road. It had been set ablaze the previous day. His weather-beaten face spoke of decades of hard work, in his fields, among his crops in the hot sun. “Of course we want a solution to our water problem but will burning trees in villages or burning buses in the city help us in any way? Can violence help anyone?” another farmer asked in apparent disgust.

Though the farmers we met were stoic and philosophical and quite distanced from the more violent agitations there is no doubt that most are agitated – and quite distressed. In days gone by, they depended on the rain for their agriculture and a failure of the monsoon was an issue to be taken up with the rain gods, not with their neighbouring state farmers. With the shift to irrigated agriculture, water from the Cauvery became the lifeline of the farmers of this and other areas. And a failed monsoon suddenly became a more political issue. Out of the hands of farmers and their gods into the hands of politicians, the government and even the courts. So of course they are agitated but definitely not to the point of burning buses and other mindless violence.

I spoke to Professor Basavaraj of the Karnataka Raita Sangha. “The Supreme Court judgement is unreasonable and so obviously there is an emotional reaction from the people of Karnataka. We have not got enough water for drinking and the SC wants to provide water for a samba(second ) crop for Tamil Nadu. Of course, hooligans not farmers took advantage of the protests and burnt buses and vandalised shops. The lumpen elements always do that,” he said.

“In the old days we grew more ragi and traditional crops than rice, didn’t we?”, I asked. “Yes”, he replied. “In the old  days our people ate rice only for Ugadi and the Gouri-Ganesha festivals. But the poor farmer who eats only ragi is treated as  socially inferior, looked down on by the more affluent rice eaters. So he too wants to move up the social ladder by growing rice.”

The entire question of crops and following sustainable agricultural practices is complicated and contentious. Books have been written on it.  

Clearly there is more to the agitations than what the mainstream media portrays. Farmers are certainly agitated, but most observers could see that the more violent protests were engineered by mostly unemployed, disgruntled young men, with obvious political aspirations. Thousands of online videos and pictures show quite clearly, that the mobs going berserk in Bengaluru were of the rent-a-crowd variety. Something akin to a football mob gone crazy.

Most of the trouble-makers we encountered in rural Mandya too, quite obviously had little to do with farmers and no real connection to the Cauvery water issue. One young hero boasted that they were all political wannabes looking to make a mark, with some political party or the other. Arrest is welcome, he added, because those arrested become heroes and go up the party ladder. Blaming it all on farmers is too easy, too neat and much too convenient for these people whose actions are nothing short of criminal. Hiding behind the shield of “poor” farmers, they escape punishment and unscathed by their criminal activities, become part of the paid mobs that wait for any opportunity to jump on any bandwagon that enables them to resort to paid-for violence another day.

Ironically, it was the farmers, sympathetic to families stuck in the protests for hours, who guided us to the quickest way to Mysore.  They more or less mapped out the route and the time the goons would take as they went on rampage from village to village. Farmers exhorted us to cross the flash points before any staged protest could begin.  Thanks to them, we journeyed to Mysore without any hiccups. Later at Nanjangud, closer to the Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu border there was another hold up. Here a very, smart young cop managed a classic mob handling manouevre, reasoned with the leaders sensibly and effectively, and soon sent traffic and crowds on their way.  As we congratulated a cop on the efficient handling of the crowd,  he just smiled and said “they have shown their faces and protested and so their job is done. We do not want to aggravate the situation by preventing them.”

Why is there no rule of law in India, a bemused British friend asked several years ago when all traffic ground to a halt between Bangalore and Mysore. Wanton destruction of public property cannot and must not be tolerated. In an overpopulated city like Bangalore, the fact that 56 buses were burnt by mobs is criminal. The Tamil owner Natarajan told reporters that the mob first destroyed all the CCTV cameras. He emphasises that all his buses had Karnataka licence plates, yet the mob targeted them, implying a pre-planned, not a spontaneous attack.

Farmers have a legitimate reason to protest. And if  the democratic process is to remain healthy they should. But mindless destruction of shops, buses and cars is criminal and has to be treated and punished as such. The perpetrators were treating the arrests as a joke, a badge of honour, confident that the political goons who led them would soon have them out with no repercussions. Times of India carried a story about a young woman leading the arson attack. Her price? A plate of biryani and a hundred rupees, impossible to comprehend for the average citizen.

A group of scientists have recommended that growing water-intensive crops like sugarcane and paddy year round should be stopped. These should be grown in the monsoon and for the rest of the year, farmers should revert to the less-intensive traditional food crops they used to grow in the past.

But it is not only about unsustainable farming practices. Eighty percent of Bangalore’s drinking water comes from the Cauvery. This demand too is only growing. Urban populations are even more dependent on  rivers like the Cauvery than they imagine. They only see the water coming from their taps and are completely distanced from the source. As long as the tap runs they need not give a thought to their consumption patterns. So the Cauvery issue and the sustainable use of its waters is not only something that farmers or rural India has to do something about. The proliferation of multi-storeyed flats in Bangalore must take a huge portion of the blame for over-consumption. Tankers bring water to luxury complexes. But there is no concept of water rationing or water-metres to restrict use per apartment.

Crores have been lost by  every section of society- street vendors, small shop owners, street food suppliers. Moving up the economic ladder, the tourist industry provides seasonal employment to countless poor people during the festival season, from waiters, to hotel staff, to caterers. In the cities, it is the same. Big business groups in Bangalore,the IT sector and ultimately, ordinary poor workers  lose their daily wages every time a bandh is called. Ordinary citizens are disgusted and angry that they are put to hardship on the whims of unregulated mobs. Can we allow vested interests from the worst sections of society to hold everyone to ransom?

Whether Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah should release 3000 or 6000 cusecs to Tamil Nadu is a burning question, (pun not intended)  but the issue is much larger than that. Only recently, Chennai reeled under devastating floods. Parts of Bangalore suffer similarly every monsoon. Currently Andhra Pradesh is dealing with excessive rain.  It boils down to how we as a civilisation relate to, protect and nurture our natural resources. It is also high time that we curb violence and mayhem perpetrated by criminals in the name of high-minded causes, political and social. Bangalore was once a beautiful and peaceful place. We, the ordinary people, need to reclaim that space. And we need to do that sooner, rather than later.