Cauvery River water fight paralyses Bangalore on Saturday

October 6, 2012

(This article was reported by Gokul Chandrasekar, Vineet Sharma and Bidya Sapam. Photos by Bidya Sapam)

The water was running in Bangalore on Saturday, but the buses were not.

“I have been waiting for a bus for over two hours now,” said Prabhat Kishan, 60, at the Majestic Bus Station in Bangalore.

India’s information technology capital shut down on Saturday over a state-wide “bandh,” or strike, that shut down shops, malls and restaurants. The bandh’s organizers paralysed the city to protest a decision by India’s Supreme Court to demand that the state of Karnataka allow the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu to get precious additional reserves of water from the Cauvery River. It is the latest episode in a dispute that has endured for years in a country that is facing alarming shortages of groundwater.

Karnataka has appealed the verdict, saying that the Cauvery River Authority, which conducted the tests that led to the decision, did not perform the tests properly. A new report on the river’s ability to provide drinking water and water for farmers is due on Thursday, Oct. 11.

In a city infamous for its chaotic traffic, the streets were deserted and the normal din of horns from cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes was absent. There was  no commercial activity around the popular hubs of MG Road, Brigade Road and Koramangala, and the only buses that ran were ones non-union drivers. The information highway was partially shut down too as cable television operators blocked entertainment channels on television as they joined the protest.  On a normal day, the Majestic bus station is reported to handle around 800,000 commuters and 4,500 state run buses.

“Bandh hoga to problem to hogi hi (If there is a ‘Bandh’, it is bound to be problematic),” Kishan said in Hindi.

Bangalore’s two main public bus providers, one run by the city and one run by the state of Karnataka, participated in the bandh. In such strikes, businesses often won’t open and people won’t drive, some because they support the protests and others because they fear that groups supporting the shutdown will harm them. The bandhs are a forceful way to make a statement, but they also can become tiresome for thousands of people who are not fired up, especially when they occur repeatedly.

The strike was mostly peaceful in Bangalore. In Mysore, media reports said that pro-Kannada activists tried to break into the campus of IT company Wipro. Throughout Karnataka, meanwhile, the anger at having to share water with Tamil Nadu took other forms. Cinemas, for example, have banned the showing of Tamil-language films, which are usually very popular in the southern state.

As much as the bandh’s ostensible purpose was to protest the Supreme Court decision, there were indications that some of the participants were interested in other agendas. Joining the protesters were supporters  of movements to make Karnataka’s state language of Kannada mandatory in daily life, as well as groups representing the rights of Dalits, or “untouchables,” as they were and still are sometimes known in the caste system.

One suspicion that we heard today was that the Cauvery River authority was obeying the wishes of Prime Minister and Congress Party member Manmohan Singh.

“The Cauvery River Authority’s verdict has been completely unfair to the people of Karnataka,” said Siddharamayya, an activist and member of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, a farmer’s movement that opposes multinational seed companies like Monsanto and tried to fight the spread of U.S. fried chicken restaurant KFC in Bangalore in the 1990s. “We suspect the authority headed by the prime minister ruled in favour of Tamil Nadu as the government is its ally in centre while Karnataka is ruled by its opposition party BJP.” (Editor’s note: Singh’s Congress Party actually is allied with a different party in Tamil Nadu, not the ruling government.)

Former Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, who quit his post after scrutiny of questionable land deals involving him and his family, also has been using the general protest spirit to further antagonize the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has shown plenty of signs lately that it would rather be rid of him.

With such a full plate of agendas, some fear that the original source of the anger – water rights – might get overshadowed.

“We are really sad that some of the members of the family are sharing stage with political parties over the Cauvery water-sharing issue,” said Ranganathan, an academic from Mannargudi in Tamil Nadu, who represents a group of farmers from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu called the Cauvery Family, which is trying to find a solution that will help both states.  “A lot of constructive work done by us under the banner of Cauvery Family is being undone now.”

Of course, the chances are high that the dispute is not going to resolve itself anytime soon, which will give everybody more opportunities to raise their voices.


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Water is a scarce resource. It needs to be used judiciously by downstream states. Why cannot Tamil Nadu pay for the water released by Karnataka and the latter use the funds to popularise rain water harvesting, waste water recycling and even, de-salination plants. We need to work out “out of the box” solutions, if we are to continue enjoying adequate water supplies into the future.

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