Every morning, 90-year-old Yenkappa Fakirappa, from Yallapur in the Nargund taluk of northern Karnataka’s Gadag district, travels 40 km from his home to Nargund town, paying a one-way bus fare of Rs 35, to participate in a farmers’ agitation to bring water from the Mahadayi river to his region.
On April 13, the farmers’ agitation entered Day 1003, and one of the earliest to arrive at the podium was Fakirappa. There are 40 people sitting on the podium on any given day, since the agitation began on July 16, 2015, to get water to 11 taluks in the districts of Gadag, Dharwad, Bagalkot and Belgaum, inhabited by around one crore people. On 75 days in these nearly three years, they have brought the Nargund town to a complete halt; on countless days, the highway linking Hubli in Karnataka to Sholapur in Maharashtra has been blocked.
With lack of drinking water a major poll issue across Karnataka, a fact acknowledged by both the Congress and BJP, the Nargund agitation is set to figure in as many as 30 Assembly constituencies in the coming elections.
“This is such a dry region that people hesitate to give their daughters in marriage to grooms from Nargund. In the summer we get drinking water supply once in 15 days, while in the winter and monsoon, it comes once in eight to 10 days,” says Ayub Khan, a shopkeeper in Nargund.
All the three major political parties in Karnataka — the ruling Congress, opposition BJP and JD(S) — have referred to the Nargund agitation in some way or the other in the build-up to the May 12 Karnataka Assembly polls. The BJP, that held sway in the region here, had seen its influence wane in the 2013 Assembly elections. BJP president Amit Shah has promised that drinking water supply for the region would be a reality if the party won; Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has questioned the BJP reluctance to push for a Centre-mediated settlement on the Mahadayi river with Goa and Maharashtra, despite both being BJP-ruled states; the JD(S) has promised that it will implement the Kalasa Banduri waterway project to get Mahadayi water to the region if elected to power, since it was its government that had moved it forward in 2006.
In September last year, the Mahadayi River Disputes Tribunal had directed Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra to sit down and resolve the three-decade-long dispute over the river. But the Centre is yet to call a meeting. While the Congress has questioned this, the BJP has been saying the problem can be resolved only if it is elected to power in Karnataka as well, along with Goa, Maharashtra and the Centre. But Fakirappa and the other farmers say they no longer believe such poll-time promises, and that their only recourse could be courts. The Karnataka Raitha Sene, under whose umbrella the agitation for the Mahadayi water has been going on, has decided not to endorse any political outfit in these elections nor allow them to use its platform.
“At election time they come, but then don’t do anything after the polls. We have gone to every politician,” says Fakirappa, who owns nine acres and cultivates maize, sunflower and groundnuts.
The leader of the agitation, Veeresh Sobaradamath, 45, says they won’t be boycotting the polls, but “the intent is to stay focused on our agitation”. “We need not abuse the political leaders or praise them because they do not have the capacity to do anything. We have come far without them supporting us.”
Adds farmer leader Sobaradamath, “On one side the BJP blackmails us and says that if we vote for them, they will get us the water. On the other side, Rahul Gandhi comes to these parts and does not say a word about our agitation… If Prime Minister Narendra Modi had brought about an agreement among the states, he would have been widely appreciated. We now feel he is not the PM of the country but the PM of one political party. There is no sympathy for farmers. There is a lot of talk but no action.”
Sobaradamath says they personally appealed to Modi too, to no avail. “We met him twice — once when he came to the Suttur Math and another time on August 24, 2015, after an all-party meeting. We begged with folded hands. We carried out a Twitter campaign.”
So now, the farmers are willing to give the Congress state government the benefit of doubt. “The Goa CM wrote a letter to BJP leader B S Yeddyurappa saying Goa is willing to share water for drinking, but he did not write to the Karnataka government or the tribunal on this issue. Does the BJP think people do not understand the constitutional set-up in the country and how inter-state issues are resolved, or do they not know this?” says S B Jogannavar, another leader of the agitation.
At the same time, Sobaradamath fears their anger may not be enough to determine results come election day. “Elections are fought on dozens of fronts. There is caste, liquor, black money, corruption and lies. This agitation is only about one issue and is not likely to play a big role despite being a big part of our lives for over 1,000 days.”