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March for Mekedatu reservoir halted: the project, legal issues and politics

A march started on January 9 by the Congress, which was meant to cover 100 km in 10 days, was halted on Thursday, a day after the Karnataka High Court had raised questions on how it could be carried out amid rising Covid-19 cases in the state.

The ‘Mekedatu march’ had been launched for implementation of a project to build a reservoir on the Cauvery at Mekedatu near the Tamil Nadu border. The proposed reservoir, which aims to supply drinking water to Bengaluru and surrounding regions, has been challenged in the Supreme Court by Tamil Nadu on the ground that it would eat into the state’s share of Cauvery water as adjudicated by the court in 2018.

The Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, which had labelled the march the ‘Walk for Water’, has temporarily suspended it citing rising Covid-19 cases, and saying it would resume when the crisis subsided.

The project

Proposed by Karnataka, the project envisages a reservoir near Ontigondlu, about 1.5 km from Mekedatu (which literally means goat’s leap) in Ramanagara district of south Karnataka at the confluence of the Cauvery and Arkavathi rivers. It is 4 km from the Tamil Nadu border and 100 km from Bengaluru.

In 2013, the Congress government in Karnataka headed by Siddaramaiah prepared a feasibility report for the reservoir project with a storage capacity of 67.16 thousand million cubic feet (TMCF) of water that would aim to supply 4.75 TMCF to Bengaluru and its surrounding areas, besides generating 400 megawatts of hydroelectric power. The project was estimated to cost Rs 5,000 crore at the time. It was proposed to be built across an area of 5,252 hectares, including 1,869 hectares of reserve forest land.

The project will need multiple clearances from the Centre and courts as it involves the Cauvery water sharing dispute.

Current status

In January 2019, the then Congress-JD(S) state government headed by H D Kumaraswamy submitted a detailed project report (DPR) to the Central Water Commission and the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA). The DPR is yet to be approved.

The project also needs environmental clearances since large portions of forest land will be submerged if the reservoir is built. Environmentalists have raised concerns about this and about an elephant corridor that would be covered by the proposed reservoir.

It can only be executed with the consent of Tamil Nadu, which has already challenged it.

The politics

With a year to go for the Assembly elections, the protest by the state Congress is being seen as an effort to attract voters in south Karnataka through the emotive issue. The Congress is hoping to displace the JD(S) as the most influential party in the Vokkaliga heartland. These are the two main rivals in the region where 80 of the state’s 224 seats are at stake; the ruling BJP has a very small presence here.

The Meketadu march or ‘Walk for Water’ is the brainchild of KPCC president D K Shivakumar who is seen as aspiring to become Chief Minister. The 10-day march sought to build a narrative that the BJP governments, both in the state and at the Centre, are not in a position to implement the project.

To prevent the Congress from seizing the narrative, the JD(S) has announced its own programme to collect water from 15 rivers from January 26 to hold a Ganga puja. Kumaraswamy has said the Congress only proposed the Mekedatu project but it was the JD(S) that prepared the DPE.

Halt to the march

On Wednesday, the Karnataka High Court questioned the BJP government in the state as well as the Congress on how the march could be carried out when the government has imposed curbs on all gatherings due to the recent rise in Covid cases.

The BJP has alleged that the protest march is a primary cause for the rise in Covid numbers.

Congress leaders Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah, following consultations with other party leaders, announced on Thursday that the protest would be suspended temporarily. The state leaders had reportedly received a signal from the party central leadership to call off the march as it could damage the party outside of Karnataka.

The 10-day march was supposed to traverse over 100 km and culminate in a massive rally in Bengaluru on January 19. When halted, it had traversed around 30 km over four days.

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