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The Rediff Interview/S M Krishna

'Cauvery issue is the most difficult problem I have handled'

He walked into his fourth year as chief minister of Karnataka, drowning in a burning water dispute.

Even as farmers in his home district of Mandya jumped into the Cauvery river, protesting against any possible release of water by Karnataka to Tamil Nadu, Somanahalli Mallayya Krishna, 70, is trudging along the national highway from Bangalore to Mandya, on his first-ever padayatra. His wife Prema accompanies him on this trip. The couple sleeps at guesthouses on the way and eats at makeshift camps, while their party followers drive up and down from Bangalore.

Krishna took some time off from a walkathon that he himself describes as an endurance test, to talk to Special Contributing Correspondent M D Riti about the Cauvery water dispute, his tenure as chief minister so far, and the padayatra itself.

How will the Cauvery problem ever end or cool off?

With the rains! The north-east monsoon is surely setting in, I am given to understand. This should cool the otherwise heated tempers of the farmers of both states.

Would you describe the Cauvery problem as the biggest one you have faced in your tenure as chief minister?

I think it is the most agonising and mentally taxing. Easily, this is the most difficult problem that I have had to handle.

Would you describe this padayatra, which you say you are undertaking to restore peace to a Karnataka that is burning over the Cauvery water dispute, as the defining moment of your long political career?

I have been in politics for 40 years. This one yatra has given me immense satisfaction and inner strength to harden myself to fight hardships and face all future challenges that might come my way in the future. This is a self-disciplining process.

Did you think the other parties would support you in this padayatra?

No, I only depended on my own legs to support me in this endeavour. I do not blame the Opposition parties for criticising me. I take their criticism in the right light. I have done a lot of introspection since I started this padayatra. However, I would also like to run into anybody in Karnataka who takes the position that we should let the water. If there is even one person saying this in Karnataka, he should raise his voice or his hands.

Is your padayatra a dress rehearsal for your journey to a mid-term poll?

This is a dress rehearsal for nothing other than restoring normalcy. Goodwill will be generated as an offshoot. Anyone who sees me walking will certainly wonder, 'Why is this chief minister walking? The chief minister represents a certain power. Why does he walk the street? Why is he punishing himself?'

If I can convert some of these people, who in turn will talk about it to someone else, then I would have served a purpose.

This is your first padayatra on this scale. What has been your experience of it so far?

It has been very strenuous and taxing. I am enduring it. I am halfway through my third day of it. I hope I can manage the rest of the two days.

You are also besieged by another water dispute with Andhra Pradesh simultaneously.

When you remind me of that, my thoughts go back to those days when we were fighting a bitter legal battle with Andhra Pradesh. The Almatti dam's construction got delayed by almost 18 months because of a stay order that the AP government had obtained. Ultimately, we were able to complete it and restore order. Now look at the paradox of the situation. They are asking for water from that reservoir. This is a lesson for all neighbouring states. When you take a matter to court, you must always remember that you do not know when you may go back to that state for some kind of assistance.

Under the A scheme, we have utilised our entitlement. Under the B scheme, the tribunal to be constituted will decide what will be the quantum that will be apportioned to Karnataka.

While you are on your padayatra, you are also entering your fourth year as chief minister of Karnataka. How would you describe your overall performance over the past three years as chief minister?

My overall performance will have to be gauged in the light of two consecutive droughts. The cost of a drought on the agricultural sector must be realised. This year, when I framed my budget, I had not anticipated a drought. I was anticipating that it would be a normal year. I had made no provisions for interest waivers. These waivers can be done only when you provide budgetary support. Then only will NABARD [National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development] accommodate it. In 1985, the then government waived interest without providing for it in the budget. NABARD said they would not be a party to it after that.

The rural cooperative credit system largely depends on NABARD's continued cooperation with the state. Hence, I have stretched my budget, and development in one sector or the other suffers. To compound this misery, the recession, which was a global phenomenon, extended to India. Our tax collection, especially in the commodities (we reached our excise targets): in the commercial taxes sector, our shortfall was Rs 700 to 800 crores last year. I hoped to make it up this year, but the first quarter of this year does not seem very encouraging.

Was this the hardest year of the three you have served as chief minister?

Yes, this has been the most challenging year, with a maximum number of problems of very grim and grave proportions. All the problems I am facing now are intense: drought, Veerappan and Cauvery. The latter is taking so much time and effort.

Are you happy with your three year tenure as chief minister?

Some enduring programmes are getting executed. Some innovative programmes are visible. To that extent I feel very happy. Certainly the first thing that comes to my mind are the housing programmes, both rural and urban, which are one of our outstanding records. For the first time a sustained road and repair programme has been initiated. On the agricultural front, a support price mechanism which had never been heard of before have been initiated. The watershed development programme is in full swing. The World Bank assisted tank reconstruction programme in North Karnataka has started. In other parts of Karnataka, similar programmes have taken a few strides.

Farmer friendly centres provide scientific inputs to farmers. Governance reforms, the right to information, procedures to contain corruption, all these are under way. Educational reforms, hospitals and the modernisation of the police. The fiscal management of resources is good. Our women are being empowered everywhere.

Corruption has not been eradicated, but I think it has been contained.

Do you think you could have achieved more in your three year term?

Yes, if we had not been struck down by drought. When nature gets angry with you, there is no solution. All these problems, from Cauvery to drought, have been caused by the wrath of nature. Itís all caused by a failure of our monsoons.

Are you sure you are carrying the people with you politically?

Yes, in spite of enormous challenges. When I took over as chief minister, there were skeptics who gave me just three, six, or eight months of survival. I have overcome many political challenges. This has given me confidence in myself and my party, the Congress.

Is there something you wish you had done over the past three years, that you did not do?

There are 100 different things that I should have done, but could not because of resource mobilisation. Under the present constitutional devolution of power, the states have been deprived of increasing their revenues by not being granted what we have demanded. The classic example of this is service tax. All the states are united on this. But the Government of India is not allowing us. How do you expect the federation to become strong unless the states become strong financially?

A strong Centre with weak states is useless. Likewise, a strong Centre with weak states is not desirable. So states must be provided additional powers to improve their resources so that they will not depend too much on the Government of India for their programmes.

There was a time when Ramakrishna Hegde was chief minister, and Sheikh Abdullah and N T Rama Rao were chief ministers elsewhere. They wanted more political powers, and agitated and fought with Indira Gandhi for this. Today, as chief minister of Karnataka I would like to wage a struggle with the Central government that states should have more financial powers, so that their resource position becomes reasonably good. This should be the agenda for the next ten years.

Do you think you will last another term as chief minister?

I have assured our president Sonia Gandhi that my whole purpose is to bring a Congress government in here again.

Design: Dominic Xavier

COMPLETE COVERAGE:
Cauvery Water Dispute

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