Bengaluru: Farmer protests in Karnataka related to inter-state river water rows could escalate into law and order problems, Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday, seeking urgent intervention from the Union government.

Kannada organizations and farmers have been agitating since last year for waters from Mahadayi, an inter-state river, a demand rejected by its neighbours Goa and Maharashtra on ecological grounds. Karnataka’s plea for immediate release of some water from two tributaries of the river for drinking purposes was turned down by an inter-state water dispute tribunal last Wednesday.

Since the tribunal verdict, agitations have intensified, especially in parts of dry North Karnataka. The protestors observed two bandhs last week alone.

Even as the issue is stuck in courts, Siddaramaiah wants the Prime Minister to intervene immediately to convene a meeting between the three riparian states. Otherwise, he warns, “the protests could escalate into a dire situation".

To be sure, this is not the first time Karnataka is asking for such mediation. Last year, almost around the same time, an all-party delegation from the state had met Modi with the same demand. But the Prime Minister reportedly turned down the request.

Circumstances are such that the state cannot wait for a legal solution, the chief minister suggested. Farmers in the state’s northern regions are losing patience as they are still reeling under drought conditions due to the continuing rainfall deficiency, said Siddaramaiah in the letter.

“The chief minister of Goa had not favourably reacted to my suggestion to resolve the Mahadayi water disputes through negotiations. I believe a mediated solution is possible under your leadership," Siddaramaiah said in the letter.

Siddaramaiah has also called an all-party meet to discuss the issue on Saturday.

Why Siddaramaiah needs Modi?

According to Maheshwarayya S. Sureban, a farmer from North Karnataka’s Nargund, the availability of drinking water has improved with monsoon, but there is acute shortage of water for irrigation. Mint reported about the condition in those villages last November.

Sureban says farmers are angry with both major political parties in the state-- the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP. “Come next election, we will take revenge," says Sureban, army man turned farmer over the phone.

“Issues concerning water are very important," said Karnataka Pradesh Congress committee working president Dinesh Gundu Rao, “as they will be an important issue in the next election."

The state government has asked top officials to keep an eye on regions with water-related agitations so they do not escalate and invite media attention, said Rao, who was food and civil supplies minister in Siddaramaiah’s cabinet until a recent reshuffle.

But resolving the Mahadayi issue through legal means would take time. The other way is to find political solutions, which means the chief minister would need the Prime Minister.

Since the three state governments are involved, only the Prime Minister can help, said Rao.

After the tribunal verdict, pro-Kannada organisations and Kannada film industry backed farmers agitating over Mahadayi waters. The BJP, which has a majority among the 28 MLAs from North Karnataka region, is also not sitting idle.

The PM needs to intervene and the party will request him personally, former chief minister and BJP’s opposition leader Jagadish Shettar told reporters after meeting villagers in North Karnataka, The Hindu reported on Wednesday.

However, approaching elections in Goa too will make matters difficult, a top BJP leader said, requesting anonymity. “We understand the tempers are running very high, the people will target us or them in next election. But as the day passes and once the reality sinks in, we expect the intensity of agitations to be much lower," he said.

It has to be seen whether the water row could rally farmers, a significant voting population in rural hinterlands, in the next elections, said Narendra Pani, a political analyst and professor at the School of Social Sciences of the National Institute of Advanced Studies. The government will try to provide alternative arrangements to quell protests, but how far they will succeed has to be seen, said Pani.

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