AFTER two weeks of wrangling between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh over the Almatti dam and the increasing discomfort of the Centre, things are back where they began. The gameplans are being worked anew. According to a senior United Front (UF) source, the top priority for Prime Minister Deve Gowda is to stay out of the imbroglio.
For, the Almatti dam issue is only the latest in a string of incidents in which Gowda has been accused of behaving more like the "CM of Karnataka than the PM of India". Whatever the truth, Gowda has to ensure this impression does not stick.
But that, as a party leader commented, is easier said than done. In the Almatti dispute, for instance, Deve Gowda is in an unenviable position. A vociferous proponent of the project during his tenure as chief minister of Karnataka, he is now being asked to resolve the conflict as prime minister.
It is essential that Gowda be seen as a fair leader of the United Front coalition. And he knows that any decision he takes will be understood only in terms of favouring either one state or the other. "If, as a result of Central intervention, something goes in favour of Andhra Pradesh, leaders in his home state such as R.K. Hegde, not to mention the Congress and BJP, will make his position untenable. And if Karnataka is perceived to have benefited, then the charges of being partisan which the TDP is levelling against him will be lent credibility."
"Water disputes are a mug's game politically," comments a Cabinet minister from one of the warring states. "Our attempt now will only be to defuse the crisis temporarily by encouraging Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh to talk things over, and, if they feel it necessary, move the courts. Both Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and his Karnataka counterpart, J.H. Patel, are under pressure from the Opposition in their respective states. Any initiative from the Centre, despite the pressure being brought on Gowda to do some- thing, is likely to be used by them to score political points." Another non-JD member of the Cabinet, however, feels Gowda risks losing authority if he does not intervene, especially after the Andhra High Court decision of August 16 giving the Centre free rein in the matter. But he too is not sure how effective any intervention will be. "Cynical as it may sound, a stalemate is the only possible solution at the moment," he says.
Gowda's delicate balancing act had begun on August 8, when Andhra Irrigation Minister Khodela Sivaprasada Rao first announced in Hyderabad that the TDP may reconsider its support to the UF Government unless Karnataka was prevented from increasing the height of the Almatti dam which was "against the provisions of the Bachawat Tribunal Award on Krishna Waters (1976)". A couple of failed reconciliation attempts later, a four-member panel of 'neutral' UF chief ministers was formed on August 11 which in turn set up a nine-member expert committee to visit both states and report within a week. Both chief ministers were amenable to this.
Then came the surprise. Gowda virtually scrapped the committee by withdrawing the members of the Planning Commission and the Central Water Commission (cwc) from it, giving as his reason advice from the Law Ministry which held the committee illegal as the matter was pending in the Andhra High Court. This, protested Naidu, was proof of Gowda's partisan attitude as the move came a day after Gowda met Patel in Delhi. When it was revealed in the next few days that no official advice had been offered by the Law Ministry, this impression was strengthened. A rump expert committee did land up in Bangalore to inspect the dam site 'unofficially', but were refused permission.
Karnataka, on the other hand, has not been able to take as strident a stand as its neighbour. For one, it has a Janata Dal government and with Deve Gowda being vili-fied by the TDP, Patel is in no position to add to the PM's woes. At the same time, he has to fend off attacks from the Opposition who have been accusing him of being unable to protect the interests of the state. Says former chief minister Veerappa Moily: "Whenever Janata governments have ruled at the Centre or the state, Karnataka's interests in river water disputes have been bartered away." This kind of criticism may have led Patel to harden his stance about the ongoing construction at Almatti. Says Patel: "Nobody can ask us to stop construction work." For the TDP, on the other hand, things have not gone according to plan. Naidu, described by a senior UF leader as "Hannibal rather than Fabius" in his approach towards politics, has used all the pressure tactics in the book to get the Centre to intervene on his behalf. According to a senior TDP leader, Naidu had even been in touch with Laloo Yadav, Jyoti Basu and M. Karunanidhi to muster support against Gowda within the UF.
And the TDP pressure for the resurrection of the expert committee is mounting after the high court decision. The assessment of the central JD leadership, however, seems to be that the TDP demand is basically a preemptive move. Says a senior JD leader: "The construction going on at present at the dam site is part of the first phase of the Upper Krishna Project which was cleared in 1990. And the height of the dam which Andhra is objecting to—anything beyond 524 m—will be reached only in 1998. At present the dam height is around 507 m. The original height cleared for the dam was 524.256 m, which was later proposed to be increased to 528 m by Karnataka. This was accepted by the CWC. But even this would not affect Karnataka releasing the 800 tmc feet of water which Andhra was awarded."
A TDP Union minister, conceding that it is a pre-emptive move by his party, justifies it on the basis that any proposed increase in the height of the dam and consequently its storage capacity, unless stymied now, will mean that Andhra will be at Karnataka's mercy for its share of the water. "Also, if the capacity of the reservoir is to be increased, our share should go up. But above all, you must remember that Karnataka has behaved unpredictably towards riparian states in the past—look at the Cauvery waters dispute and Tamil Nadu's unenviable position. We do not intend to be their next victim," he adds.
But, for the moment, the immediate aim of the TDP is the resurrection of the expert committee while keeping the pressure on Gowda. "We are still interested in a negotiated settlement and our Chief Minister is willing to conduct talks with his Karnataka counterpart if there is a serious and genuine desire for a solution. But if all avenues fail we may approach the courts, asking them to at least stay any further construction at the dam site till the issue is resolved," says Union Minister Yarran Naidu of the TDP. Which is exactly what Karnataka fears. And Gowda has little choice in the matter.