The Congress in Karnataka on Sunday began its 10-day 'padayatra' (march), demanding implementation of the Mekedatu project across the Cauvery river, despite the COVID-19 restrictions.
Hitting out at Congress leaders for going ahead with the march by violating the curbs, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai said action will be taken in accordance with the law.
Led by Congress' state president D K Shivakumar and Leader of Opposition in the State Assembly Siddaramaiah, the padayatra with the theme 'Namma Neeru Namma Hakku' (Our water, Our right) began at Sangama, the confluence of Cauvery and Arkavathi rivers at Kanakapura in Ramanagara district, and will be spanning a distance of nearly 139 kms.
However, Siddaramaiah who took part in the march earlier today has returned to Bengaluru post-lunch, due to fever, and is likely to go back once he is fine, party sources said.
With participation from hundreds of workers, leaders and cultural groups, the principal opposition party in the state remained unfazed by the government's warning of action in case of violation of COVID restrictions and rules.
The government has imposed a curfew on weekends and restricted public gatherings to fight the surge in COVID-19 cases, till January 19. It has also imposed a night curfew and prohibited all rallies, dharnas and protests, among others.
Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, former Chief Minister M Veerappa Moily, and several senior party leaders and legislators were present at the inaugural of the padayatra, that covered a distance of about 15 km on day one.
A few religious leaders and film personalities like actor Duniya Vijay, actor and music director Sadhu Kokila, were among others seen at the inaugural of the padayatra demanding implementation of the Mekaedatu project, to which neighbouring Tamil Nadu is opposed.
Projecting it as an apolitical "Walk for Water," the Congress has invited seers of various mutts, organisations, leaders of various political parties, film personalities, and Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, among others, to participate in the march.
Accusing the BJP government of trying to scuttle the padayatra, Siddaramaiah during the inaugural speech accused the ruling party of colluding with Tamil Nadu in delaying the implementation of the Mekedatu project.
Claiming that the project was initiated by the Congress government led by him, he alleged that the ruling BJP has betrayed the people of the state by not getting environmental clearance despite being in power for the last 2.5 years, and even accused the central government of not giving clearance, as the J P Nadda-led party wants to expand its base in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
Shivakumar, who is also MLA from Kanakapura, hitting out at the Chief Minister, for trying to "thwart" the padayatra by asking the district administration to issue prohibitory orders, dared him to arrest them if he could.
"This march is not for the Congress party or for the sake of power, it is for the sake of the people.... Like Congress fought against the British then for India's freedom, today we are fighting against BJP and Janata Dal.... " he said adding that his party leaders and workers will peacefully march following COVID rules.
Wary about the consequences of taking strong action like making arrests or stopping the padayatra, that too on an emotive issue linked to interstate river dispute, the state government seems to have decided to "go slow and soft" on the Congress march in violation of its COVID restrictions.
Bommai, accusing the grand old party of playing politics on the Mekedatu issue, instead of behaving like a responsible opposition said, "a notice has been issued to them and officials have personally advised them against it, but they have neglected it and are going ahead, we will take action in accordance with the law."
Further alleging that the Congress did not put any efforts to take the project forward while in power, he reiterated that his government is committed to implement the project.
The Congress' march from Mekedatu to Bengaluru, is scheduled to pass through Kanakapura, Ramanagara and Bidadi, before culminating at Basavanagudi in Bengaluru on January 19. It will be covering about 15 of the 224 Assembly constituencies in the state.
Though the padayatra is being projected as apolitical, demanding the implementation of Mekedatu project, it is also seen as Congress' attempt to mobilise its cadres and consolidate its voter base in the old Mysuru region, which is a Vokkaliga bastion, where JD(S) is its traditional rival and the ruling BJP is attempting to make inroads, ahead of 2023 assembly polls.
Much is at stake for Shivakumar, the man behind this march, as several Congress functionaries believe that it is an attempt by the KPCC chief, ahead of assembly polls, to assert his Chief Ministerial ambitions, for which Siddaramaiah is also a strong contender. The party has seen several incidents of political one-upmanship between the two leaders last year.
Shivakumar took a dip in the river and performed pooja at the Sangam ahead of the padayatra's inaugural.
JD(S) too has hit out Congress calling its march as a "political stunt" ahead of the assembly election next year.
The Karnataka government submitted a Detailed Project Report (DPR) to the Central Water Commission (CWC) in 2019, which was then referred to the Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA), where it is stuck currently as Tamil Nadu which is the lower riparian state, has opposed the project tooth and nail.
Karnataka has maintained that the project within its territory will benefit both states as the surplus water stored can be managed between the two during the distress year, and its implementation will in no way affect the interests of Tamil Nadu's farming communities, as there will be no impact on its share of water.
The neighbouring state is of the view that the project would "impound and divert" the uncontrolled water flow due to Tamil Nadu from Kabini sub-basin, the catchment area below Krishnarajasagara, and also from Simsha, Arkavathy and Suvarnavathi sub-basins besides other small streams.
The Mekedatu multipurpose (drinking and power) project involves building a balancing reservoir near Kanakapura in Ramanagara district of Karnataka.
The project once completed is aimed at ensuring drinking water to Bengaluru and neighbouring areas (4.75 TMC) and also can generate 400 MW power, and the estimated cost of the project is Rs 9,000 crore.