A political war of words has erupted and tensions have flared up over a protracted boundary dispute, with Karnataka staking claim to 40 predominantly Kannada-speaking villages in Jat taluka in Maharashtra’s Sangli district. The residents of the villages say they have pledged their allegiance to the neighbouring State not out of a desire to maintain linguistic cohesion, but because they feel abandoned by their home State, which has done little to resolve their decades-long struggle with acute shortage of drinking water and lack of irrigation facilities.
A narrow, dusty lane strewn with thorny branches leads to the farm-cum-residence of 98-year-old Kallappa Horti, a veteran farmer rights leader and pro-Karnataka activist, located three kilometres south of Umadi village, bordering Karnataka, in Maharashtra’s Sangli district.
Clad in white dhoti, starched white kurta and a brown muffler wrapped around his neck, the six-foot-tall patriarch of a 60-member household is seated on a plastic chair on the verandah. Mr. Horti is hard of hearing and needs the support of his family members to move around, but his advanced age has not hindered his lifelong mission of meeting the drinking water and irrigation needs of the 40-odd parched villages in the predominantly Kannada-speaking Jat taluka.
The drought-prone region had hit the headlines and reignited a protracted boundary row when Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai announced on November 22 that his government was “seriously considering” staking a claim to the taluka. Mr. Bommai said he would revisit the resolution passed by 40 gram panchayats in the taluka in 2012 stating their desire to merge with the southern State owing to the Maharashtra government’s alleged inability to resolve their shortage of drinking water and lack of irrigation facilities.
The statement, made against the backdrop of an ongoing hearing in the Supreme Court of a plea filed by the Maharashtra government in 2004, challenging certain provisions of the States Reorganisation Act, 1956, and demanding the merger of 865 Marathi-speaking villages in Karnataka with the State, sparked a political controversy in Maharashtra. Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, his deputy Devendra Fadnavis, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Ajit Pawar and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray condemned Mr. Bommai’s claims.
Since its creation in 1960, Maharashtra has been engaged in a bitter dispute with Karnataka by claiming that Marathi-speaking districts like Belgaum (now Belagavi) were wrongly inducted into Karnataka when the State’s boundaries were drawn. The row has resulted in a decades-long violent agitation and the formation of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti, which has been fighting for the merger of the “disputed” territories. On December 6, a meeting of a delegation of Ministers from Maharashtra with the pro-Marathi group in Belagavi was postponed after Kannada organisations staged a protest in the district.
“I know the gravity of the situation better than anyone. Nothing has changed here since Independence. In fact, the crisis gets worse year after year”Kallappa Horti Pro-Karnataka activist in Sangli district
‘Left out of irrigation scheme’
According to the residents of the 40 villages in Jat taluka, they have pledged their allegiance to the neighbouring State not out of a desire to maintain linguistic cohesion, but because they feel abandoned by their home State, which has done little to resolve their water woes.
Mr. Horti, too, strongly believes that only a merger with Karnataka will end the crisis. “I know the gravity of the situation better than anyone. Nothing has changed here since Independence. In fact, the crisis gets worse year after year,” he says, visibly upset. He says successive governments at both the Centre and in Maharashtra have failed to provide the villagers with basic amenities such as water, education, power supply, proper roads and healthcare facilities.
“Several political leaders, including Chief Ministers, have come here and made promises to find a permanent solution to the water crisis, but nothing concrete has been done so far. I’ve also met former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and every CM of Maharashtra; all in vain. We continue to get stepmotherly treatment from the State.”
Mr. Horti says he has taken part in several agitations over the exclusion of 48 of the taluka’s 128 villages from the Mhaisal lift irrigation scheme, which was introduced by the Maharashtra government in 1984 to provide water for agricultural and drinking purposes to rain-deficit regions in Sangli and Solapur districts. Over 81,000 hectares of land is irrigated using the water lifted from the Krishna river. However, villages such as Umadi, Tikondi and Sankh in the taluka, which are located at a higher altitude, have been left out of the scheme. Successive governments have failed to extend the project to the villages, says Mr. Horti, who has stopped exercising his right to vote to protest against government apathy.
Facing heavy debt burden
Senior journalist and political observer Vasant Bhosle says the villagers are at the mercy of the rain gods. “They get one or two good showers in five to six years, mostly from the retreating monsoon. This year, the villages received good rainfall after almost 20 years,” he says.
Every year during the kharif season, farmers in the region till their lands, sow seeds and look to the skies for rain. Lack of timely rain causes huge losses to the hapless farmers who can’t recover even the cost of the seeds. “We sow seeds twice during the kharif season, once in June and again in August or September when the monsoon retreats. We hardly make any profit owing to poor rain,” says Maruti, a resident of Sankh.
Basavaraj Kumbahar from Umadi says, with groundwater levels fast depleting, farmers have to shell out ₹4 lakh to ₹5 lakh to dig borewells as deep as 1,000 feet to 1,200 feet, but still there is no guarantee of getting water. “A few farmers are so desperate for water that they take loans from private financiers to dig up to four borewells in a one-acre plot. Often, unable to repay the loans, they end their lives,” Mr. Kumbahar says.
Shivakka, a resident of Tikondi, just 3 km from the border, says residents walk to a lake on the outskirts of the village to fetch water, but it dries up during the summer. An attempt by the Maharashtra government to ease their woes by supplying water in tankers amounted to little help, she says. “During the summer, the State government supplies water through tankers every alternate day, but it is barely sufficient to meet our cooking and drinking needs,” she says.
The lack of irrigation facilities has forced farmers to migrate to eke out a living. A 35-year-old farmer from Sankh, on condition of anonymity, says with no water to irrigate his 12-acre field, he had to move to another village in the district to work as a daily wage labourer for a farmer who owned three acres of irrigated land. “It is a matter of shame. My family owns more land than my employer, yet I’m a labourer.” Those who are not willing to work as daily wagers are grazing sheep for a living. “We walk for nearly 150 km with a flock of 50 sheep and a wild dog for protection for three months. My family owns two acres of land. Since there is no water for farming, we decided to graze sheep instead of working under someone,” says Vilas Gadve, 17, from Gudapur.
“There is no point staying in Maharashtra. Our villages are not covered under any water supply scheme and are forced to deal with drought for decades ”Bharat Ravindra KothResident of Tikondi village
‘Merger with Karnataka only solution’
Mr. Horti says thousands of villagers in the water-starved taluka believe that the implementation of the 1967 Mahajan Commission report — which recommended 247 villages, including Jat, Akkalkot and Solapur, to be made a part of Karnataka, and 264 villages, including Nippani, Khanapur and Nandagad, to be merged with Maharashtra — can put an end to the boundary dispute.
The residents say they are envious of villages just a few kilometres across the border in Karnataka that are able to cultivate cash crops as they receive adequate water, free power supply and subsidies from various government schemes. “There is no point staying in Maharashtra. Our villages are not covered under any water supply scheme and are forced to deal with drought for decades,” says Bharat Ravindra Koth, 32, a resident of Tikondi.
Mr. Koth says their lives will improve when the villages are merged with Karnataka. “My family owns 10 acres of land and we hardly get any benefits from it. Merger is the only solution to all our problems. The State is ready to provide us with water from the Tubachi-Babaleshwar lift irrigation project in Bagalkot district,” he says.
Vazir Rajesaab Jatgar, 65, who owns 30 acres of land in the village, says he will choose to go with the State that looks after his needs. “We are ready to go and they [Karnataka] are ready to accept us, what is Maharashtra’s problem? For more than four decades, we have not seen a single drop of water coming to Tikondi,” he says.
“The demand for a merger with Karnataka is valid as the villagers have run out of patience with the Maharashtra government”Vikramsinh Sawant Jat MLA
Valid demand, says local MLA
Vikramsinh Balasaheb Sawant, Congress leader and MLA from the Jat Assembly constituency, says the “demand for a merger with the neighbouring State is valid as a majority of the villagers own small or marginal land holdings and have run out of patience with the government”. “As immediate relief, the Maharashtra government should request Karnataka to release water from the Tubachi-Babaleshwar lift irrigation project on humanitarian grounds,” Mr. Sawant says.
During the summer months, the Maharashtra government releases water from the Radhanagari and Koyna dams to Karnataka and in turn, the southern State supplies six TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water to meet the demand in the parched border villages in Maharashtra. “Karnataka should give us at least 12 TMC of surplus water during the monsoon. It would also help replenish the groundwater in the region,” he says.
“Last week, Karnataka released water to prove that they can ‘take care’ of these villages. Tikondi lake is now overflowing. It is just an attempt to instigate leaders in Maharashtra,” the MLA says.
The release of water from the Tubachi-Babaleshwar project has revived the villagers’ hopes of salvaging their crops. “Now, we are getting water from Karnataka. It is just a matter of time before we become voters in the State. Our ponds and lakes are filled; this proves that Karnataka can give us water,” says Ms. Shivakka.
Basavaraj Patil of Sankh says “for medical emergencies or buying groceries we go to towns in Karnataka” as Bijapur in the neighbouring State is just 25 km away, while Sangli’s headquarters is located at a distance of over 140 km.
‘Karnataka cashing in on opportunity’
Though Marathi is the official language, there are over 120 Kannada-medium primary schools and high schools in Jat taluka, where a majority of villagers in its eastern and southern parts speak only Kannada. Unlike Belagavi, Nippani, and Khanapur in Karnataka, villagers here do not face bias based on language, says Mr. Bhosle.
With the Maharashtra government neglecting the needs of the residents of the border villages, Karnataka has seized the opportunity and invested liberally in constructing Kannada-medium schools, and supplying books and smart TVs, says Mr. Basavaraj Patil. One will hardly find any government school with Marathi as the medium of instruction in these 48 villages, he says.
“Apart from sanctioning grants for rebuilding State-run schools, the Karnataka government also gives out a ₹10,000 cash award and a watch to students who top the Class X examination. In addition, it provides 5% reservation in government jobs for students of gadinadu (border) schools and colleges in Maharashtra,” says Nagappa Shivdare Pujari, a retired headmaster of the Government Primary School (Kannada) in Sankh.
He says the State government has not been filling vacancies at schools and now there are only two teachers for every 100 students. For instance, the Government Primary School at Sankh has only four teachers for the 107 girls and 92 boys in Classes I to IV. “There is tremendous workload on teachers, but since the future of the students and our language is in our hands, we deliver the best,” Mr. Pujari says.
He says local schools approach the Karnataka government whenever they need aid, and funds are immediately granted. “Recently, the government constructed seven classrooms at the high school in Ankali,” he says, adding that funds are also provided to build and renovate temples.
The Jat MLA says the Maharashtra government is losing its legitimacy to claim control over the border villages. “People are happy with the funds coming from across the border. In the past three years, the Karnataka government has granted over ₹21 crore for schools and temples in the taluka. Their government has a separate budget for the development of border villages in Maharashtra.”
Maharashtra govt. swings into action
On November 28, a week after Mr. Bommai’s statement staking claim to Jat taluka, the Maharashtra Chief Minister approved a ₹2,000-crore plan to expand the Mhaisal lift irrigation scheme so that the 48 parched villages in the taluka receive water from the project. On December 2, two days after Karnataka reportedly released water from the Tubachi-Babaleshwar project for the benefit of villages in Sangli district, Mr. Shinde directed officials to expedite the irrigation scheme and instructed the District Collector to ensure that adequate funds are made available so that the villages do not face any water shortage.
Three days later, Maharashtra Industries Minister Uday Samant visited Tikondi village, where he was welcomed with cut-outs of the Karnataka Chief Minister and the State’s flag. A group of villagers shouted slogans in favour of Mr. Bommai and urged Mr. Samant “not to waste his time” and return to Mumbai as they had already made up their minds to go for a merger with Karnataka.