The Congress padayatra from Mekedatu to Bengaluru seeking early implementation of the Mekedatu drinking water project came to an abrupt end at Ramanagaram on January 13 after the party decided to temporarily halt the agitation in the light of the Karnataka High Court’s observations and a surge in COVID-19 cases. The party will resume the padayatra after the pandemic is brought under control.
The decision was taken on the fifth day of the padayatra after several rounds of consultations among senior Congress leaders, including Leader of Opposition Siddaramaiah, KPCC president D.K. Shivakumar and senior leader B.K. Hariprasad, at Ramanagaram.
Announcing the decision, Mr. Siddaramaiah said that the Congress is a responsible party, and that public health is important. Stating that Congress is not responsible for the surge in COVID=19 cases, he said that the situation in Karnataka is a reflection of the third wave being reported across the world. He said that the padayatra will resume from the same place and culminate in the same place, as decided earlier. “We will restart the padayatra once the situation improves.”
Earlier, AICC leader Rahul Gandhi spoke to Mr. Shivakumar and is believed to have advised taking a decision considering the public optics about the padayatra. The high command, sources said, had asked the local leaders to stop the padayatra that is threatening to give negative publicity to the party in Karnataka in the midst of a spike in COVID-19 cases, and ahead of elections to five crucial States. Some local leaders suggested a truncated padayatra with only a few leaders walking to Bengaluru to prevent crowding and adherence to Covid-19 norms.
While Congress leaders were huddled in the District Congress Committee office in Ramanagaram, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai wrote to Mr. Siddaramaiah and Mr. Shivakumar appealing to withdraw the protest. “I am ready to work on implementation of Mekedatu with everyone’s cooperation. It is not right to continue the padayatra in public interest in the light of a surge in COVID-19 cases. We will together work on Mekedatu project in the coming days after facing the COVID-19 pandemic.” He also drew their attention to the observations of the High Court.
Also on January 13, Leader of Congress in Rajya Sabha M. Mallikarjuna Kharge announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, joining a list of Congress leaders, who had participated in the padayatra, turning positive. Veteran Congress leader and former Chief Minister M. Veerappa Moily and former Minister H.M. Revanna are among those who were infected by COVID-19.
The government, which received a rap from the Karnataka High Court on January 12 , had issued an additional order banning the ‘Our water Our right’ rally that had commenced at Sanagama in Kanakapura taluk in Ramanagaram district on January 9. It had banned inter-district (within Karnataka) and intra-district (within Ramanagaram) movement of vehicles and people to participate in the padayatra.
Till January 9, the government had been seen as going slow on taking action against the padayatra fearing negative publicity. In the first three days of the padayatra, the government had filed three FIRs under the Karnataka Epidemic Diseases Act for violating COVID-19 norms.
Following the High Court’s observations and armed with a fresh government order, Inspector General of Police Lokesh and Ramanagaram Superintendent of Police S. Girish intervened to persuade the Congress leaders to withdraw the padayatra when they gathered at the Congress office in Ramanagaram on January 13 morning.
A huge crowd had gathered in front of the Congress office to participate in the padayatra . The police had set up barricades across Ramanagaram district to prevent people from gathering to greet the padayatra.
The Karnataka High Court is set to resume its hearing on the PIL on January 14 where Congress could face serious embarrassment if it had continued with the padayatra.
Late on January 12 night after the government order banning the rally was issued by Chief Secretary P. Ravi Kumar, the Ramanagaram district administration issued a notice to that effect.
Officials stuck the notice on the wall of the residence of D.K. Shivakumar after the KPCC president, who has organised the rally, refused to receive the notice. Soon, police were deployed across Ramanagaram district to prevent Congress workers and leaders from entering the district.
Earlier on January 13, Congress workers who were supposed to participate in the rally with their bullock carts, had been stalled by the police and district administration at various entry points to the district. The 11-day padayatra, which had completed four days on January 12 night, was expected to culminate at Basavanagudi in Bengaluru on January 19, after covering about 170 km across 15 Assembly constituencies.
The Mekedatu padayatra had led to a huge spat between the ruling BJP and Congress that accused each other of delaying the project.
BJP accuses the Congress of taking more than five years to submit the detailed project report (DPR) for the ₹9,000 core Mekedatu balancing reservoir-cum-power generation project that would meet the drinking water needs of Bengaluru and surrounding water-parched districts.
The Congress hit back claiming that the BJP government at the Centre had delayed giving approval to the project hoping to expand its footprint in Tamil Nadu.