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No scope for talks on Mekedatu, says Water Resources Minister

Duraimurugan says the Tamil Nadu delegation’s meeting with the Union Minister was fruitful and his assurances gave them hope

Water Resources Minister Duraimurugan has been handling inter-State river water disputes concerning Tamil Nadu since 1989 when he became [Public Works Department] Minister for the first time. The row over the Mekedatu dam project, proposed by Karnataka, has been keeping him busy in recent weeks. He made two visits to New Delhi in the last couple of weeks, including one during which he led an all-party delegation to impress upon the Centre the strengths of Tamil Nadu’s case on the issue. In an interview on Saturday, he made it clear that for Tamil Nadu, the issue was non-negotiable. Edited excerpts:

You held two rounds of discussions with the Centre in the last two weeks on Mekedatu. Were they fruitful?

As far as I am concerned, the second meeting [with Union Minister of Jal Shakti Gajendra Singh Shekhawat] was more fruitful than the first. This is because of his response. When we, the Tamil Nadu team, complained to him that the Central Water Commission’s (CWC) decision to give permission to Karnataka to prepare a DPR [detailed project report] was wrong, he [the Union Minister] replied that whatever documents Karnataka had submitted were flawed.

At the time of giving its permission [in 2018], the Centre had imposed four conditions, including the production of a no-objection certificate from other riparian States such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, besides Puducherry, and the approval of the [Cauvery Water Management] Authority. So far, Karnataka has neither approached us nor the Authority in this regard. The Union Minister said they [Karnataka] had, on their own, given certain documents to the Centre. He also told us that “there is no necessity for us [the Centre] to give them approval. So there is no need for you [Tamil Nadu] to get worried”.

Are you satisfied with assurances of the Central government?

They [the Centre] have given us a copy of their communication [to the Karnataka government], laying down the conditions. Only when the conditions are fulfilled, the DPR [of Karnataka] will get approved. As long as the DPR is not cleared, they [the Karnataka government] cannot construct the dam. What he [the Union Minister] told us this time was that even though he could not refuse giving the nod to Karnataka for preparing a DPR, he had stipulated the conditions for the other side to satisfy at the time of submitting the DPR. Besides, he [Mr. Shekhawat] is a very shrewd man. He is extremely thorough with his subject. He does not get exercised. He replies in a composed manner.

Do you mean to say that the Union Minister’s assurances give you a sense of hope?

Yes.

There is a perception in certain quarters that Tamil Nadu is, for the sake of it, opposing even a drinking water project for Bengaluru. Even the Supreme Court, while modifying in February 2018 the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’s final order of 2007, had allotted 4.75 thousand million cubic ft of drinking water supply to Bengaluru. How do you justify the Tamil Nadu government’s objections?

Karnataka has got adequate infrastructure to take water from its reservoirs for catering to the drinking water supply requirements of Bengaluru, which it is doing even now.

However, our position is that there is no need for any new dam across the Cauvery for this purpose. In addition, as pointed out in the Supreme Court’s verdict, Tamil Nadu’s share includes water contributed by uncontrolled catchment downstream of Krishnaraja Sagar and Kabini — areas between the two dams and Biligundlu [the CWC’s gauging site on the inter-State border]. So if you build a dam on this stretch, it amounts to encroachment, as the river water there is ours.

Mr. Shekhawat, in Bengaluru early last week, indicated that the two States must sort out the issue by talking to each other. Even the Expert Appraisal Committee of the Union Ministry of Environment & Forest [in August 2019] had also suggested a similar course of action.

He told us that he did not make any such statement.

What is the problem for Tamil Nadu in holding negotiations with Karnataka over Mekedatu?

There is a long history of negotiations between us and them. But the talks ended in failure. This was why we had to go to the Supreme Court. Now you have the Tribunal’s final order and the court’s judgment, modifying the order. Karnataka must obey the judicial verdicts. When any problem arises, we can only go back to the Supreme Court. Hereafter, there is no scope for talks. Remember, our petition [filed in 2018 on the Mekedatu issue] is still pending in the court.

Would the Tamil Nadu government agree to the idea of a third party or any Central agency taking up the execution of projects on the Cauvery, as it did in 1998, when Kalaignar [M. Karunanidhi] was the Chief Minister ? Four hydro-power projects — two each in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — were proposed then, and they included Mekedatu as well.

No such situation has arisen now. So the question does not come up. As for the talks we had in the 1990s, they were conducted when the Tribunal had not delivered its final order. At present, the crux of the matter is that Karnataka neither follows the Tribunal’s final order nor the Supreme Court’s judgment.

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