Book excerpt: When Rajinikanth and Bharathiraja were at loggerheads over Cauvery issue

When he returned to Chennai after his Bangalore sojourn, Rajinikanth had to face some harsh realities. When he had left his place of birth many years ago, in search of new shores to carve out a decent life, he was not really aware of some of the affiliations that would become weightier as his fame grew. When he was starting out, he was young, with a burning passion in his heart and a raging hunger to succeed. He had just one agenda—to prove his acting skills and make a name for himself. Language and borders had no meaning for him then. The world of art did not care where you were from. There was one language you had to master—the language of the artist that was universal. The audience did not see the difference either. They embraced him as he was. And what an embrace it was. It was overwhelming and overpowering. In all this, his origins and the affiliations that came with it were forgotten. When he became a superstar, these affiliations and labels made themselves felt. When he began to rule the film world, his admirers, and detractors were always curious to hear from him about the issues of the day. Many also began to question his loyalties—was his allegiance to the state that had given him opportunities, status, and wealth? Did he feel a debt to the salt of Tamil Nadu or was he still loyal to the land of his birth? Some of these questions were raised when he had criticized Veerappan but they really came to the fore when a long-running dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka once again began to dominate the headlines.

The Cauvery water-sharing dispute between the two states was a century old. With years of political mishandling and because of the intense emotion that it raised on both sides, the dispute had not been resolved. The Cauvery was Tamil Nadu’s lifeline but the source of the river was in Karnataka. This meant Tamil Nadu’s water supply depended on Karnataka releasing the water. The genesis of this conflict rests in two agreements—one signed in 1892 and the other in 1924—between the then Madras Presidency and the kingdom of Mysore. The 765-kilometre-long Cauvery has a basin area of 44,000 square kilometres in Tamil Nadu and 32,000 square kilometres in Karnataka. As per the agreements, water sharing was to be determined as per the basin area of each state. But Karnataka claims that the agreements were unfair to Karnataka and that new agreements were needed to ensure equitable sharing. Tamil Nadu argues that an equal share is not possible since the state has already cultivated 12,000 square kilometres of land around the river and is heavily dependent on the current usage pattern. Any change would affect the livelihood of millions of farmers in Tamil Nadu. Following repeated demands by Tamil Nadu to constitute the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, it was created in 1990 at the direction of the Supreme Court. The tribunal passed an interim award which required Karnataka to release 205 tmcft water to Tamil Nadu every year. But Karnataka refused to comply, stating that the state did not have enough water for its own consumption.

Agitations and demands by both states continued over the decades and things came to a head in 2002. The monsoon failed in both states. Reservoirs fell to record low levels and tempers predictably rose on both sides. The crucial question was: how could this distress year be handled amicably by both the states? The tribunal had overlooked this point when it gave the interim award.

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