River Cauvery is heading down a deadly spiral

River Cauvery is heading down a deadly spiral

“In ten years, the Cauvery river will go dry.”

And it will if things go the way they are, says M N Chandramohan, an activist who appears to be fighting a lonely battle to save the river that is facing pollution right where it originates — the Kodagu district, where it is also revered as Dakshina Ganga, the Ganga of the South. Sewage generated from homestays, coffee pulping units, hotels and plastic directly enters its waters here.

Things are not any different in Tamil Nadu, the lower riparian state where Cauvery and its tributaries are facing a slow, but certain death due to rampant pollution anchored by sewage and industrial effluents, coupled with a general disregard for the water on the part of both authorities as well as the public.

From its origin in Talakaveri, the 765-km-long Cauvery flows through Hassan, Mandya and Mysuru districts before entering Tamil Nadu.

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have spent decades fighting out a legal dispute on sharing the Cauvery water, but lost in the loud shouting match is the rampant pollution and mismanagement of the water on both sides. Only a handful of activists in both states are focussed on the big picture — how a river is headed down a deadly rusty spiral.

Since 2009, a vigilante Chandramohan who heads the Cauvery Nadi Swachata Andolana Samiti, has been chasing authorities, lobbying with political leaders, organising rallies and filing criminal complaints, which includes a famous case in which he was able to incriminate a contractor who discharged the blood of dead pigs into the river.

“So far, I’ve met five chief ministers and a slew of union ministers on the need to protect the Cauvery,” Chandramohan told DH. “We need an exclusive law for Cauvery before it is too late.”

Domestic sewage from households in Kushalnagar and Madikeri towns is discharged into the river, thanks to the absence of underground drainage facility. Earlier this year, the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) cracked the whip on a number of hotels and commercial establishments in Kushalnagar that let out their effluents directly or indirectly into the river.

Adding to the river’s woes is pollution caused by ‘religious superstition’ as some call it — garlands, flowers and other items used during worship thrown into the river.

Unregulated sand mining has also altered the river’s geology. “For about 20 years, miners extracted sand from the riverbed beyond the permitted limit. For example, if the contract permitted them to go up to 2 feet, they’d go up to 8-10 feet. As a result, craters have formed on the river bed,” environmentalist T G Premkumar said.

Not far away from Kushalnagar is the reservoir of Harangi, a tributary that converges with Cauvery near Kudige. The reservoir irrigates Kodagu, Hassan and Mysuru districts. Paddy, maize and ginger are the major crops grown in the Harangi basin. Since ginger is prone to rhizome rot viral disease, farmers use large quantities of chemicals that further add to the river’s pollution.

Total dissolved solids (TDS), which represent the total concentration of dissolved substances in water, measured at various places along the Cauvery’s path reveal that pollution increases as it flows farther away from its source. A high concentration of TDS is an indicator that harmful contaminants such as iron, manganese, sulfate, bromide and arsenic, can also be present in the water.

Water quality

The TDS level of water in Kushalnagar is at 67 and decreases to 58 at Harangi. But it goes up significantly as the Cauvery flows into Nanjangud (118) and
T Narasipura (184) in Mysuru district. Industries located in Nanjangud are to blame for the pollution the river sustains in Mysuru.

In T Narasipura, where the Cauvery converges with Kapila and Spatika (Sangama) on the banks of the ancient Sri Mahalakshmi Gunja Narasimha temple, domestic sewage is the villain. Blatantly, sewage from T Narsipur town is directly discharged into the Sangama. “The underground drainage work for the town is pending for the past two years,” says Kumar Naik, 27, who was part of a group that volunteered to clean the Sangama recently. “Also, people are adamant. They wash clothes here despite prohibition.”

On the banks of T Narasipura Sangama is the Sri Sosale Vyasaraja Mutt, which has stopped drawing the river water for its use. “We just can’t use it,” Mutt manager Sridhar Tirumakudalu told DH. “The Kapila is clean. It is the Cauvery that is polluted.”

Pollution increases manifold as the river flows into the Mandya district, the hotbed of the water-sharing dispute.

Satish M R, 40, depends on the Cauvery water to irrigate his four-acre land in Mahadevapura village in Mandya district. Farmers like Satish have been advised by the government to make suitable changes in their cropping pattern so as to also deal with drought. “But by the time I was advised against paddy, I had already finished sowing,” Satish says.

The Krishnaraja Sagar (KRS) Dam, which provides water to Bengaluru, Mysuru and other places besides agriculture fields in the region, houses its own eponymous village. Ironically, households in this village receive polluted water. “There’s an odd colour to the water. We can’t drink it without filtration. Mysuru city receives filtered water,” says Krishnegowda, a retired high school teacher. “There was a time we drank a fistful of water from KRS directly.” Now, the KRS village largely draws water from borewells.  


Small but sincere effort

There are also instances of communities dependent on the Cauvery making efforts to clean the river. Mallikarjun, 65, who has spent 30 years of his life with the river waters, picks up clothes discarded by devotees who visit the Triveni Sangama in Srirangapatna. The confluence of the Cauvery, Lokapavani and Hemavati rivers is a revered spot for the Hindus who come here to perform ‘Shraaddha’ — homage to the departed.  

Pollution over the years has resulted in Mallikarjun suffering from rashes on his body. “It used to be as clear as coconut 
water. But sewage from Mysuru has meant that we can’t drink this water any more. You spend 2-3 hours in this water, and you will find yourself itching your body. Also, the fish here die in the summer,” he says.

Towards Mekedatu, where the Cauvery meets the Arkavathi river, the waters hold little or no utility to villages such as Koggedoddi. This tiny hamlet stopped consuming the river water nearly 10 years ago. “Do you want us to consume the sewage of Ramanagara, Channapatna and Bengaluru,” asks Chandra Nayak. “We’ve suffered from allergies because of it. So we depend on borewells.”

The TDS level at the Mekedatu Sangama ranges between 301 and 487. Before the confluence, Arkavathy has a TDS level of 628. “Arkavathy is nothing but rainwater and sewage of Bengaluru,” says Nandisha GS, a supervisor from the Upper Cauvery sub-division of the Central Water Commission that has set up a water quality lab to monitor the river water.

Cauvery is pumped from a place 100 km away from Bengaluru, making it Asia’s costliest water. The city receives about 1,390 million litres per day (MLD) water, and sewage of an equal amount or more is generated. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board has 24 sewage treatment plants capable of treating only about 760 MLD. Remaining sewage flows directly into the lakes.

Cauvery water enters Tamil Nadu from Karnataka at Dabhakuzhi near Biligundulu in Dharmapuri district and the river endures rampant pollution from Mettur till the time it enters the sea in Poompuhar.

A hotbed of pollution

Industrial effluents, water let out by factories in Salem, chemical industries in Mettur, dyeing industries in Erode, Tiruppur, Bhavani and Kumarapalayam, dumping of garbage on the banks and letting untreated sewage directly into the river have made Cauvery, the lifeline of lakhs of farmers in the Delta region, a hotbed of pollution.

Cauvery’s tributaries, Noyyal and Bhavani, carry a considerable amount of pollution. The Noyyal is as good as dead due to effluents released by more than 700 dyeing units in Tiruppur. From Karur to Tiruchirapalli, the river flows at its broadest and is called Akanda Cauvery. Here, the river is put to severe stress due to rampant sand mining, which goes unabated till date despite numerous strictures by the Madras High Court.

Though the polluted water undergoes some natural cleaning process by the time it reaches the Delta region, letting of sewage and dumping of garbage and hospital waste into the river pollute it further, making the water unfit for drinking and sometimes even for irrigation.

Activists allege that the industries in the Cauvery belt release untreated effluents into the river during the night to escape the wrath of local people. The paper mill owned by the Tamil Nadu government near Karur is also a major cause for 
water pollution in the area and activists allege the factories on the banks of the river consume more water than they are allowed to pump.

“The government has not come out with a clear-cut policy for effluent treatment by industries located on the banks of River Cauvery. The untreated effluents that are released by industries right from Mettur all the way till Karur change the colour of the water. And people dump garbage into the river without realising that they are exploiting the natural resources and it would only affect them,” P R Pandian, president, Coordination Committee of All Farmers’ Associations of Tamil Nadu, told DH.

The State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamilnadu Ltd in Mettur is home to a number of chemical factories that manufacture caustic soda, bleaching powder and industrial salts. Beneath the river sits a 1,240-MW water-guzzling coal-fired thermal power plant operated by the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Ltd. All these industries and the power plant consume water from the river, more so the water stored at the Stanley Reservoir.

People in Konur village allege that several chemical industries located in Mettur and surrounding villages have polluted the groundwater immensely, which in turn has forced farmers to bid adieu to farming. They also say that at least a dozen open wells in and around the area where the industries are located have been deemed unfit for consumption by local authorities. A Mani, a farmer, seeks to know the punishment that is given to “the murderers of nature.” Water pumped out from the well dug in his farm in Konur stinks and this DH correspondent could not even smell it for a second.

Piysuh Manush, who has been fighting against indiscriminate mining in the hills and pollution in Salem and Mettur, told DH that the government should be held responsible for destroying the Cauvery water. “Management of forests and rivers by Tamil Nadu is abysmally poor. And the government turns a blind eye to industries who pump huge quantities of water directly from the dam or the river, more than what they are allowed. Farmers and people should get the first right over the water,” Manush said. 

Turning a blind eye

Activists say the biggest culprit for the current condition of the river is the state’s environment watchdog Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) which “does not monitor” whether the industries that are located on the banks of the river comply to the norms. A simple TDS test conducted by this correspondent in Mettur, Erode and Bhavani which are home to dying industries and leather tanneries showed the level to be between 1,500 to 2,200, which is unfit for drinking.

In Erode, where River Bhavani flows into the Cauvery, the municipal corporation dumps the garbage right into the river. The riverbank here presents a gory picture: With heaps of garbage and effluents released by the dyeing units and tanneries entering the river just yards away from the pumping station from where drinking water is supplied to the city.

Erode, Bhavani and Komarapalayam are home to leather tanneries, printing, dyeing and bleaching industries totalling to 600 industries. “There are three to four places in Erode, Pallipalayam and Komarapalayam where the sewage and industrial effluents merge into the river directly. The sewage water is recycled and distributed by the Corporation through pipelines as drinking water,” Nilavan, an activist working for the restoration of Cauvery, claimed.

According to an Indian proverb, only when the last tree has died, the last river poisoned and the last fish caught will we realise we cannot eat money. And as Chandramohan sums it up: “Even graveyards have security, but none of our rivers does.”  

The Cauvery at Erode in Tamil Nadu, where industrial effluents are let into the river directly. DH photo/ETB Sivapriyan


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