River project heats up campaign

River project heats up campaign

The voters on the West Coast of Karnataka will critically view the environmental issues including the project for diversion of Nethravati river from West to East, in this Lok Sabha elections.

The green workers of the coast have cornered candidates of every political party on this controversial issue. There are already talks of exercising the NOTA option in large scale.

Even when the campaigners approach the voters for their votes, questions are being hurled by the people: why did you not influence your parties when it was the question of water security of nearly five lakh people of the region?

The Nethravati river diversion project gained momentum in 2011 after Paramashivaiah, late chief engineer, Government of Karnataka, submitted a report to the government. The report recommended diverting Nethravati from flowing West — from the Western Ghats and reaching Arabian sea — towards eastern Karnataka, to provide drinking water and filling over 1,000 tanks and lakes in parched districts of Kolar, Chikkaballapura, Tumakuru besides Bengaluru rural areas.

This is supposed to be done by lifting the storm water through a pipeline laid at the ridge level height of the Western Ghats. After protests from the coastal people, the government renamed it as Yettinahole storm water lift project that would cost Rs 12,000 crore (2012 costs). In the last seven years, the cost has escalated to Rs 18,000 crore as per the Cauvery Neeravari Nigama Limited.

M Veerappa Moily, former chief minister and MP from Chikkaballapur, was instrumental in giving it a central push during the UPA II regime. Two other former chief ministers — Sadananda Gowda and B S Yeddyurappa - had soft-pedalled this project dubbed by critics as environmentally disastrous.

Will this be an election issue? “The environmentalists had opposed this disastrous project back in 2011. Up to 2017, no one, including the legislature, executive and judiciary, paid heed to the appeals of the people against the project. As a result, the people’s struggle weakened. It was shame on democracy,” says Vijayakumar Shetty, convenor, Nethravati Ulisi Horata Samithi.

“The main issue was water security in the coastal city of Mangaluru. The city has a population of close to five lakh and it is the only source of water for domestic, agriculture and industrial purposes. Many times in the past five years, there was water rationing. In 2015, the Mangalore Refineries and Petrochemicals Limited — one of the most modern refineries and petrochemicals plant of the ONGC — had to shut down production due to scarcity of water.

Water intensive plantation crops, mainly arecanut, all along the 90 km run of the river, had to suffer due to the government orders to stop water for farming during summer,” says Manohar Shetty, president of the Dakshina Kannada unit of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha.

The coastal voters are now questioning, why politicos from the state including three former CMs, three MPs (Shobha Karandlaje of Udupi-Chikmagalur, Ananth Kumar Hegde of Uttara Kannada and Nalin Kumar Kateel of Mangaluru), district in-charge ministers of three coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Uttara Kannada and the 19 MLAs, did not question this in the state legislature or Parliament. 

“This despite the fact that they were armed with all the facts and details mentioned in the report on Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil on the ill-effects of the project,” says Kishore Kumar of the Malenadu Horata Samithi of Hassan. 

The fishermen of the coast are among those affected as the Nethravati is the largest west flowing river which annually drains some 475 tmc ft of water into the Arabian sea during the three months of South Western monsoon (National Institute of Oceanography figures).

Maintaining salinity

The sweet water not only supplies nutrition to the fish progeny but also maintains salinity of the sea in these parts but if the dumping from Nethravati is gone, the coast will not have the same quality that will be conducive for growth of fish progeny.

“With great expectation we had elected Pramod Madhwaraj from Udupi to the state legislature and his mother Manorama Madhwaraj to the Lok Sabha in the past as they are from fishermen community (Mogaveera). We thought they will raise their voice when it comes to the fishermen’s interests, but no, they allowed Nethravati to be diverted,” said Sudhakar Salian, a fisherman leader of Udupi.

The green warriors have taken up an open letter drive to press their demand. Letters from Sahyadri Sanchaya, a pressure group, have gone to candidates belonging to BJP, JD(S) and Congress from all the three coastal districts. The letters ask candidates why they did not question such a disastrous project when it was being planned and executed.

Shashidhar Shetty, an activist of the National Environmental Care Foundation, in a letter to the district deputy commissioner, has indicated that a large Nota campaign will be taken up during the polls on April 18 in all the three coastal districts.

(The writer is a Mangaluru-based senior journalist)