Cauvery, a lifeline trickling away

Cauvery, a lifeline trickling away

A lifeline for over three crore farmers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu that irrigates about at least 40 lakh acres of land, the Cauvery is now classified as a 'deficit river'

The copious showers this year have brought a false sense of normalcy along the banks of the Cauvery. DH PHOTO/SAVITHA B R

A year ago, there was a massive landslide at Talacauvery, where River Cauvery originates. The accident, attributed to the digging percolation pits in a rain-rich area — an ill-thought-out exercise by the Forest Department — unscientific road work, and heavy rains, shows the damage human interference has wrought in the region.

A lifeline for over three crore farmers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu that irrigates about at least 40 lakh acres of land, the Cauvery is now classified as a "deficit river" that can hardly fulfil the needs of those dependent on it.

There is constant pressure on the river. A growing population, rapid changes in land use along its banks, the obsession with water-intensive crops like sugarcane (in Karnataka) and paddy (Tamil Nadu) and pollution from industries that have mushroomed along its banks, are major problems afflicting the river, farmers and experts say.

Take Kodagu: An Indian Institute Science study found the area under evergreen forest has declined from 40.7% to 27.5% in a little over three decades, mostly due to the uncontrolled expansion of coffee plantations and other uses.

The report estimates that the district lost 66,892 ha of pristine forest cover due to uninterrupted exploitation, and Kushalnagar and Madikeri taluks lost a major chunk of forest due to "Construction activities".

At Bhagamandala, downhill from Talacauvery, local farmers are struggling to earn a living as the changing monsoon and declining forest cover caused rapid erosion of soil cover.

Satish Kumar, vice president of Bhagamandala Grama Panchayat, observed that though there are movements for environmental conservation, the "local participation was lower," he said.

"Consumption is growing and there is a massive degradation of the river's catchment areas," says Chandra Mohan M N, who along with several other farmers has launched a campaign to raise awareness about conservation along the river.

“The river has turned into a dumping yard for domestic, agriculture and industrial waste. Unscientific tourism practices like illegal home-stays have also piled woes on water quality and river conservation efforts," he said. Mohan says only enacting legislation specifically to protect the river can save it now. 

The rapid decrease in the Green Cover in catchment areas of River Cauvery due to conversion of forest area into cultivable lands is a major problem that needs immediate course-correction, M Revathi, founder of INSPIRE which works among farmers in both states, told DH.

“It is very imperative to preserve green cover in the catchment areas. We need trees that will give rain. This is an absolute necessity to ensure we get enough rain so that Cauvery can feed farmers in both states. If we don’t protect the green corridor, the future will be bleak,” Revathi, who also runs an organic farm in Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, said. 

As the Cauvery flows further south, the cities along its bank turn into major guzzlers, releasing only sewage in return. Like the Arkavathy, several other small streams that pass through towns have turned into sewage drains.

A recent study by IIT-Madras, which analysed water at several points along the entire stretch of the river, found a range of 'emerging contaminants', including heavy metals and pharmaceutically active compounds, raising serious questions about the river's health.

But the tussle over the water continues. Across the border in Tamil Nadu, farmers want those upstream to stop treating them as a "drain state" by only releasing "excess water" from their dams and leaving the sluice gates shut at other times.

“Cauvery water is our right and it is a known fact that the region is dependent on this water for irrigation. The Supreme Court had in 2018 reduced the quantum of water to Tamil Nadu but we don’t even get that [water] on time. Karnataka should stop using Tamil Nadu as a 'drain state' and must release water on a pro-rata basis,” V Sethuraman, a farmer from Mannargudi, said.

While the deficit was around 32 tmcft on September 30 as against 123.14 tmcft of water stipulated by the Supreme Court, as heavy rains pounded the catchment areas in Karnataka, 41 tmcft water was released in the month of October alone, farmers point out.  

Karnataka has always honoured the Supreme Court and Cauvery Water Tribunal directions when it came to sharing water with lower riparian states, a senior official at the Karnataka Water Resources Department told DH. 

During years of deficit rainfall too, the state has released Tamil Nadu's share of water, he said, citing the drought years between 2014 to 2018 as an example.

Noting that Tamil Nadu had knocked the doors of the courts often seeking the timely release of water, the official said that only during severe deficit has the state been accused of delaying the release of water to Tamil Nadu.

Prof S Janakarajan, a former professor with the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), observed that agriculture in the Cauvery delta has turned extremely vulnerable and uncertain over the past decade due to various reasons.

“For decades, lack of adequate release of water from Karnataka forced lakhs of farmers to draw groundwater for irrigation. As a result, groundwater and soil in the delta districts have turned quite saline, affecting the productivity of crops. Further sediment flow from upstream has practically ceased due to construction of a number of reservoirs,” he said. 

Water guzzlers 

And calls to move away from paddy and sugarcane have not found much traction among the agrarian community. In Karnataka, reports indicate that the area under sugarcane cultivation has increased five-fold in the past 25 years. 

With its high yield, the crop is considered profitable, though the delay in payments by the sugar factories poses a big challenge to farmers. There are five sugar factories in Mandya and one in Mysuru

According to the Indian Sugar Mills Association, 54.55 lakh hectares of crop were under sugarcane cultivation in 2021 - 2022 in India, a 3% rise over the previous crop season.

Despite the water woes in Tamil Nadu's Delta region, the obsession with water-intensive paddy continues. A majority of farmers are unwilling to leave paddy as they feel the soil in the region — with its high percentage of clay — is “tailor-made” for the crop.

Though a new generation of farmers has gone in for a multi-crop pattern by cultivating pulses, vegetables, millets, and bananas, it has not taken off in a big way.

And paddy cultivation in the Delta region has only increased over the past decade, especially after 2012, when many farmers switched from sugarcane following a dip in its demand.  

‘Cauvery’ S Dhanapalan, a farmer leader from Nagapattinam district, in Tamil Nadu blamed the “too much importance” given to paddy by the government, as the reason for farmers betting heavily on the crop.

“Paddy is certainly a water-guzzler. There is no second opinion, and we know farmers will be the worst affected if we cultivate crops that consume more water. But what do we do when paddy is the only crop that gets us instant money?” he asked.  

Other factors, like the state infrastructure that makes the procurement of paddy seamless, the Minimum Support Price (MSP) accorded to the crop also make paddy the undisputed king.

“We have enough machinery to cultivate and harvest paddy. This is a major reason for people to go for paddy, as labour shortage is a perennial issue in the Delta region. Since there is no machinery available for other crops, paddy is considered a safe bet because insurance is also provided for the crop,” G Srinivasan, a progressive farmer from Thanjavur, told DH.

Farmers in the Delta region stress the need to conserve every bit of Cauvery water and rainwater that are available by desilting and cleaning hundreds of lakes, ponds, and tanks which are “precious gifts” to the farming community by the Chola kings. Youngsters in the region are now spearheading efforts to desilt and deepen lakes and ponds with or without government by creating awareness on the need to conserve every bit of Cauvery water and rainwater. 

Sethuraman argues cultivation of paddy is much easier than other crops like cotton and asserts that the irrigation system in the Delta region, believed to be developed during the Cholas rule, has been designed for “maximum utilization” of water that is available.  

“Despite all the negatives including the water-intensive nature of paddy, it is still preferred because of the nature of the soil. Moreover, cultivating paddy is easy for a farmer than cultivating cotton. Cotton needs to be fed and carefully monitored almost daily. But paddy need not be watched every day. The farmer does what is profitable and easy for him,” he said. 

As part of efforts to save water, many farmers now cultivate traditional varieties of paddy that have long been forgotten but they are not adequate to save water on a large scale. 

“Traditional varieties of paddy consume just 40 per cent of water against their hybrid counterparts. Many are worried about their yield. While the market for such products is good in urban areas, not many are takers in rural areas. And there are no incentives or government infrastructure to market these products,” Srinivasan said. 

Climate change 

Prof S Janakarajan also pointed out that the increasing intensity of storms and cyclones add enormously to the vulnerability of farmers. 

“There is no normal North-east Monsoon anymore. Invariably, every year, there are storms during the NEM period which bring heavy downpours in a few days inundating crops. What we see these days is either excess water or no water. Sustainable farming in the Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu is increasingly becoming uncertain and challenging,” he added. 

Among those raising serious concerns about climate change and its consequences are Santosh Koulagi of the Janapada Seva Trust in Melukote, Mandya district. "Looking ahead, climate change is the key factor that requires a lot of attention," he said.

Several socio-economic factors and a lack of clear government policy is to blame for the reluctance exercised by the agrarian community from adopting sustainable agricultural practices, according to Santosh.

V Jeevakumar, a lawyer and farmer in Thanjavur, stressed the need for creating awareness among farmers on the “ill-effects” of climate change.

“Government should focus on more research on the adverse impact of climate change on agriculture and find ways to save farmers and farming. Experts from other fields should also step in and do research,” Jeevakumar said. 

While enough stress is laid on water conservation and the need for construction of check dams in the Delta region, Jeevakumar said reviving the lakes and ponds built by the Cholas would be enough to save Cauvery and rainwater. 

“Chola rulers were so meticulous in their planning that we are still dependent on these water bodies to get water to our fields. We have to clean them and maintain them properly so that groundwater is recharged during the rainy season and adequate water both from Cauvery and North-east Monsoon is available for farming,” he added.

Though there is a demand for more check dams, Professor Janakarajan opined that this might not be "quite ideal", given the delta's flat terrain.

“Let check dams be the last option in this regard. The Delta region is blessed with not just lakes and ponds but also temple tanks, some of which are as huge as lakes. Storing water in such water bodies can be an excellent source to recharge groundwater,” Janakarajan added. 

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