Big-ticket schemes like the Ganga-Cauvery link are a myth, as these schemes have enormous physical, political and economic costs — of not only the construction but also of maintenance over the years, according to a well-known water management expert.
Initiating an interaction on the “Vulnerabilities of the Cauvery Delta” at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai, on April 29, 2017, Dr. Janakarajan, former Acting Director of Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Chennai, said it was wrong to hide the current ills on climate-change issues, which in reality are a combination of anthropogenic blunders, inefficiency and coherent issues.
“The actual problem of irrigation-related issues in the Cauvery delta is that we don’t look at the actual root causes of the problem and blame the flames of Time,” he said.
Dr. Janakarajan explained the irrigation issues in the Cauvery delta in terms of geography, politics, societal practice and legal issues, at the aggregate and village levels. The Cauvery catchment area in Coorg (Karnataka) and Wayanad (Kerala) have been subjected to massive deforestation, leading to reduced rainfall and collection, he said.
In the mid-flow areas of the river, as far as Tamil Nadu goes, the river and its tributaries, namely, Noyyal, Amaravati, Bhavani and Kodaganaru, are all highly polluted owing to increasing economic activities like industrialisation and urbanisation. More than 14,000 industries depend on the Cauvery and its tributaries, for their water-needs and most of them dump their untreated or under-treated effluents into the river, into which the urban and rural sewage is also discharged.
While a dam constructed across the Noyyal had never been opened for irrigation, unsustainable sand-mining across the river-bed has reduced the lungs space of the Cauvery. In the tail-end, the delta is pathetic. Blaming the Nature is totally obsolete as according to statistics, rainfall in the region has increased over the past 100 years, Dr. Janakarajan said.
In this context, Dr Janakarajan referred to business interests interfering with the land-use pattern in the delta region. There is also a vast expansion of welcome mangroves (from 6.76 sq km in 1971, to 99.66 sq km in 2014) but it has been caused by sea-erosion in an area where 80 percent of the land-area has fallen into the low-elevation coastal region.
According to him, massive dams on the river have trapped sediments, causing delta-sink and sea-erosion. Nearly 2400 hectares of land were submerged in the sea between 1971 and 2014, but the Government’s land records do not reflect this reality.
There has been a paradigm-shift in occupation from agriculture to aquaculture and salt-making, but this leaves neighbouring waters and lands saline. He urged all stake-holders to be pro-active at least at this late hour, and learn curative measures from countries such as the Netherlands.
Speaking on mismanagement of water, Dr. Janakarajan said there is enough rainfall, if we planned and used it properly. But today the ground realty is that the canals and irrigation systems are old, and hence productivity per unit of water is relatively very low. There is an enormous scope of modernisation of canal network and control structure. In this context, he referred to high floods one year, followed by severe drought in the very next, and blamed it on poor policies, programmes and implementation.
In this context, Dr Janakarajan said that in the place of big dams, tanks, lakes, ponds and check-dams should be utilised, as they help in controlled discharge of irrigation water and also helps in continuous sedimentation of the delta. He dismissed big-ticket schemes like the Ganga-Cauvery link as a myth, and outlined the physical, political and economic costs of not only the construction but also of maintenance over the years.
On the climate front, however, Dr Janakarajan conceded that glaciers are melting in the Arctic and the Antarctic, and nearer home, in the Himalayas. These are contributing to the disappearance of perennial rivers on the one hand and rising sea-levels and inundation of the coast-line. Over-exploitation of ground water should also be a greater concern, he said.
In this context, he pointed out that 70 percent of the agriculture in the country depended on ground water, and said that there has to be a policy for judicious use and conservation of it if the nation’s farm-based economy were not to collapse in the future. The Cauvery delta was no exception, he indicated.
The water available for agriculture is less and been reduced due to necessity and increasing demand for water for urban industrial usage. Due to such inter-sectoral water conflicts, there is no credible alternate source of livelihood opportunities in sight. There is lack of pathways for water-flow, and there was thus a need for an integrated and futuristic adaptive delta management and development, he said.
Dr Janakarajan based his talk on a recent study that he had undertaken along the Cauvery delta, and said that the there is a tremendous increase in the socio-economic vulnerability, poor wages, inequality in access to resources, increasing landlessness and increasing rural-urban migration in the region. Salinity in soil, ground water and supply conditions, head and tail- end inequality and lack of flows have all contributed to the near- extinction of the short-duration summer crop, known as ‘Kuruvai’ crop.
At the individual’s level, the high incidence of alcoholism is to blame for the socio-economic backwardness of the farm labour. The debt-trap which leads to farmer-suicides is caused by the increasing role of organised private money-lenders, contributing to further complications, which are as much political as they are social and personal.
Referring to the ongoing inter-State Cauvery water dispute between source-State Karnataka and lower-riparian Tamil Nadu, Dr Janakarajan referred to the twin-agreements between the then princely State of Mysore and the British-India Government of the Madras Presidency, signed in 1892 and updated in 1924. The review of the 50-year agreement in 1974, as provided for, led to conflicting interpretations, leading to the Centre setting up the Cauvery Water Tribunal in 1990, under the Inter-State River Water Disputes (ISWD) Act.
The interim award of 1991 and the final award of 2007 led to more talks and further litigation in the Supreme Court, where Tamil Nadu sought the implementation of the tribunal award and Karnataka continues to oppose it. A new issue has now arisen following the contention that the tribunal was the final authority in the matter, and the courts do not have any role.
The Centre for its part under the ISWD law has added to the confusion, by first gazetting the tribunal’s award, as required, in 2013, but refusing the Supreme Court’s recent directive to constitute the Cauvery Management Board, again a requirement as per the tribunal verdict. Instead, the Centre has now constituted a Technical Committee to assess the situation in both the States, and it can have consequences for the entire delta region, Dr Janakarajan said.
This report was written by S Sivanesan, Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai