The Summer of discontent

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The Summer of discontent

Sunday, 09 June 2019 | Kumar Chellappan

The Summer of discontent

In the season of Agni Nakshatram or the ‘star that emits fire’, all major temples in parched Tamil Nadu are reverberating with hymns as priests perform the Varuna Japa to propitiate the Gods for much-needed rain relief, writes Kumar Chellappan

Summer is at its peak in Tamil Nadu. This is the season of Agni Nakshatram (Tamil for the ‘star that emits fire’). All major temples in the State are reverberating with hymns as priests perform the Varuna Japa and Varuna Yagna to propitiate the God of rain so that the skies open up. The chief priests can be heard reciting, “Chandra prabham, pankaja sannivishtam, paasankusabheeti, varandadaanam.” The rationalist Dravidian Land, too, has resorted to pujas so that Lord Varuna may bless the State with rains. This has become a common sight in all major temples in the State, which are managed by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Department of the Government of Tamil Nadu.

There was a time not long ago when temples in rural Tamil Nadu resonated with, “Endaro mahanubhavulu, andariki vandanamulu” (There are so many mahatmas… my salutations to all) — a hymn written, composed, and sung by Saint Thyagaraja, one of the trinities of Carnatic music, who is believed to have lived in the 18th Century. There was a feeling of happiness all over the State because people were content with the basic needs of life. The villages had sufficient clean water to drink. The farms yielded big quantity of paddy, fruits, and vegetables, and there were no barren lands anywhere.

Not anymore. Over the years, most of the paddy fields in Tamil Nadu have given way to concrete jungles as farmers felt it was not wise to continue with agricultural operations. Massive industrialisation across the State led to pollution of rivers and water bodies. As people moved to urban centres in search of more comfort and conveniences, agriculture took a severe  beating. Add to this, there was acute shortage of water as the population dependent on rivers increased manifold over the decades.

Illegal construction swallowed the water bodies in urban areas. Ground water level went down as many rivers dried up. A trip from Chennai to the south or west of Tamil Nadu will take the traveller along barren lands stretching miles, which were once rivers meandering through the length and breadth of the State. The State was largely dependent on River Kaveri (Cauvery) originating from the Western Ghats in Karnataka.

Now, Tamil Nadu is in a perpetual war with all its neighbouring States — Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala — for a few TMC ft of water. The major political issue in Tamil Nadu is neither Narendra Modi nor Rahul Gandhi, it is water. Tamil Nadu is having a water war with Karnataka and the matter is being heard in the Supreme Court. Tamil Nadu is engaged in a battle royale with Kerala over the water level to be maintained in the Mullaperiyar Dam. It may sound strange but what makes the case interesting is that the Mullaperiyar Dam owned and operated by Tamil Nadu is situated in Kerala. Despite verdicts by a river water dispute tribunal and the Supreme Court, the more than a century long legal battle between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka lingers on while lawyers continue to flourish even as water remains elusive for Tamil Nadu.

There is another battle front along the Tamil Nadu-Andhra Pradesh border as both States are at war over sharing of the Palar River. Tamil Nadu has another ongoing litigation with Kerala over the sharing of Parambikulam-Aaliyar rivers. Though States are in perpetual war mode, political parties in Tamil Nadu fight more aggressively against one another over the quantum of water the State manages to get from Karnataka.

The five southern districts of Tamil Nadu are dependent on water drawn from the Mullaperiyar Dam, and River Kaveri is the lifeline of almost six districts in central Tamil Nadu. Since there are no major rivers in Tamil Nadu, the State is dependent on the neighbouring Karnataka, Andhra, and Kerala for its water requirements. The shortage of water and its repercussions can be seen from Chennai to Kanyakumari where people, especially women, walk five to ten kilometres every day to fetch one pot of water. During the election tour to the Sivaganga district, we passed through a village named Athikkadu where people were fighting over a small pot of water. Athikkadu village brought back to mind a 1981 Tamil film Thanneer..Thanneer (WaterWater).

The movie made by the legendary K Balachander, which had the all-time great star Saritha in the lead role, walked away with the National Awards for the best film as well as the best screenplay. It told the story of a drought-ridden Athipatti village in Tamil Nadu and the sufferings of its residents. When a newcomer to the village asks one of the locals for some drinking water, the villager tells him; “Thambi, don’t  ask anybody for water. You can ask them for their wives, but not water!” Thirty eight years after the movie was released, most of the villages in Tamil Nadu have turned out to be Athipatti, where womenfolk walk more than five km every day to fetch drinking water.

To check the authenticity of this statement, all one has to do is to make a trip to districts like Thoothukudi and Tirunelveli. One is greeted by people pushing handcarts carrying water pots, which they fill from water bodies five to 10 km away from their villages. As the mercury hits the roof, the chances of the sky opening up for a brief rainfall have become remote.

The film Thanneer also featured the approach of politicians and bureaucrats towards the heartrending pleas by villagers for drinking water. Callousness and indifference reign supreme even as hundreds fall victim to water-borne diseases as well as dehydration.

The irony is that all this happening even as plenty of water is being wasted into the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal by rivers in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. “Water scarcity is not a new problem haunting Tamil Nadu. It has been there since early 1900s, but the Governments of the day came with piecemeal solutions, showing scant regard to the woes of the poor,” said S Kalyanaraman, Director of the Saraswathi Research Centre, a Chennai-based think tank, who authored a seven-volume series on River Saraswathi.

Our politicians speak about the plurality of India and they exhort the people how to sustain it. Take a look at what is happening across the country and you will see how pluralism is maintained. While there is scorching summer in South India, which dries up rivers and all water bodies, the northern part of the country is fighting the flood waters of Brahmaputra. The glaciers in Himalayas melt and cause floods in all major north Indian rivers. At the same time, the people in South India are praying to the rain Gods for bestowing mercy on them.

MK Stalin, the DMK leader who declared that he would become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu immediately after the May 23 results, is silent on the severe drinking water shortage. “He could have used his excellent rapport with the Congress President Rahul Gandhi and the Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy to get the Kaveri water released to Tamil Nadu. But till date, the DMK leader has not said anything about it,” said Narayanan Thirupati, a Tamil Nadu BJP leader.

Kalyanaraman points out that a well-documented feasibility report prepared by the National Water Development Agency under the Union Ministry of Water Resources to link the Netravati-Hemavati rivers to augment the water resources of Kaveri river could be a solution to the water scarcity faced by Tamil Nadu. “This will prevent the wastage of water flowing from Netravati into the Arabian Sea. A series of tunnels will make the Netravati waters flow into the Hemavati river. This project should be implemented on a priority basis to save not only Tamil Nadu but Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh from the looming water shortage,” he said.

Prof PM Natarajan, a hydrologist who has studied the water scarcity in South India for long, is of the view that the surplus floodwaters in Godavari could address the water scarcity in Tamil Nadu. “Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh do not have facilities to store excess rain water. Karnataka itself discharges 1,000 TMC ft water into the sea, which alone can take care of the water requirement of Tamil Nadu. The Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Pennar river system discharges 5,000 TMC ft water every year into the sea. We should impound/transfer a portion of this water to help the States,” says Natarajan.

According to Kalyanaraman, India may be the only country in the world which faces drought and flood at the same time. “Many times, I have seen the Centre helping the North Indian States in fighting floods, and at the same time, pumping in money for drought relief work in South India,” said Kalyanaraman, who was earlier a banker with the Asian Development Bank.

The NDA Government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had appointed a task force under the chairmanship of Suresh Prabhu, a member of the Union Council of Ministers, to prepare a detailed project report on the interlinking of major Indian rivers. Though Prabhu submitted an excellent report to the Union Cabinet, the NDA Government was defeated in the 2004 Lok Sabha Elections. The UPA Government’s common minimum programme had promised the people that rivers in the country would be interlinked. But certain religious organisations and NGOs opposed the move and that made the UPA Government dump the Suresh Prabhu committee report. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu saw three floods that devastated Chennai and five surrounding districts. The flood waters had to be pumped out to the sea because the metropolis did not have storage facilities. The entire flood water went waste and this is happening all over the country on a regular basis.

One of the reasons put forward by the opponents of the project to interlink the rivers is global warming. “Global warming has led to the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas. If we go ahead with the interlinking of rivers, the Brahmaputra would dry up as there won’t be any glaciers to feed the river,” claimed the NGOs.

Perhaps they have not heard about a comprehensive study on the glaciers in Himalayas done by Prof Vijay Mohan Kumar Puri, an internationally respected glaciologist based in Dharamsala. “There is sufficient water entrapped in the Gangotri glacier, which feeds River Ganga. This talk about global warming itself is nonsense. Climate never remains static and keeps changing. When the temperature rises, these pseudo experts scare us by shouting ‘global warming’. The same bunch threatens us with claims of an ice age when temperatures come down,” said Prof Puri. He said that fearmongering is good business. “If you say everything is fine, people would not take notice. But negativity gets a lot of attention,” he said.

A policy paper, ‘Economic Impact of Interlinking of Rivers Programme’, prepared by the economists and scientists of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) in 2008 says that linking of major rivers in the country would lead to manifold increase in its economy. Besides bringing millions of hectares of dry land under farming, the country would be richer by 25,000 MW of clean and green energy, which could be generated by micro and mini hydel projects. A major chunk of transportation of goods could be carried out through inland navigation, resulting in major gains in the oil import bill of the country. The canals, that would transfer the surplus waters, would also help with forestation of the surrounding areas.

Had the UPA Government paid heed to the Suresh Prabhu committee report, the interlinking of major Indian rivers could have been completed by 2016, as per the directive of the Supreme Court delivered in 2002.

The anguish and disappointment of farmers in Tamil Nadu reached such a level that Ka Vi Kannan, a farmer leader from the Kaveri Delta, chose to write a book in English so that people in North India could understand their agony for water. River Cauvery: The Most Battl(r)ed is a book about the hopes and aspirations of the farming community. “We are not asking for charity. What we need is some help in the form of water and loans at reasonable rates of interest. People in North India should understand that Tamil Nadu villages are no different from the village Athippatti portrayed in Thanneer,” said Kannan.

If the new Government takes up the project on a war footing, the country stands to gain in many ways. Millions of jobs could be created as part of the programme. The legal battle between States for a few more drops of water would become a thing of the past. Three groups stand to lose because of the interlinking: Politicians, who would lose an issue to fight with and lead agitations; NGOs and some religious groups that survive only because of drought and poverty; and the power brokers.

A 200-m-wide national river connecting Brahmaputra/Ganga with Kaveri in the south; fully grown paddy and wheat fields across the length and breadth of the country; barges and boats filled with commodities sailing along this canal; people contented because they get clean drinking water in their houses; and hectares of newly created forests along the banks of this canal. And, of course, the villages resonating with hymns from Guru Granth Sahib and the compositions of the Holy Trinity of Carnatic music. Mr Modi, are you reading this?

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