Cauvery river, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, river dispute, Lockdown, coronavirus, COVID-19
Successive governments in Karnataka have failed to make the state water-rich due to a variety of issues, leading to water row with neighbouring states. Representational image

Karnataka: Land of Cauvery has little water to use and less to store

Lack of foresight and political will to complete irrigation projects allowing flow of under-utilised water to neighbouring states or the sea

Even 67 years after state formation, successive governments have failed to make Karnataka water-rich. This is blamed on the lack of foresight and political will to complete irrigation projects, letting under-utilised water flow to neighbouring states or the sea uninterrupted.

As Karnataka celebrates the golden jubilee of its renaming (from Mysore Presidency), the unending row with Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery seems to have dampened the spirit of Kannadigas who lament over the absence of political unity over water-related issues in their state. A water crisis now looms large as the state saw a whopping 62 per cent rainfall deficit in October.

At this critical juncture, the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee (CWRC) told the state government to release 2,600 cusecs of Cauvery water from November 1 to Tamil Nadu. A peeved Chief Minister Siddaramaiah informed the CWRC that water in the reservoirs was inadequate due to a sharp dip in inflow and that it was not possible to release the water.

Admitting that successive governments failed to utilise Karnataka’s share of Cauvery water, the Convener of the Association of Concerned and Informed Citizens, M Lakshmana, said that unlike politicians from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka’s leaders don’t join hands in guarding the state’s interest.

Prolonged neglect

According to irrigation experts, the problem of sharing water with neighbours, especially of the Cauvery and the Krishna, is the cascading effect of years of neglect in utilising the state’s share of water. Add to this delays in allocation of funds to build sufficient storage capacity and a good canal network to irrigate fields.

Significantly, though several swathes of land in these stretches are dry, water flows unutilised to neighbouring states.

For the past few years, Karnataka has argued that the eight-decade-old Mekedatu balancing reservoir near Kanakapura, envisaged to provide drinking water to Bengaluru and other districts, is the only solution to the water row with Tamil Nadu.

Siddaramaiah blames the Narendra Modi government at the Centre and MPs from Karnataka for not taking the initiative in implementing the project.

Accusing the previous BJP government in the state of making it impossible for the present Congress government to take up new irrigation projects and also complete the work on the existing ones, Siddaramaiah said the water resources department needs nearly Rs.1 lakh-crore to implement projects approved till April 2023. According to him, the cost of projects including those of Yettinahole and Mekedatu almost doubled just because of the increase in land acquisition expenses.

Although the Congress government announced six major irrigation projects, none of these has taken off since it took power in May 2023.

Projects galore

The Yettinahole project, meant to quench the thirst of the arid districts of Kolar, Chikkaballapura, Tumakuru, Ramanagara and Bengaluru Rural, has been meandering for over a decade now. Its estimated cost has zoomed from the original Rs 12,912 crore to a staggering Rs 23,252 crore.

Farmers of Navalgund have been protesting demanding the implementation of the Mahadayi project. They want just 7.56 tmcft of water drawn from the Kalasa-Banduri streams (tributaries of Mahadayi). This project has run into several roadblocks over three decades, and seen many modifications.

Of the major irrigation projects in Karnataka, the Krishna basin is the largest, accounting for about 60 per cent of the area and covers parts of 14 of the total 19 districts in the north. Cauvery is the next in importance with 18 per cent of the area.

Projects in the Krishna basin, Upper Bhadra and Yettinahole are among the big-ticket projects that have seen a huge rise in costs and are also moving slowly due to issues related to inter-state water dispute, environment and forests, land acquisition and finance among others.

While the Mahadayi saw an escalation from Rs 94 crore in 2000 to Rs 1,667 crore now, the Upper Bhadra project’s cost shot up from about Rs 6,000 crore in 2008 to about Rs 20,900 crore in 2020.

Centre unmoved

The Upper Krishna Project (UKP) is one of the biggest irrigation projects in India. It has been implemented for the past four decades to extend irrigation facilities to farm lands in north Karnataka.

Successive governments have been persuading the Centre to accord a national project status to UKP. The hitch is that some issues concerning the project are pending with the Interstate Water Disputes Tribunal. UKP proposes to utilise 173 tmcft of water awarded to Karnataka by the Krishna Water Dispute Tribunal to irrigate six lakh hectares of land in six districts.

The plan is to raise the height of Almatti Dam from 519 to 524 metres. This will submerge 20 villages but more than 150 villages are expected to get drinking water besides harnessing 210 MW of power. This project awaits a gazette notification from the Centre to increase the height.

In January 2023, the High-Powered Steering Committee under the Central Water Commission (CWC) of the Ministry of Jal Shakti (MoJS) granted national project status to the Upper Bhadra Project(UBP). The erstwhile BJP government took it up in 2009 and water started flowing into Vani Vilas Sagar Dam.

Political will

But the Centre last year asked Karnataka to keep in abeyance the clearances given to the Upper Tunga Project (UTP) and UBP. This was because both projects failed to examine several interstate aspects related to allocation made by the Water Dispute Tribunal.

UTP was envisaged in the early 1990s to utilise 12.24 tmcft of water from the Tunga river near Shivamogga to irrigate 2,34,000 acres of land. The estimated cost at that time was Rs 379.87 crore. It is yet to be completed even after three decades.

A Congress leader and also an expert on irrigation projects told The Federal on the condition of anonymity: “Lack of foresight and political will have resulted in a major portion of the region remaining barren. Even though water is allocated to the state by tribunals, it flows into neighbouring states uninterrupted.”

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