In shutdown, Cauvery breathes life; shows dispute has little to do with river

Unlike most other river water disputes, the Cauvery is not one about sharing the river water when it is in full flow — it is always about sharing the shortage when the river goes dry

Cauvery river, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, river dispute, Lockdown, coronavirus, COVID-19
The 21-day countrywide lockdown, after just a week into it, has resulted in the river regaining its natural colour. Its purity seems to have come back and the flow is once again the way it used to be for centuries. Photo: iStock

The coronavirus-linked shutdown has inadvertently exposed the double-standards and hypocrisy of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on the Cauvery river water issue.

The lifeline of the two southern states, the much-abused river is now reportedly flowing free — with clear waters and sparkle — something not seen in many years, thanks to the shutdown of polluting industries and free flow of effluents into the Cauvery.

For decades, the two states have been at each other’s throats, riots have occurred over Cauvery and reams of arguments lie in the archives of the judiciary — all ostensibly for a larger share of the river water.

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In reality, amidst the raucous dispute over the Cauvery, the river flows nearly 800 km abused by polluting industries, the river bed in summer dredged of sand for construction and much of the catchment area destroyed along the way — in both states.

The destruction is possible because the administrations in both states have never seriously enforced bans on any activity that endangers the river — leading to the river flowing like sewage in certain sections. The pollution boards of both states have only paid lip service to protecting the river basin and the river itself.

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Ironically, the pitiable state of the Cauvery is not a secret at all. Anyone can take a trip from Kodagu to Poompuhar and see for themselves. In Kodagu, sewage from homes and commercial establishments directly flow into the river, sand mining (during summer) has created craters in the river bed that affect its flow and remains from religious rituals are routinely dumped into the river.

As the river runs its course, the TDS (total dissolved substances) rises exponentially with deadly chemicals mixed in the water like manganese, arsenic and sulphides. In the Mandya region, just before the river enters Tamil Nadu, people prefer borewell water as the Cauvery is unusable.

There is no relief for the river when it flows into Tamil Nadu at Biligundlu in Dharmapuri district. It actually gets worse. Untreated industrial effluents from factories in Erode, Mettur, and Salem are let out into the river without regulation, and so does sewage from various towns dotting the area.

That people can force their unimaginable deeds on a river that sustains life in the region is a reality that should have ideally triggered resistance. And they have, albeit patchily. Courts have occasionally stepped in to restrict these activities, but eventually they have been washed away by mindless greed and a myopic vision of what development is.

Activists have cried hoarse over the years about the slow but steady killing of a river that is the third largest in south India. Some say that an exclusive law is necessary to protect and save the Cauvery. Else, it is a matter of time before the unbridled exploitation and misuse will spell “finis” to this great river.

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Worse, the run off during good rains has been so high that much of the water goes into the sea. As a result, it makes no difference when in the subsequent summer months, the region is parched. The groundwater table too, as a result of the runoff, has not seen any significant gains in many places along the Cauvery basin. A study quoted in The Hindu says in Nagamangala taluk of Mandya district, groundwater has plummeted by 8.8 metres since July 2016. In five other taluks too, the groundwater has gone down.

In fact, the copious monsoon rains in the Kodagu region of the Western Ghats where it originates instead of helping the river and all its dependants downstream result in massive floods and landslides that have seriously affected the lives of people and poses great danger to their survival.

Instead of combining their resources and working towards rejuvenating the Cauvery and its ecosystem, the two states have reduced the river to an inter-state dispute sparking incessant verbal duels and ego-clashes.

The dispute also comes in handy for politicians to score brownie points. Chauvinistic groups on both sides of the border thrive when the conflict heats up in summer months when the river dries up and both states fight for their share of the water.

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Unlike most other river water disputes, the Cauvery is not one about sharing the river water when it is in full flow — it is always about sharing the shortage when the river goes dry.

Ideally, the administrations should have ensured that the river ran undisturbed, enabled viable storage during the rainy season and put to use judiciously in summer. In which case, there would have been no dispute in the first place.

In this grim scenario, just when ecologists and well-wishers of the river had all but given up hope, comes the news that something dramatic is happening to the river due to the coronavirus shutdown.

Unexpectedly, the 21-day countrywide lockdown, after just a week into it, has resulted in the river regain its natural colour, its purity seems to have restored and the flow is once again the way it used to be for centuries until the ecological degradation and unplanned industrialisation all but contaminated the Cauvery.

Related news: River water disputes Bill puts states at Centre’s mercy

According to reports, elderly people on the banks of the river in Karnataka say they have not seen the river in this clear form in several decades. With industrial units not working due to the shutdown and effluents not flowing into the river, the Cauvery is breathing free again.

What this essentially means is that the river is asking to be given a chance to survive, healthily. All it needed was just one week of a shutdown to show its resilience, that it is a living organism that should be treated with care like the manner in which a shutdown was announced when the government felt that a virus was endangering the life of humans.

It beats the imagination that people who are so worried about their own physical well-being that they can take any drastic step to survive, simply do not care when another living being like a river is in danger of dying due to their faulty, self-centred actions.

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