EPS launches river-linking project to be the ‘saviour’ of water-starved regions

The project, spread over six districts, will irrigate nearly 1,10,000 acres and benefit 1,054 lakes. But, it has its drawbacks such as the time and costs involved to complete it

EPS' promise to provide free three-phase electricity was meant to benefit scores of farmers in the dry belts with better irrigation facilities

With the inauguration of the Cauvery-Gundar river link project, Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) has managed to strike a chord with the people of the central and southern regions of the state. However, this effort is being widely viewed as another attempt to attract voters in the upcoming assembly elections.

After EPS assumed charge as the Chief Minister, he had ensured that water is released from the Mettur dam. In 2019, after an eight-year gap, Delta farmers were able to cultivate Samba (the long-term crop). In the following year, due to the heavy rainfall, there was surplus water in Cauvery.

This abundance of water led to a lot of appreciation for EPS — people said his zodiac sign should not be ‘Kanni Rasi’ (a sun sign) but ‘Thanni Rasi’ (thanni means water). Despite a flood in Cauvery in which the Delta lands were submerged, governor Banwarilal Purohit in his assembly speech recently, honoured EPS with the title ‘Cauvery Kaappaan’ (protector of Cauvery).

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Claiming to be a farmer, EPS wants to emerge as a champion of the water-starved regions in the state and hence took up this intra-state river-linking project, it is believed. While inaugurating the project, EPS in fact declared that he had achieved the goal of his life. The Cauvery-Gundar project spread over six districts, will irrigate nearly 1,10,000 acres and benefit 1,054 lakes. But, the project has its drawbacks such as the time and costs involved to complete the project, and the extensive tracts of land to be acquired for the project.

Also read: Release Cauvery water as per availability, board tells Karnataka

“It is purely an election stunt. If the project is carried out as per the current plan, it will take at least eight years and most of the money will be wasted,” said A Veerappan, secretary, Tamil Nadu PWD Senior Engineers Association.

However, EPS has also made the claim that his government is finally implementing a 100-year-old project. Is that claim true?

“Almost,” said GS Dhanapathy, state secretary, Farmers Forum of India, Pudukkottai. “But EPS alone cannot claim a stake to getting this project off the ground,” he added.

According to Dhanapathy, the history of this project dates back to 1934 and the time of the British rule. “Congress, DMK and AIADMK have contributed to make this project a reality, besides numerous protests staged by farmers like us,” offered Dhanapathy, who through his ‘Kollidam Ubarineer Kuzhu’ (Kollidam Surplus Water Committee) has struggled for four decades to get the project implemented.

When British demanded tax

The district Pudukkottai has a special place in Indian history. It was the last princely state to accede to join the Indian government in 1948.

Recounting the history, Dhanapathy said after the Mettur dam was built in 1934, farmers had demanded that the British should build a canal to divert the surplus water from Cauvery. The British in turn told the King of Pudukkottai to build the canal by collecting the tax from the people.

“The King rejected the idea and the plan of constructing a canal was dropped. The demand was revived once again only in 1952, during the very first session of the Parliament,” said Dhanapathy.

Also read: No Cauvery water release from Mettur on June 12

As a primer to the project, the British had even built a canal known as South Bank Canal, during the construction of Mayanur Kattalai bed regulator in 1934. But it was left in the lurch. In 1952, the first MP from Pudukkottai, K Muthusamy Vallatharasu submitted a proposal to then then Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru on this issue.

In 1958, the then Chief Minister K Kamaraj tried to implement the project at a cost of ₹189 crores. However, the project never took off.

Subsequently, in 1980, Dhanapathy launched their water committee. Then during MGR’s regime in 1985, the project was again revived with a budget of ₹525 crores. The project finally took off in 2006. The then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi took some initiatives to implement the project.

After the 70s, the Cauvery dispute started between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. At that time when the state was complaining that Karnataka was not releasing Cauvery water, Karunanidh rechristened the name of their committee from ‘Cauvery Ubarineer Kuzhu’ to ‘Kollidam Ubarineer Kuzhu’.

Interestingly, Karunanidhi was elected to the state legislative assembly for the first time from Kulithalai constituency, under which Mayanur falls. So, Karunanidhi was aware of the project and allocated ₹394 crores, and the funds were used to build a barrage in Mayanur, which was commissioned on 2014, said Dhanapathy.

Also read: RS members pitch for interlinking of rivers, rain water harvesting

In 2014, they met the National Water Development Agency and they suggested instead of building a canal only to Pudukkottai, the project should be extended till Gundar. “That’s how Cauvery-Vellar-Vaigai-Gundar project attained its final shape,” pointed out Dhanapathy.

The former Chief Secretary K Shanmugam, once the district collector of Pudukkottai has reminded EPS about the project’s benefits, claimed Dhanapathy.

Meanwhile, when the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project (KLIP) was inaugurated, the Telengana government had invited 10 farmer leaders from seven states, including Tamil Nadu to witness the engineering miracle. “We stayed there for a week and understood the working of the project. When we returned, we met our MLA Dr Vijayabaskar and told him about the KLIP. We also demanded that the Cauvery-Gundar river linking project should be carried out on those lines. He then cajoled EPS to implement the project, so that it would help them politically too. This led to EPS allocating funds for this project in the last budget,” he said.

Benefits of the project

Originally, the project was part of a project to link the peninsular rivers. The National Water Development Agency set up in 1982, gave a proposal to the government linking the 14 rivers in the north, which is known as the ‘Himalayan Component’ and 16 rivers in the south, known as the ‘Peninsular Component’. The interlinking of rivers such as Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Pennar-Cauvery could be realised by constructing a canal, it was argued.

Also read: Rajinikanth backs BJP’s manifesto over interlinking of rivers

According to Veerappan, the state is water-deficient. “Though floods occur in Cauvery or Thamirabharani rivers once in two or four years, about 250 tmc water from these floods disappears into the sea. In Cauvery alone, once in four years, 100 tmc of surplus flood water is wasted through runoffs. Irrigation engineers like us and water activists have been demanding for a long time that the surplus flood water should be diverted to arid regions. Through the ‘Peninsular Component’ about 200 TMC water can be diverted for irrigation,” claimed Veerappan.

Due to the non-cooperation of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, interlinking of the Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna and Pennar has not taken place. However, the state government planned to interlink Cauvery-Vellar-Vaigai-Gundar and that’s how the Peninsular Component has been extended. It is believed that it can be achieved by constructing a canal for 256 kms, and benefit districts such as Karur, Trichy, Pudukkottai, Sivangangai, Virudhunagar and Ramanathapuram.

“People ask when Cauvery water itself is not released properly, how will this project do any good. The notion is wrong. Every year around 10,000 cusecs of water is released in Cauvery and stored in Mettur dam. If there is a surplus, it is discharged into the Kollidam river. If the Kollidam river gets 5,000 cusecs for five days, lakes such as Veeranam would get filled. There is no place or no need to have more than 1,000 cusecs of water for Kollidam irrigation. So, instead of discharging into Kollidam, if the water is allowed to flow into the Delta districts, the region will be flooded,” said Dhanpathy.

“Besides the water released from Cauvery, the surplus from its tributaries such as Bhavani, Noyyal, Amaravathi are also discharged into the Kollidam river. It will add another 10,000 to 20,000 cusecs of water and that drains into the sea. If this project is completed, about 12,000 cusecs of water will be sufficient to irrigate the lands and the remaining will drain into the sea,” Dhanapathy said.

Demerits and the alternative

The project has its own drawbacks. Firstly, it will be implemented in three phases – Phase-I will cover Kattalai to South Vellar, while Phase-II will cover South Vellar to Vaigai and from Vaigai to Gundar comes under Phase-III. Currently, Phase-I is in the process of being carried out.

Also read: If the BJP has a water strategy to woo TN, now is the time to unroll it in Cauvery

Veerapan said that the transportation of about 8.59 tmc of Cauvery surplus flood water of Mettur at Kattalai Bed Regulator in an open lined canal for a distance of 118.45 kms in Phase-I, and for 107 kms in Phase-II and 34 kms upto Gundar, is not a good proposition. “There are chances that the water can be lost due to evaporation or theft en route and can become polluted,” added Veerappan.

Besides, the land needed for the Phase-I totals up to 3,266 acres of parts and 856.67 acres of poramboke lands. The cost of the acquisition process stands at ₹1,487 crores, which can be avoided if the water is transported through closed reinforced, large-diameter concrete pipes. The pipes can be carried along the sides of national and state highways, and major district roads, he suggested.

“In Pudukkottai, digging for the canal becomes difficult since the region is full of hard rocks. Even if they try, the tunnel boring, construction of cross masonry structures (to prevent natural drain water mixing with canal water) take a lot of time, effort and money,” Veerappan added.

While the implementation of the project has begun in earnest, protests against the project too are gaining momentum. For example, in Karur, people are demanding a public hearing concerning the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report of the lands, about 1,250 acres in Karur alone, earmarked for acquisition.

Environmental activist Mugilan said that the public hearings on the EIA has been a hogwash. “In many villages, people are unaware about the public hearings due to the lack of publicity about the meetings. Hence, most villagers were unable to attend the public hearings and voice their concerns. Even in places where the hearings took place, it was just an eyewash, said Mugilan. “For example, the EIA report is only in English and it is difficult for them to understand the contents. Not only the abstract but the entire report should be made available in Tamil,” he averred. Obviously, we have not heard the last word on this.

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