Kaaveri Thanneer Pattaal Kanniyar Meni Thangam (If the water of the Cauvery river touches the skin of a young girl, it will maker her glow like gold) is a popular number from the 1955 Tamil film Kaveri starring thespian Sivaji Ganesan, Padmini and Lalitha. The song, a celebration of the river, is one among the many examples of the Cauvery influence on Tamil culture and poetry over the years. As the Cauvery now flows into Tamil Nadu, wetting the Hogenakkal soil, you would expect Tamil Nadu to be on song once again.
As against 134 tmc of Cauvery water that Karnataka is meant to release between June and September as per the 2007 award by the Cauvery River Water Tribunal, the verdict of the Supreme Court asking Karnataka to release 15000 cusecs everyday for ten days, amounts only to about 13 tmc feet.
"This is like giving pigeon feed to an elephant,'' says P Ayyakannu, president of the Tamil Nadu unit of the South Indian Rivers Interlinking Farmers Association. "By the time the water travels 320 kilometres from Mettur dam in Salem district to Nagapattinam, nothing will be there for those farmers.''
In Trichy, Chinnadurai, a farmer has cultivated paddy on 8.5 acres. "No farmer here sows paddy, depending on the Cauvery water. We irrigate through bore-well water. But it does not mean we do not need Cauvery water," says Chinndadurai.
Farmers say the samba crop (a form of paddy) is spread over four to five months, from September to January and needs at least 90 tmc feet of water. "Instead Karnataka is giving us 13 tmc feet. How do you expect us to survive,'' asks Ayyakannu.
Cauvery water is being sought after not just for irrigation but for drinking purposes as well. Towns like Erode, Namakkal, Tiruppur, Karur, Aravakurichi depend on the river to quench their thirst.
People in Tamil Nadu blame the political class of the state for failing them. They point out to Karnataka which is seen as united — however legally flawed the position it may be — in not releasing water to Tamil Nadu unless its needs are met. "In contrast, the Tamil Nadu government has not even called for an all-party meeting. It just shows how much they care for the farmers,'' says Jothi Mani, Karur-based spokesperson of the Tamil Nadu Congress. "The Centre will yield to pressure and let us admit, Karnataka is presenting a more united front.''
While Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had written to the Prime Minister requesting his intervention, DMK chief M Karunanidhi wants her to spell out her future course of action, now that it is clear that water released will be insufficient. "Will they get an order for securing at least 50 tmc feet of water from Karnataka or will they lead an all-party delegation to the Prime minister to exert pressure,'' he asks.
Just like their counterparts on the other side of the Cauvery, different Tamil Nadu farmers associations have been speaking in shrill tones, threatening to stop power supply to Karnataka from the Neyveli Lignite Power Corporation. C Dhanapal, president, Delta Farmers Protection Association says, "Karnataka diverts water for irrigation and then says it has water only for drinking. This has to be monitored by a central committee to ensure we get our fair share.''
But Tamil Nadu's protest over Karnataka's plan to construct Mekedatu dam in Ramanagaram district to store 48 tmc of water to meet Bengaluru's drinking water needs has not yielded any result. The Karnataka government has allotted funds for it. Tamil Nadu alleges that this will alter the course of the river and is in violation of the Tribunal award.
But while it is politically convenient for Tamil Nadu to blame a 'rigid' Karnataka, the fact remains that it too has made no effort to save the Cauvery in its patch. The river has been killed, for all practical purposes in most parts, having fallen prey to rampant sand mining.
"Successive governments in Tamil Nadu have not tried to save the Cauvery river. There are so many smaller water bodies on the Cauvery route from Poompuhar to Mettur, which have been encroached upon. They can store water, if they are rejuvenated,'' says Jothi Mani.
The other factor is that paddy, an extremely water intensive crop is grown in more than 30 percent of the 28 lakh acres area under cultivation in Tamil Nadu. Farmers point out that the delta soil cannot be used to grow millets and there is no other option but to grow paddy.
Is anger against Karnataka the dominant emotion among Tamilians in the Cauvery delta today like the reverse is happening across the border, I ask Chinnadurai. "No, not anger. It is a feeling of regret that despite having rights on the Cauvery river, we are made to feel like beggars. Karnataka should realise it is not doing us a favour by releasing water,'' he says.
In 1998, Kannada superstar Upendra planned a movie called H2O. And H2O, the chemical symbol for water, can only mean one thing in Karnataka — the Cauvery river. The story was about two men living on either side of the Cauvery — one in Karnataka and one in Tamil Nadu — vying for the same girl, obviously named Kaveri. The grapevine is that Upendra had thought of the two biggest names in Kannada and Tamil cinema — Rajkumar and Rajinikanth, to play the lead roles. But both reportedly refused.
Four years later, Upendra cast himself upstream and Tamil actor Prabhu Deva downstream in this love triangle drama. It was the story of how relations between two villages - Honnuru and Chennooru, depicting Karnataka and Tamil Nadu respectively — soured because of the Kannada and Tamilian suitors for one Kaveri. The film ends with the message that Kaveri (read Cauvery river) cannot be divided between the two.
Time perhaps to order re-runs of H2O.