Outside Dravidian India, not much is comprehended of developments within the region. Among these developments is the long battle between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, over the River Cauvery. The extreme politicisation of the water-sharing dispute has shaped the relationship between the two states — at times, provoking enmity based on languages and cultural beliefs between their people. Little do they know, they’ve been drinking the same water all along.

This is not a personal journey, nor is this a story I was directly impacted by. However, it is one that carries the identity of the place that I come from, the people I am indirectly connected with, and a story that greatly shaped the current environment. As much I stepped away to see the scenario holistically, I was drawn nearer to people who are affected by it. The journalistic route I chose defined my priorities; I listened to stories — not to record, but to hear. This five-part series — River (S)tresses — will someday talk to the world about the place I come from.

Read the introduction to this project here, followed by:

Chapter I — The sorrow of the Western Ghats

Chapter II & III — Examining plight of Mandya's farmers, and of TN's fluorosis belt residents

*** *** ***



The locals of Salem, Erode, Karur and Namakkal districts look upon the Cauvery as sacred. The confluence of the Cauvery with the Bhavani and Saraswati is called Triveni Sangamam, and is a Hindu pilgrimage site.


However, the river runs dry for a large part of the year, exposing itself and the banks to all manners of harsh activities. Instead of a swathe of rippling blue, the river stands still, its surface covered with masses of water hyacinth. The wide-leaved plants, with their attractive blooms, grow quickly, eventually covering the surface of any water body they grow in.

The stretches of the Cauvery covered by the weed have been lying stagnant for months, for want of being cleared out by the local authorities of the Public Works Department. Not only does this lead to mosquito breeding and waterborne communicable diseases, pumping the river water to the Bhavani Kattalai Barrage 2, for hydroelectricity generation, also becomes difficult.


Further, as one goes towards the interior — near the areas of Ashokapuram in Bhavani, Erode — the effluents from dyeing units are discharged into the canals, mix with the local sewage, and finally drain into the Cauvery. In Bhavani, the municipal town named after the river houses 100 illegal dyeing units that do not possess the license to operate. Not to make the discharge evident, the dyeing units release colourless dyes during the day and coloured dyes from 11 pm to 3 am, every day. Other areas such as Pallipalyam and Kumarapalyam, that house a number of power loom and dyeing units, also discharge their waste into the canals.


The banks of the Cauvery between Pazhaiyapallam and Bhavanipallam accommodate a stretch of houses that were built by encroaching on the river banks. A combination of kutcha and pucca structures, there are at least 1,500 of these houses. The illegal occupation and building of these residences on the river bed has been allowed by authorities who are more interested in building a vote bank than protecting the river.

The traditional crop cultivators of Namakkal and Karur have turned to growing Korai grass in the face of the pollution, inadequate monsoon and water scarcity. The grass is traditionally used to make mattresses. However, the acute water shortage has affected even this grass, which grows to a height of six feet. The small-scale industries that weave mattress from the grass now face a shortfall in the source of their livelihood.



Adding to the impact of the deforestation in Karnataka, the illegal sand mining on the banks of the Cauvery in Tamil Nadu results in the river being stripped of its essential components. Earthmovers work the riverbed, digging beyond the permissible depth and quantity, leading to severe damages to the water table. As against the permissible limit of mining up to 1 metre (3.3 feet), the illegal sand mafia excavates the riverbeds of various tributaries of Cauvery up to 6 metres (20 feet); these tributaries fulfil the drinking water needs of 20 out of 30 districts in Tamil Nadu.


The districts of Trichy and Karur, where the rivers Coleroon and Cauvery respectively flow, contribute about 8,000-9,000 lorries of sand to the final output. The construction boom in 2008 and subsequent encroachments along the riverbed have fuelled the need for sand and sand mining, and lowered the water table in the river through reduced rainfall patterns. The sand, acting as a sponge, helps the water to percolate and thus increases the water table. Gravel extraction also paves the way for erosion of banks and river bottom, eradicating the riverbed biological system responsible for self- purification of streams. The sterile bottom then takes years to recolonise.


The business of sand mining took off in the 1980s, with the local politicians seizing the opportunity to supply sand for the construction boom within the state. The lucrative business soon drew those higher up the political ladder. In the 1990s, when the AIADMK came into power, it implemented a clause that gave the state freedom to issue leases to mine sand, without conducting auctions. This resulted in 35 leases being given to a single miner in Karur in 2001. Coincidently, Cauvery runs the widest (1.5 km) through her course in Mayanur, Karur.


Failing to follow sustainable sand mining since then, the Public Works Department, since 2003, had had control over operating sand quarries. (The department is ultimately controlled by any one of the two Dravidian political parties — DMK or AIADMK — in power.)


However, the PWD couldn’t single-handedly control the operations and eventually began to outsource the working of the sand quarries, after an inspection of the load and permit. In practice, corruption meant the Rs 20,000 crore business could flourish as a smooth illegal trade — regardless of which party was in power.

*** *** ***

Full bibliography and references list here.

Next: Chapter V — The Farmers of the Rice Bowl

Anusha Sundar is a (photo)journalist with an eye for environmental, cultural and human-centric stories. Follow her work on Instagram