A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
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.
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Coorg, Karnataka, is known for its lush greenery, coffee estates and natural beauty. It is also the source of Cauvery, which originates from the Brahmagiri Hills in the Western Ghats. Situated 1,340 metres above sea level, the Cauvery emerges as a small spring, forming a pond of about 4-5 sq meters. Popularly referred to as “Talacauvery”, it is associated with the Goddess Cauvery. It draws pilgrims who see the river as a goddess and saviour of the Kodavas (the local people of Coorg) and those who live by the Cauvery as it flows downstream.
On Coorg’s estates, planters maintain a thick green canopy, which provide the shade essential for the coffee to grow. This canopy, combined with the natural forests, is what brings much-needed rain to the river.
With their three-storey level canopy (added to the high shade of remnant rainforests), the planters of Arabica and Robusta coffee help maintain the ecosystem, acting as environment stewards. The pruning of the canopy, which takes place every year during the time of the South West monsoon (June- September), is misinterpreted as felling of trees by the media. But the planters retain local species for shade on their plantations, apart from formally protected areas. Silver oak, which do not provide the actual canopy but are planted along the borders of the estates, are chopped for additional profit by the plantation workers, while keeping the trees that provide the actual canopy, alive and healthy.
What goes unreported is the mass deforestation by the government in the name of development. One such is the construction of the 400KV powerline between Mysuru to Kozhikode via Kodagu, in 2014, to evacuate power from the Kaiga Nuclear Plant (near Karwar) by the Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd. The 220-km powerline, which passes through 52 km of Kodagu between Maldare and Talpatti, witnessed deforestation of 60 acres of land, containing about a lakh of trees, including the forest cover, private coffee estates and paddy fields. The Kodavas became aware of this development only when it reached the borders of Coorg, ready to enter the district.
The trees felled were taken as timber, and the sky is now visible where the foliage once spread. Due to the powerline that passes through their paddy fields and crop, farmers are affected by the high- tension radiation, without having any say in the matter.
Coorg is the only district in Karnataka that is not connected by railways since Colonial times. The ongoing railway line proposal between Mysuru and Thalassery has been opposed by the Kodavas, who point out that the felling of trees will further destroy nature. With the forest cover disappearing and no source of food, the tension between the local communities and wildlife is ubiquitous, with elephants especially creating a menace by entering the coffee estates and paddy fields in search of food. The disruption in the ecologically sensitive areas of Coorg has proved dangerous, with as many as 35 people being killed in the man-elephant conflict every year.
According to Conservation International, the Western Ghats is one among the 35 biodiversity hotspots in the world that must be conserved for harmonious environmental functioning. It is clear that with the extensive loss of rainforest, the South West monsoon has not been able to arrive at the right time for the past five years — in turning affecting the flow of water to the Cauvery.
Water is a resource that is being extracted from the ecosystem and that therefore has to be replenished. Known as e-flow, the cycle of returning the water has drastically failed, as intensive demand for water, combined with damage to the rainforests, has added to the water stresses.
Coorg, the primary catchment area of the Cauvery, has been running dry. In turn, the river water has not been sufficient to quench the needs of a thirsty state. With no flow from the stream, the lands downstream and the further course of the river are affected, leaving the states to fight the deficit of water. What goes unnoticed is the imbalance in the ecosystem that the authorities have created in the name of development, with the damming and control of the river leading to the battle for water.
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Full bibliography and references list here.
Next: Chapter II — The Plight of the Mandya Farmers | Chapter III — The Fluorosis Belt of Cauvery
Anusha Sundar is a (photo)journalist with an eye for environmental, cultural and human-centric stories. Follow her work on Instagram