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

Chapter IV — A deep-dive into the human-water conflict

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The districts of Tanjore, Trichy, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam, which span 14 lakh acres of the delta region of the Cauvery, account for 47 percent of river and canal irrigation. They are also home to the paddy cultivators of Tamil Nadu.


Agriculture is the primary and traditional occupation of the residents, and the districts of Tanjore and Thiruvarur are collectively known as ‘the rice bowl’ of the state.

According to the 2016 edition of the Tamil Nadu Statistical Handbook, the eight Cauvery delta region districts contribute 45.4 percent of the state’s total paddy production, with Thiruvarur and Tanjore contributing the highest —10.7 percent and 9.9 percent respectively — making them the chief rice suppliers to the state granaries and responsible for food security.


However, the main delta regions also suffer from an inadequate flow of water, which causes extreme distress to the cultivators of the land. The paddy farmers’ only source for cultivation is the water that is released from the Mettur Dam, which in turn receives water from the Krishna Raja Sagar Dam and Kabini Dam controlled by Karnataka.


The first release from the Mettur Dam, which takes place on 12 June every year, is supposed to ensure timely water supply for short-term crops called kuruvai. But the unavailability of water in the Mettur Dam due to the inactive South West monsoon breaks the agricultural calendar, thus ruining the plantations of the 90-day crops.


If the release is postponed excessively, the early sowing of samba becomes a gamble due to the North East monsoon that sets in during September-October – it could either damage or nurture the samba and thaladi (paddy) plantations.


The sluices of the Mettur Dam have not been opened on the set date since 2011, as a result of irregular monsoons and water not being released from Karnataka.

This untimely opening leads to the delta farmers losing one of their three crop yields. Thanks to the stagnant water in the paddy fields, the groundwater gets replenished, and farmers are able to affordably make use of it through bore wells.


But depleting groundwater leads to the need to dig deeper wells, which adds to the financial burden of the farmers. According to the village administration office, there has been a steady increase in bore wells being dug in the Cauvery delta regions, especially in the districts of Tanjore, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam. There were 27 wells in 1991, and the number increased to 478 in 2003.


While their counterparts in Mandya manage to grow at least two out of the three crop rotations, the farmers of the delta barely see one (samba) due to the extreme lack of water as well as lack of financial aid to tap the groundwater. To make ends meet, the farmers grow low-yielding cash crops like cotton, black gram, and vegetables such as okra.


2018 saw a heavy South West monsoon ravishing the Western Ghats, forcing Karnataka to release the excess water to Tamil Nadu, which consequently reached the delta region. Yet, the late start of the season meant that the farmers had already lost time needed to sow and harvest kuruvai, when the water was most needed. Some purchased water when they were given assurance for their samba cultivation, while others waited with the hope that the government will release Cauvery water to their districts.


The long history of rice production by farmers in the delta region cannot be changed. Many farmers and agrarian researchers have now moved to alternative irrigational practices, but the unavailability of even the bare minimum has resulted in fallow agricultural land and farmers resorting to other odd jobs.

This transformation has proved to be beneficial to a few and detrimental to millions, with food security at stake.


The underdeveloped irrigational infrastructure for farming, food insecurity for a growing population, the growing number of farmer suicides, deforestation and a loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity are issues that can be tackled only by rethinking the Indian agrarian system.

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5-11 (1)

It is projected that by 2030, two out of three people will live in water-stressed environments; water is even being referred to as ‘blue gold’. The water crisis scenario is being studied in order to tackle obstacles which may affect the production of food crops, and environmental consequences, among other issues. But in every water crisis management plan, there exist two planes: One, the physical terrain which consists of geographical aspects such as flora, fauna, landform, structures built, and two, the invisible institutional and political bodies, made up of organisations, rules, and leaders who govern the physical aspects. In terms of the Cauvery, the latter has shaped the course of the dispute more than the former. Water has been overtly subjected to human manipulation, and the environmental impact of this manipulation has gone unnoticed. One manifestation of this manipulation is dams.


Violence and power struggles have accompanied the construction of large dams. The pending Mekadatu Dam proposal over the border put forth by Karnataka has been seen by Tamil Nadu as a dilution in its control over the river.


The Cauvery is a life support system and is bound to be politicised, because the shortage of water becomes a legitimate state issue. But distorted politics and political calculations with negative impacts should not pose further difficulties.

The destruction of the Western Ghats, which would bring in much-needed rainfall, the adverse interaction of water with pollutants, and diminishing agriculture fields will result in more water stresses in the coming years, if preventive measures aren’t undertaken. It is time to view water as a social factor rather than an aspect of the built environment, for the betterment of the whole ecosystem where a catchment-based land-water approach needs to be adopted.

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According to the UN Water reports, almost 95 percent of water in South Asia is utilised by the agriculture sector, as compared to world average of 70 percent. Water culture and its landscape practices hold a great economic, political and cultural significance in South Asian society.


Unlike the West, where landscapes passed through classical, industrial and feudal phases, the South Asian society, especially India, understood landscapes through the cause and effect of human actions, where the geographical setting was nurtured keeping in mind philosophical concepts and technical knowledge. Water control is a key factor of South Asian civilisations. Manifested as social systems, this largely applies to the agricultural lands in southern India where the Cauvery flows. It has shaped the irrigational systems, cropping patterns and is a visible record of labour, history and power.


As depicted in Sangam literature, the deltaic regions had bountiful water and became known for their bumper rice harvests, paving the way for elite rice-based cuisines, architecture and cities. The rice, combined with the spices from the Western Ghats and dairy from the other regions, soon became part of the lifestyle of a Dravidian society. The wet rice paddy itself became a means to replenish the water table through stagnant water in fields. The Cauvery was seen as ‘water from heaven’, manifesting itself in avatars such as rainfall, rivers, ground water and even as canals.

Soon, it became an element of strategic importance, a thing for which people competed against each other.

A battlefield and prize in itself, it became the embodiment of the power of political establishments, rather than being perceived as a mark of fertility, food security and stabilising the very structure that Indian society is based on. It is noteworthy that the water crisis that plagues the region now is not because of the physical shortage of water, but the absence of better management that is slowly disintegrating the regional landscapes and agrarian sector.

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Full bibliography and references list here.

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