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.

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According to UN-Water, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the global freshwater withdrawal. Indian agriculture is monsoon dependent and its variations, with high degree of spatial and temporal patterns, will result in either bumper harvest or crop searing droughts in others.


As Cauvery leaves the lush hill ranges of Coorg, it falls to the plain lands of Mandya, a district predominantly based on agriculture. Here Cauvery water is utilised for both farming and drinking needs of the population. With paddy and sugarcane being the primary harvest, the Krishna Raja Sagara Dam built on Cauvery is the only source of water for agriculture needs.


Often, these farmers are blamed for not sharing Cauvery water with their counterpart in Tamil Nadu, but what is often left untold is that there is lack of sufficient water within the state to meet the crop demands. The water also satisfies the drinking needs of districts of Coorg, Mysore, Mandya and Bengaluru, the state’s capital. Furthermore, the main crop paddy requires 1,250 mm of stagnant water throughout its growth before the harvest.


With insufficient water resources, most of the farmers have been forced to switch from paddy to sugarcane, which requires less water. In exchange, the farmers have to compromise with the crop’s long duration harvest cycle of one year. The sugarcane crops that yield for 10 years after sowing, with less water intake as compared to paddy, gives them appropriately less income and prosperity. Hence, the farmers who have already sowed sugarcane and cannot change their cultivation due to the crop duration, now face poverty. On the other hand, cultivators who cannot afford to sustain the long duration of sugarcane lose their livelihood. According to the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, a farmers’ association, claims of 385 farmer suicides — due to scarcity in water for agriculture — came up between the years 2014-2018.


When the water is released from the KRS dam into Tamil Nadu, it is automatically assumed that the irrigational needs of the local region’s farmers are met. But, this is not the case as the channels through which the water flows are divided: one for Tamil Nadu and other for the Karnataka farmers. Five canals — Chikka Devaraya, Rajarajeshwari, Ramaswamy, Varuna and Visvesvaraya — direct the water to the farmlands of the Mandya region; and these are not opened at regular intervals to meet agriculture needs.


Unknown to many, the farmers’ protests to release water into the local canals gets translated as agony over giving away of water to its neighbour, whereas, in reality, the demand to open the local canals is scarcely reported. Moreover, the high-tension 400 kV power line that passes through the fields of farmers results in crop destruction, change in land control and loss of cultivation.


The coconut plantations have seen the reduction in the size of the coconuts, while a lot of other trees are dead and barren. Not only are the farmers and land-owners, but also the farm labourers, who do not own a piece of land, are affected. In the time of water shortage, they lose their jobs in farms and are forced to go work in factories.


Moreover, the Hebbal Industrial Area near Mandya has added to the contamination of the river water, while massive agricultural areas have been converted into commercial plots and real estate. The area that houses popular corporates, namely Preethi Granites, HP Gas, Vikranth (JK Tyres), Fine Core, Brooke Bond, Bharat Cancer Hospital, among 1,000 other industries, dump their sewage into the river.


The number of farmers being forced to abandon agriculture as a result of the rampant conversion of lands to industry and real estate have to now take the loss at the hands of corporates who have claimed the territory of the waters and its usage.


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Running on the borders of both the states for 64 km, Cauvery tumbles into Hogenakkal, of Dharmapuri district in Tamil Nadu, in form of waterfalls. Provided the water is released from the Krishna Raja Sagara dam, it reaches the Central Water Commission that is stationed at Biligundlu in Krishnagiri within 24 hours. Hogenakkal, a popular tourist destination known for its coracle rides barely serves the needs of the drought-prone districts of Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri. Known as the fluorosis belt of Tamil Nadu, the excess presence of fluoride, an acute salt in the groundwater, leads to drastic dental and skeletal problems to the residents of the district.


According to the funding agency study, as of 2006, the population of both the districts stand at 2.98 million out of which 1.1 million are below the poverty line. With rainfall of 815 mm annually as against the country’s average of 1,170 mm, the acute shortage and unavailability of surface water, the residents’ resort to consuming groundwater that contains more than the permissible level of fluoride. While the accepted level of fluoride in water deemed fit for consumption is 1.5 ppm (parts per million), the level is found to be much higher, 2-12 ppm per litre, leading to discolouration and deformities in teeth and other skeletal problems affecting knee joints and bones. Causing an irreversible change, about 52 percent of the population suffer from fluorosis. In Dharmapuri, while the lack of healthy water causes health hazards on one hand, the lack of knowledge what dental fluorosis is (which affects 79 percent of people), on the other hand, has led to ignorance to the disease. While 82 percent of the population do not know the causes, the populations’ only response to their dental deformities is embarrassment and lack of awareness of causes.


To mitigate this, the Congress-led state government of Tamil Nadu in the 1960s came up with the Hogenakkal Water Supply and Fluorosis Mitigation Project during the reign of Mr K Kamaraj, the then chief minister of the state, with a budget of INR 110 crore (16.535 million USD). While the project was mooted, due to political conflict of interests for a period of nearly 50 years, it was finally launched on 29 May 2013, by the AIADMK led state government covering three municipalities, 17 town Panchayats and 7,639 rural areas. However, even after the launch of the programme, only 42 percent of the population is aware of the scheme, while 54 percent still believe it to be introduced for preventing water scarcity in the districts. This unawareness to the disease and the reasons it is caused still pose a problem.


On the other hand, the untimely releases of Cauvery have rendered in the unavailability of practising this scheme on a regular basis. The majority of the population still continue using groundwater. The financially stable families use more than two filters to convert the hard water into soft, while the financially unstable households consume hard water with excess fluoride content and continue suffering from fluorosis.


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Full bibliography and references list here.

Next: Chapter IV — The Human-Water Conflict

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