The death of a river
Once a cherished waterbody celebrated in early literature, the existence of River Cauvery today is being threatened with water scarcity as conflicting states refuse to cooperate
The Cauvery (also spelt 'Kaveri'), known as Ponni in Tamil, is the fourth-largest river in south India. Originating in the Western Ghats at Talakaveri in Karnataka's Kodagu district, it passes through Tamil Nadu. The river bisects the state into north and south, and finally reaches the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar, also known as Kaveripoompattinam in Tamil Nadu.
The Cauvery basin is spread over 81,155 sq km in the states of Karnataka (34,273 sq km), Tamil Nadu (43,856 sq km) and Kerala (2,866 sq km) and the Union Territory of Puducherry (160 sq km).
Cauvery's major tributaries, Kabini and Moyar, join it before it reaches the Stanley Reservoir at Mettur in Tamil Nadu's Salem district. The river's total length, from source to mouth, is 802 km.
From antiquity till the present era, the river has been the lifeline of ancient kingdoms and cities of south India. Because of the river's bountiful nature, the Cauvery delta was considered to be one of the most fertile regions in India, till recently.
Today, though, that is no longer the case – Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been at bitter odds with each other over sharing the river's waters due to the failure of the monsoon and consequent erratic rainfall.
A cherished waterbody
Today, the Cauvery might be a minefield of controversies. However, it has been among the most loved, cherished and celebrated waterbodies, finding an important place in Tamil literature, right from the Sangam era, spanning from the 5th BCE to the 3rd century CE.
For instance, Pattina Palai, a Tamil poetic work belonging to the Sangam period, speaks highly of "Cauvery, the river that never fails, even if the sky does". Similar praise of the river is found in Puranaanooru and Porunaraatru Padai.
Puranooru, one of the eight books in the secular anthology of Sangam literature, writes:
"The forceful water flow in the river Cauvery that can even uproot a tree, takes care of all the living beings of the world, as a woman feeds a child through her breast".
In the Kamba Ramayanam, when the great Tamil poet Kambar compares the Kosala kingdom of Sri Rama with the realm of the Cholas, he attributes the fertility of the Chola kingdom to the perennial river Cauvery.
The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature composed in Classical Tamil are Silappathikaram, Manimekalai, Seevaka Chinthamanai, Valayapathi and Kundalakesi. In Silappadhikaram, composer Elangovadikal sings many songs in praise of the Cauvery and elaborately describes how it has made the Chola kingdom at the Cauvery delta fertile and flourishing.
Elangovadikal speaks about the greatness of the Cauvery through Kovalan, the hero of the epic and Madhavi, the second heroine. While Kovalan sings about the Cauvery in only three poems, Madhavi greets the ruler of the country and the river Cauvery in three poems. Thus, controversy arises between them and Kovalan gets separated from Madhavi. Says Madhavi:
"Long live this fertile country! Long live the Cauvery that nurtures the country like a mother".
And Kovalan's words are:
"As farmers sing;
As the sounds of sluice gates rise;
As new waters break open
As people celebrate;
You walk! Long live the Cauvery!"
In Manimekalai, another famous epic, the poet Saaththanaar describes the Cauvery with due regard and reverence.
"As per the request of Kanthaman, the then Chola King, the great sage Agasthiyar (Agastya) poured holy water from his kamandal and the water started flowing in the name of the river Cauvery".
On seeing the river, the Goddess Sambapathy welcomes Cauvery thus:
"Welcome the Ganges from the blissful sky that fulfilled the desires of the king Kanthaman"
The poet describes the Cauvery as "the river that nourishes the land with perennial water, even if the zodiac signs show impending severe summer". He praises the Cauvery as the family deity of the Chola Kingdom because of its "boundless benevolence through its copious flow of water".
Chola king, Karikalan (Karikala Cholan), built a stone dam across the Cauvery 2,000 years ago, based on the representations received from peasants to increase the extent of paddy cultivation.
This dam was called the Grand Anicut by Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, the famous British engineer, and served as a model for constructing a dam across the River Kollidam near Mukkombu during the 19th century. After the construction of the dam and other canals, about 1.2 million acres of land were brought under cultivation.
Many temples like the Sri Renganatha Swamy temple at Srirangam (the island in the middle of the Cauvery in Tiruchirappalli), Pragatheeswara temple at Thanjavur and Sri Nataraja temple at Chidambaram had been built along the course of the Cauvery as well as in its delta.
As the Chola empire was very prosperous due to the Cauvery, the lifeline of the kingdom, the then rulers were able to extend their reign up to Southeast Asia.
Memories & death of a river
During my training period at the erstwhile Southern Forest Rangers College, Coimbatore, sometime in 1975, I happened to stay with others in tents in the Makut (near Brahmagiri) forests of Karnataka, from where the Cauvery originates. The site was located just on the banks of the river.
The forests were a moist deciduous type and water flow in the river was said to be perennial. But, of late, due to the development of roads, railway tracks, electricity pylons, etc., cutting through the rainforests, it has lost its charm and greenery. Moreover, the rainfall levels have come down drastically, resulting in sparse water in the river.
In the past, every year on June 12, water used to be released from the Mettur dam, enabling farmers in the Cauvery delta to proceed with farming activities. Now, it is only a memory.
Water was shared between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu according to agreements signed in 1892 and 1924 between the Madras Presidency and the Wodeyar Kingdom of Mysore. About 44,000 sq km of the river basin is in Tamil Nadu and 32,000 sq km in Karnataka.
Since the water sharing has been done according to a British Era agreement, Karnataka does not agree with the sharing of drinking water with Tamil Nadu. Karnataka also wants the agreement to be renewed according to present day rainfall patterns.
The Supreme Court of India, in its verdict dated February 16, 2018, had ruled that Karnataka would get 284.75 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft), Tamil Nadu 404.25 tmc ft, Kerala 30 tmc ft and Puducherry 7 tmc ft. The apex court had also directed the Centre to notify the Cauvery Management Scheme. The central government notified the Cauvery Water Management Scheme on June 1, 2018, constituting the Cauvery Water Management Authority and the Cauvery Water Regulation Committee.
The Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA) ordered Karnataka on May 28, 2019, to release 9.19 tmc ft of water to the lower riparian states for June. The CWMA meeting was attended by representatives of the Centre and the riparian states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Puducherry. As several parts of Tamil Nadu are reeling under acute water shortage, the Centre had already issued a drought advisory, warning about the depleting water levels in the reservoirs.
Karnataka had to ensure the flow of about 3 tmcft to Tamil Nadu by June 10. But it has only about 14.43 tmcft of water in the four major reservoirs of the Cauvery basin, namely Krishna Raja Sagar, Kabini, Hemavathi and Harangi. They need 4.84 tmcft of water to meet the drinking water requirements of 47 towns, including Bengaluru, Mysuru, Mandya and 625 villages in the basin area.
Karnataka has already issued directions against the use of water for irrigation. Many talukas in the basin have been declared as drought-hit. As such, Karnataka is not able to release any water to Tamil Nadu. It further states that Karnataka will think of releasing due share to other states only if the catchment areas receive good rainfall.
In the present situation, only a good monsoon with copious amounts of rainfall can succeed in alleviating concerned parties. It is beyond time that everyone realises the responsibility of using water judiciously. Only people can bring an end to water pollution by taking all possible efforts to increase the groundwater table.
Effective water management is the need of the hour. Maybe then, the Cauvery will be bountiful again one day.
(The author is president, the Society for Conservation of Nature, Trichy, Tamil Nadu, and consultant with the Society for Social Forest Research & Development, Tamil Nadu. The views expressed are strictly personal)