“With origins in Kodagu as a young girl, the mighty Cauvery gushes through Tamil Nadu as a woman to embrace her beloved – the ocean. Through her journey, she gurgles over rocks, flows through the forest, tumbles off the hills as she extends her hands to touch her beloved”. This extract from the magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan, by Kalki captures the essence of river Cauvery and its relationship with Tamil Nadu. In the book, Ponni, as river Cauvery is fondly called in Southern parts of Tamil Nadu, is the heroine who swells your heart with pride as she meanders through the erstwhile Chola kingdom nurturing the fertile delta region.
Through the course of the book, it’s hard not to fall in love with Ponni as much as you do with the central characters. Ponni is revered, a benevolent force that showers bounty on the state and is seen as the lifeline of Tamil Nadu. The recent Supreme Court order gave hope to put an end to the century-old bitter battle fought between neighboring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. However, with Central government delaying the setting up of the Cauvery Water Management Board as per SC directive, Tamil Nadu is once again left at the mercy of Karnataka, the upper riparian state for its just share of water.
Over the years, Cauvery issue has taken shape in form of peace talks, bandh, and litigation to violence and protests. Successive Chief Ministers in Tamil Nadu see Cauvery dispute as a symbol of state pride with a direct link to their political legacy. Methods of handling the Cauvery dispute by Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi were vastly different. While AIADMK largely banked on the legal route, DMK chief, M.Karunanidhi’s, personal equation with VP Singh & Manmohan Singh helped in establishing the Cauvery Water Tribunal and the issue of the final award in 2007.
An aggressive campaigner on rights of Cauvery, Jayalalithaa, surprised everyone in 1993 when she observed a four day long fast near the MGR memorial on the Marina Beach, demanding the release of water from Karnataka for Kuruvai crop. She ended her fast only when Union Water Resources Minister VC Shukla was parachuted to Chennai to assure her that Central Government would set up a committee to ensure implementation of the award. Later in 2013 when the Central government notified the tribunal award in the Gazette, she described the development as the best birthday gift ever. “I have a sense of fulfillment and achievement because we have secured Tamil Nadu’s rights over the Cauvery water”, she said. Many journalists recall the pride and smile in Jayalalithaa’s face as she posed for the camera with the gazette notification.
Efforts of present government led by EPS, fade in comparison to his predecessors. So much so, that they have earned the sobriquet of “B Team” of BJP by the opposition parties. Recent entrants to politics, actors Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan too have a checkered history in the Cauvery dispute. While the later calls for the two-prongedged approach in solving the dispute, the former has often been attacked for maintaining a stoic silence and not being assertive.
As the political slugfest plays out, very little attention has been given to the Cauvery itself. The Cauvery Delta has shrunk by over 20% with cultivable lands deteriorating to waste lands. Cauvery water has been affected by pollution, sand-mining and over-exploitation of the river. Experts call for Tamil Nadu to improve water management and reduce the number of water-intensive crops. Veerappan, retired chief engineer quips that “while neighboring Karnataka spent Rs 50,000 crore for development of irrigation in the past 25 years, Tamil Nadu has spent a meager Rs6000 crore”. Prof. S.Janakarajan, Convenor of the Cauvery Family, urges the government to pay attention to the sinking delta and prevent seawater erosion.