Cauvery: A basin on the burn

TR Vivek travels upstream of Cauvery in search of a solution to India’s oldest and most bitter water dispute.

WrittenBy:TR Vivek
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At slightly under 800 kilometres, the Cauvery is the smallest of India’s major rivers. But it is the subject of the oldest and the most bitter water dispute in the country.

Two pre-Independence agreements, a post-Independence tribunal (whose final order was 17 years in the making), and countless Supreme Court orders notwithstanding, the sharing of the Cauvery waters between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka happens in the most ad hoc manner and in a climate of unrelenting hostility. Two decades ago, hostilities peaked and lawyers were kept busy till late summer when the demand and supply equation was at its direst.

Now there is an unresolvable permanence about the dispute.

There isn’t enough rainfall in the entire basin for even a seasonal sweeping away of distress and animus. Add to it, the cumulative karma of unchecked abuse of the river on both sides, and you have a perfect disaster.

The views on both sides of the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border are shaped less by geography and hydrology but mostly by competitive demonology. Karnataka’s Mandya district holds a special place in the demonology constructed by Tamils, especially those in the delta region of central and eastern Tamil Nadu thirsting for Cauvery water.

Born in a family with roots in the delta region, the prosperity of Mandya always cropped up whenever my father or any other member of the family of his vintage saw the dry bed of Cauvery.

Thirty years ago, one of life’s few highlights was spending summer vacations in Srirangam — the river island in the heart of Tamil Nadu — and soaking buffalo-like in the Cauvery for hours on end. The flow would be thin with a few spots that offered ideal waist-deep water for a nine-year-old who didn’t know how to swim. At the bathing ghats, smelling of carbolic soap, old-timers bemused by city kids’ maddening joy at the sight of a flowing river would nostalgically recount how it was possible to dive into it from the Mambazha Salai, or Mango Road bridge even in summer months until the mid-1970s.

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With the 50-year water sharing agreement between the two states lapsing in 1974, the avaricious Kannadigas started playing dirty, the pampered farmers of Mandya were prospering while we are parched, went the standard delta dirge. The knees of that narrative haven’t gone weak.Even today, listening to farmers of Tamil Nadu and politicians who provoke them, you’d imagine Mandya to be a veritable Garden of Eden whose rich farmers drove to work not in tractors but sports cars.

To describe Mandya, around 100 kilometres from Bengaluru, as a town is a bit of a stretch. Far from prosperity, there is scarcely any evidence of agricultural glory, even of the past.

The coconut trees in the region have droopy, sickly canopies. Three years of near-drought have taken its toll. Many groves with only stumps — like giant, used matchsticks nailed into the ground — offer an eerie sight. That’s because farmers have lopped the canopy off in the hope of keeping the decades-old trees alive, just about. The crown shall grow back when there’s enough fluid to nourish the water guzzlers. Otherwise the death of the coconut trees is permanent.

With its predominantly loose and red soil, Mandya is a semi-arid zone. The kingdom of Mysuru set out to build the 194-feet-high Krishna Raja Sagara Dam (KRS), the first of such size not only on the Cauvery but anywhere else in British India in 1924, to irrigate the drylands of Mandya. By 1934 when the dam was ready (albeit only 131-feet high thanks to the objections raised by the Madras Presidency), along with the waters in the canal arrived virtually uninterrupted prosperity.

Ergo, when the Cauvery goes dry, water levels in the KRS dip — Mandya is the first stop in the pain chain. When Karnataka feels hard done by a court or tribunal order, Mandya becomes the nerve centre of protests.

Several factors contribute, beginning with the demographics. Mandya is home to Vokkaligas, one of the two most socially and politically dominant backward castes in Karnataka. The caste group, heavily into agriculture, whose political stalwarts include former prime minister and Janata Dal (Secular) patriarch HD Deve Gowda and former chief minister SM Krishna, are a numerical majority in the district. The mobilisation of such a homogeneous group is relatively easy.The political importance of Vokkaligas means no government of the day can take the protests in Mandya, which occur whenever there’s a perception of Karnataka’s interests being short-changed, lightly.

In fact, Mandya is a town designed for maximum protest-impact. Life revolves around a three kilometre stretch of the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway — the bus stand, railway station, government offices, theatres, automobile showrooms, hotels, a large public park and the inspection bungalow slotted on either side of the road. A lock down here, such as the one in September last year in the aftermath of the Supreme Court order forcing Karnataka to release water, means choking access between Bengaluru and Mysuru and the Kodagu district that lies beyond.

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The violence of last September took place after a long hiatus. According to some accounts, in Bengaluru, Kannada chauvinists burned down some 40 buses of a Salem-based fleet operator. Other random acts of intimidation against Tamil speakers in the city were also reported. But it was the first such large-scale protest in the age of social media and 24/7 news media.

TV news channels in both states tried to outdo each other in fanning the flames of local sentiment. Given the intractability of water dispute, and the sub-national politics built around it, such incidents can only get more frequent.

The counter narrative in Mandya against the Tamil farmers is that they are a greedy lot who grow three crops a year compared to the two in Karnataka’s Cauvery belt. But their interests are somehow always protected thanks to Tamil Nadu’s political heft and its cannier politicians.

“Look at the Tamil Nadu farmers protesting in Jantar Mantar. They always manage to make their voices heard. In Mandya, the farmers have faced three consecutive years of drought. Yet, no one, including our own politicians care to do anything about it,” says MS Atmananda, a well-respected agricultural activist, Congressman, and a former state horticulture minister.

Clad in a veshti and a maroon T-shirt, Atmananda, 69, is no rabble-rouser. He speaks about the farming crisis in Mandya, measuring his words carefully in a whispering tone. “Farming is now like gambling. If it rains, we are okay. Otherwise, doomed. A decade ago, sugar factories in Mandya crushed cane 300 days of the year. Now they are operational barely for five months. Now the situation is such that the rice we eat comes from Punjab. Of course this is summer, but look around and tell me if you see any signs of plentiful water even during the previous monsoon,” he says.

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The Sugar Rush

Sugarcane, once the source of Mandya’s prosperity is now a curse by most measures. But the sweet allure of the crop remains.

Mandya, like several other regions of India such as Western UP and Maharashtra, was addicted to cane helped by large-scale irrigation projects. Sugarcane is not just a water guzzler (needing in excess of 2,000 litres of water per kilo of sugar compared to 300 litres for millets such as ragi or foxtail), but also a lazy farmer’s crop. It’s the crop that comes closest to the early Indian four-stroke bike zeitgeist: “fill it; shut it; forget it.”

There is of course a concerted effort, bankrolled by the sugar lobby, to project sugarcane farming as environmentally sustainable.

“Sugarcane is an addiction. Sow; arrange for lots of water; harvest. There’s not much to be done in-between. Since it’s a cash crop underwritten by the government, nothing much can go wrong. It is indeed a lazyman’s crop,” says HV Vasu of a group called Karnataka Jana Shakti that champions the birth of alternative politics.

Easy access to water from the KRS dam contributed to complacency and relatively inefficient farming practices in the region. Also, the land holdings in Mandya (1.5 acres) are significantly smaller compared to Cauvery regions districts such as Erode (3.3 acres), Thiruvarur (2.27 acres) and Nagapattinam (2.12 acres) in Tamil Nadu.

According to the Indian Institute of Sugarcane Research, Tamil Nadu produces 13 more tonnes of sugarcane per hectare, consuming about 85 litres of water less for every tonne of cane produced than Karnataka. The metrics for Mandya are even poorer, and the sugar content in the region’s cane ranges from 8-10 per cent compared to the 13 per cent in Karnataka’s northern districts irrigated by rivers Krishna and Tungabhadra.

“Do you think it’s easy to wean farmers away from a cash crop like sugarcane? I’ve tried all my life, even as a horticulture minister, begging them to grow millets for which there is no state procurement guarantee. Why don't you it try yourself,” challenges Atmananda.

Not one of the half a dozen sugar factories — four run by the state and two privately owned — in Mandya are profitable. Farmers’ groups say they collectively owe close to Rs 6 crore in dues.

Vivek Cariappa, an economist from Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce who turned organic farmer 30 years ago, has been lobbying with the state government in vain to get the region’s farmers off the sugar trip. “With sugarcane, farmers aren’t making money but sucking up huge quantities of water and the sugar factories are running up losses. But we continue to encourage sugarcane. That’s because sugarcane is now a byproduct of the alcohol industry and not the other way round. And who is heavily invested in every part of the alcohol chain — from production to retailing? It’s the politicians,” says Cariappa, a recipient of the Krishi Pandit award from the Karnataka government for best practices in agriculture.

The likes of Cariappa are summoned by politicians and bureaucrats to suggest solutions every time protests break out over the Cauvery issue. “The conversation ends when I tell ministers to discourage sugarcane farming. Their response always is ‘can’t you suggest something more short-term to solve the current crisis’,” he says.

Mandya’s once year-round sugar economy brought in a wave of migrant labourers from UP and Bihar. There was no shortage of work, in the fields or the 4,000-odd jaggery units in the region. Thimme Gowda, a portly farmer in his early fifties is the proud owner of well-watered seven acres and a jaggery factory next to his two-storey house in a village called Banaswadi, 25 kilometres from Mandya.

In the course of our bumpy two-wheeler ride (made worse by the fact that he’s tasked me with carrying packaging cartons labelled ‘A1 Mandya Jaggery’ and a bag of noxious jaggery additive commonly called papri), we pass check dams and storage tanks that resemble football fields. The water-worn, brick-lined irrigation canals are now nothing but garbage dumps.

Gowda says he can’t recollect the last time he saw them transporting water. “Around here, only the bore well owners have assured income,” he says pointing to mounds of freshly excavated earth. A decade ago, groundwater could be easily found 100 feet deep. Now, in most places 600 feet bore wells are the norm.

On route, Gowda has colourful Kannada adjectives for politicians — local, Tamil, and national — whose favourite sport was hitting farmers like him for sixes and fours like in IPL matches. “Sab chor, 420,” he offers a succinct Hindi gist of his diatribe for my express benefit. Which was the most farmer-friendly government, I query. He says, HD Kumaraswamy’s 20-month government between 2006-07, without much hesitation.

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Gowda’s 25-year old son Jeevan sports a sharply-trimmed Virat Kohli beard and is kitted out in a black round neck-T and track pants. A diploma holder in health inspection from a Bengaluru institute, he now manages the small family jaggery factory that on a good day processes a tonne of cane.

Although he’s never studied Hindi, he speaks the language (and cusses Kohli-esque!), rather surprisingly for someone who’s not travelled beyond the borders of Karnataka, in the manner of inhabitants of Western UP. All thanks to labourers such as Sahdev from Muzaffarnagar who came to work in the jaggery factories of Mandya 15 years ago. Sahdev left UP because cane crushing and jaggery making in UP was a four-month seasonal enterprise compared to the perennial work he found in Mandya.

Gowda’s team of seven workers make up to Rs 4,000 a day, split in accordance with seniority. “We go home once a year for Diwali having saved up Rs 30,000-40,000. But work is drying up here too,” says Sahdev.

Importing upcountry labour still has many benefits for farmers like Gowda. They are less expensive than locals and more productive because they don’t call in sick or go AWOL for long stretches on account of marriages and assorted family functions. “Plus, the locals would much rather work as ATM security guards or office attendants in nearby Bengaluru than work in farms. Working under a fan is considered more decent,” he says.

Mandya’s jaggery, once popular and a valued sweetener for a type of coffee that’s boiled not ‘filter decoctioned', now travels poorly due to its heavy chemical content.

Cauvery Kutumba

Forty kilometres northwest of Mandya lies Melukote, the birthplace of former Tamil Nadu CM and puratchithalaivi for the Tamils, J Jayalalithaa, perhaps the most reviled politician in these parts of Karnataka. The driest part of Mandya district, Melukote town is a tiny Tamil enclave in the heart of Vokkaliga land.

It’s a rocky hamlet where the 12th century Sri Vaishnavaite saint and social reformer Ramanuja lived in exile for 15 years when under attack from the rabidly Shaivaite Chola kings of Tanjore. In the shadow of the famous Yoga Narasimha temple he established, settled a small band of faithful followers called the Mandyam Iyengars, to which Jayalalithaa traced her ancestry.

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Vaishnavite discourses, mostly in Tamil and Telugu, are constantly piped down the temple through loudspeakers and the narrow alleys abutting the temple smell of jasmine, and two Mandyam Iyengar specialties — puliogare (tamarind rice) and sarkkarai Pongal (ghee-laden jaggery rice). Besides religious tourism, there's little other commercial activity.

In 1960, Santhosh Koulagi’s family decided to set up a community farm in Melukote, run on Gandhian principles. His father Surendra Koulagi, still active at 85, was a longtime associate of Jayprakash Narayan. The Koulagis’ set up the Janapada Sewa Trust as a Gandhian ‘kibbutz’, with farming as the core and several other cottage initiatives such as handloom weaving that rounded the circle of ideal rural life.

Today, with water sources drying up, Janapada Sewa’s 20-acre community farm is not even self-sustaining. For Santosh, a stocky man in his sixties attired in coarse khadi and sporting a fashionably activist beard, agrarian idealism has been trumped by rural pessimism. “Melukote was once a vibrant muffosil community with a strong agrarian base, temple tourism and rural enterprises. Now nobody wants to work on the farm. What little money we earn is from our handloom that supplies designers in Bengaluru. What farming can you do here?” he asks pointing towards wilting vegetable patches and shrunken mango and chickoo trees.

Melukote is so dry that its MLA KS Puttaniah claims he has to send in dozens of tankers just to partially address the area's drinking water needs. The more affluent farmers who can afford to dig very, very deep, and the influential folk who can pilfer the trucked water try to grow tomatoes even in peak summer.

Puttaniah is an independent MLA (supported by BS Yeddyurappa's breakaway faction) who is a representative of the state's largest and highly influential farmers' association called the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS) — the green shawl wearers who famously ambushed the multinational restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in 1995 and forced the firm to beat a temporary retreat.

Puttaniah is a square-jawed man, who many in Mandya think has grown squarer since becoming an MLA in 2013. He arrives at Mandya's inspection bungalow in a swanky black SUV— a must have for Indian politicians. He is surrounded by some 50-odd followers, several eager to show him pictures of drying wells and withering crops on their mobile phones.

Upon learning that Tamil was my mother tongue, Puttaniah cuts short my queries in a mangled mixture of Kannada, English and Hindi and holds forth in the kind of formal Tamil that can now only be heard Tamil films of 1950s, albeit with a very thick Kannada accent. “How can peace be achieved without talks,” he asks, reflecting the widespread Karnataka misgiving that Tamil Nadu with its maximalist position seeks outside mediation (through courts and tribunals) instead of sitting down at the negotiating table.

In 2012, the CMs of the two states met after nearly 15 years to discuss the Cauvery issue, but the meeting quickly degenerated with Jayalalithaa staging a walkout. Now both sides square up against each other in Supreme Court. Puttaniah was part of an initiative launched in 2002 called the Cauvery Kutumba, or Cauvery Family, which attempted to bring together the primary stakeholders — the farmers from the two states — to consider each others’ claims in the spirit of agrarian kinship, and on its basis exert moral and political pressure on their respective governments to resolve the issue.

This well-intentioned initiative, the brainchild of professor S Janakarajan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) and an expert in rural development and water management, has now petered out, not surprisingly. “The Cauvery dispute is no longer about the farmers of either state. It’s now a battle between the unlettered wise and highly educated fools. The politicians on both sides will keep the pot boiling for their own narrow interests,” he says.

Is he not one those wily politicians? “No. I’m an agricultural activist with a 40-year track record,” he declares to the nodding approval of his supporters. He laments the lack of water management and accounting in both states that is based on scientific data or ground realities.

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Pointing to a half-empty bottle of water as a visual metaphor, he says, “I ask my fellow farmers in Tamil Nadu how we can meet their demand when there’s not much here. Both water and distress have to be shared equitably,” says Puttaniah. That was Karnataka’s primary argument last September when the Supreme Court ordered it to release 6,000 cusecs of water for a week as interim relief to Tamil Nadu. And he repeats the trope about Tamil Nadu’s three crops to Mandya’s two, to even greater approval from his constituents.

Two states

Originating in Talacauvery located in the now extremely ecologically fragile Brahmagiri ranges of the Western Ghats, Cauvery drains a basin of 81155 square kilometres with 55 per cent of that lying in Tamil Nadu, 42 per cent in Karnataka and the rest shared between parts of Northern Kerala and Puducherry.

Two water sharing agreements between the princely state of Mysuru and the British-ruled Madras Presidency were inked in 1892 and 1924, the second valid for 50 years. Both agreements held that the state of Mysuru should seek the consent of the lower riparian Madras Presidency before embarking on any new major irrigation projects on Cauvery and its major tributaries.

In 1924, it was agreed that Mysuru could build the KRS dam with a capacity of impounding 44.8 TMC of water and irrigate 110,000 acres, while Madras could build a 93.5 TMC reservoir at Mettur with an irrigation basin of 301,000 acres.

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Also, the 1924 agreement allowed Mysuru to build new reservoirs, on the tributaries of Cauvery, of capacities not exceeding 60% of the capacities of the reservoirs the Madras Government chose to build on the tributaries Bhavani, Amaravathi and Noyyal that flow almost entirely in present day Tamil Nadu.

By the 1960s, the irrigated stretches of land both in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had far exceeded the limits prescribed in the agreement. In 1969, Tamil Nadu complained to the centre that Karnataka, in complete violation of the agreement, was undertaking large reservoir and irrigation projects that watered an additional 1.3 million acres on tributaries with its own non-plan funds without clearances from the union government and the Central Water Commission, and Tamil Nadu’s consent.

Karnataka contended that the 1892 and 1924 agreements were loaded heavily in favour of the British ruled Madras Presidency and it wasn’t bound by them in Independent India. Even way back in 1972, the fact finding committee formed after Tamil Nadu’s complaint had found that the combined utilisation of waters in the Cauvery river in all the basin States was even more than the total annual yield and that there was absolutely no surplus.

Misgivings, claims and counterclaims have been part of the relationship between the two Cauvery riparian regions since the late 19th century, but it was in the early 1970s that permanent rancour came to be injected.

“To understand the bitter edge of the Tamil-Kannada relationship that manifests itself primarily through the Cauvery dispute, and the linguistic oneupmanship, you need to understand the palace politics of Mysuru,” says GK Natraj, a former registrar of the Mysore University, and director at MIDS who specialises in the politics and economics of development.

According to the 78-year-old academician who was also one of the founding members of the Cauvery Kutumba, the battle for bureaucratic supremacy in the court of Mysuru was fought mostly between Tamil and Kannada speaking brahmins where the Tamils prevailed more often in the late 19th and 20th century.

The more influential Tamil brahmins in the upper echelons of the kingdom’s bureaucracy began to stuff the administration with men from their caste and linguistic community much to the chagrin of the locals. “The Tamils did little to integrate themselves with the local community and had an air of superiority. The A-list Carnatic musicians of Madras who were heavily patronised by the Maharajas of Mysuru would haughtily refuse to sing even a token Kannada song at the royal court. Why, even the great RK Narayan, who I knew reasonably well, wouldn’t readily communicate in Kannada with the locals despite living in Mysuru for decades and using the city as the inspiration for his fictional Malgudi,” says Natraj whose mother tongue is Telugu, speaks fluent Tamil, but considers himself a Kannadiga.

Tangled linguistic and ethnic identities, as in Natraj’s case, in the region reorganised in 1956 on solely the basis language, complicated matter further.

For instance, Jayalalithaa, a nominal Tamil speaker but with provenance in present-day Karnataka had to be seen as uncompromising in her dealings with the state of her birth. “God bless her soul, but I cannot think of anyone who has done more damage to the chances of workable Cauvery water resolution than Jayalalithaa,” says Natraj.

Having been involved in mainstream and Track Two negotiations, Natraj feels that the train to reconciliation has long been missed. “Perhaps the two leaders with the requisite political stature and wisdom who should have arrived at a negotiated settlement in the mid-1960s without letting Cauvery become a hot potato were Nijalingappa and Kamaraj. Now, the present Tamil Nadu government’s priority is survival in office. It doesn’t have the bandwidth to focus on Cauvery. Karnataka is assembly election mode. There is more political mileage to be had sounding belligerent rather than seeking a solution,” says Natraj with a resigned scowl.

The pessimism of people such as Natraj is not unfounded. The century-and-a-quarter-old dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over a river basin in perpetual deficit offers not just India but also the wider world a sneak peek of the unwinnable future water wars.

The politics of linguistic identity in the case of Cauvery is merely the solidification of a countless other social schisms. For instance, the farmers in Mandya resent the state policy of prioritising drinking water over agriculture. It’s not just Tamil Nadu’s claims over Cauvery that grates them, but also the waters that are diverted to their own state capital, Bengaluru, for the city fast graduating to a megapolis from a metropolis. The only workable solution for Natraj is an apolitical, non-partisan, autonomous Cauvery river water board that manages the entire basin on the basis of eco-scientific evidence.

The curse of ginger

If it’s flood-irrigated sugarcane and paddy that are devastating the Cauvery plains, an indigenous super spice and saattvik food star is laying to waste the highlands of Western Ghats that are the source of Cauvery and all its tributaries.

The ride up to Vivek Cariappa’s 40-acre organic farmtopia, in Heggadevanada Kote (HD Kote), 65 kilometres from Mysuru, is wonderful not just for the scenic beauty that undulating hills offer but also the sight of ultramodern agriculture that seems to be underway in its vicinity.

Rows upon rows of hill tracts are watered non-stop by sprinklers; there are green houses aplenty; farm workers in smart factory dungarees and gumboots spray stuff on green shoots.

Cariappa though is grappling with weightier matters. A small herd of elephants had dropped by his holding the previous night, unhindered by the fencing; the tractor too needs some running repairs. I quiz him about the man-animal conflict, which to my mind could be the only conceivable problem a farmer of his means could face in a place as remote.

As it happens, nocturnal jumbo visits are the least of Cariappa’s concerns compared to what his neighbours were up to. Dressed in a muslin thin cotton shirt, which he may well have acquired during his student days in Delhi 30 years ago, chino shorts and worn out flip-flops, Cariappa asks if I paid attention to the landscape surrounding his farm. “Shuntiya shaapa”, or the curse of ginger, he says.

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Ginger requires massive soil alkalinity and copious supplies of water. The pH quality of the soil has to be transformed by mixing in it virtually irreversible quantities of lime. And for assured water supply, what better place than evergreen hill tracts and slopes near reservoirs.

Cariappa, is an outspoken farmer who often gets thrown out of seminars for the passionately earthy vocabulary he employs. “If land is your mother, you are all motherfuckers,” he once told a gathering of Punjabi farmers.

Cariappa says he used the forensic economic skills he picked up at Delhi’s Sri Ram College of Commerce to get down to the bottom of the ginger business. Ginger has a lucrative market both in the form of a dry and wet spice. Farmers make up to Rs 25 lakh per hectare with an input cost of Rs 4-5 lakh a year.

According to government data, the Middle East accounts for nearly 80 per cent of India’s exports offering the country a ready market even for perishable wet ginger considering the geographical proximity. Mass ginger cultivation is the agricultural equivalent of coal-washing and leather tanning combined on the banks of a water source. The heavy use of herbicides, pesticides and soil pH altering chemicals used in ginger farms ruin not only the soil quality of the region, but the effluents also wash up in nearby streams and rivers.

Cariappa claims his research has found evidence linking Kerala’s Gulf-generated hawala money finding its way to ginger farms of Western Ghats. Almost all ginger farm labourers I spoke to in HD Kote taluk said they worked for Malayali masters who leased land from local Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

Typically, according to local farmers in HD Kote, this is how the black-into-white racket works: Rich Keralite black money holders in Gulf offer fellow Malayali laundering agents Rs 1 core in cash [to illustrate] in exchange for Rs 80 lakh in white transactions. It helps that agricultural income in India is tax-exempted, and farm gate records are among the easiest to fudge.

The money can be ‘whitely’ repatriated into local accounts with the help of a maze of agriculture expense ‘kachcha’ vouchers. Such non-local cultivators have no shortage of cash and therefore can spend astronomical sums on fertilisers and irrigation implements. Furthermore, as mercenary contract farmers they have no interest in caring about local ecology.

In a November 2013 letter to the district magistrate, Cariarpa alleges: “Ginger growing in Mysore is taken up by growers from Kerala, who have come across the border because Kerala state has banned many of the toxic pesticides used in Ginger cultivation; furthermore, land and labour are cheaper here making the ginger crop even more lucrative. The out-of-state cultivators avail all the agri subsidies given to our farmers (e.g. finance, irrigation, power, fertilizer, sprinkler and drip irrigation equipment subsidy, etc.) and the crop is harvested and taken back to Kerala without payment of any taxes of any kind to Karnataka. As if this was not bad enough, these contract farmers leave behind a plethora of problems ranging from health issues to toxic pollution of our local water bodies, soil, air and ground water.”

Cariappa, visibly passionate about Cauvery, whose waters flow as much in my bloodstream as his, is now resigned and detached about the river’s children in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu claiming first suckling rights over their mother’s teats.

When I approached the local administration for a comment on Cariappa’s ‘ginger’ letter, his charge was dismissed as ‘rumour without basis’.

Hope flows

Once back in genteel plains of Mysuru, Madappa ‘rice’ Mahadevappa summoned me for a chat in his office bordering the city’s famed Palace. “So, what did you learn from your travels?” asks the gangly and unassuming recipient of Padma Bhushan for his contributions to the science of rice breeding.

He asks the questions with a child-like curiosity.

“Exponential food demand, Tamil Nadu’s three crops, Mandya’s sugar addiction, climate change, falling rainfall intensity…,” I mumble. “The total rainfall in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka last year was certainly more that in Israel,” he says putting me out of my mealy-mouthed misery.

Mahadevappa was the chief of Karnataka’s premier paddy research centre in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when it so happened that the rice science honchos in Tamil Nadu, Andhra, and Kerala were his classmates from the Coimbatore College of Agriculture. Twice a year, they would meet to exchange notes on the progress their institutions had made in creating and experimenting with newer strains of rice.

In 1991, Madavevappa along with his colleagues from the Cauvery riparian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, as a result of one such discussion, proposed to their respective governments a science-based agricultural solution for Cauvery water sharing. It was a year of excess monsoon and their report was swept out of sight.

Mahadevappa rubbishes the ‘three crop’ charge trotted out by Karnataka against Tamil Nadu. “Farmers respond to climactic and soil conditions. Rice farmers in Mandya would grow four rice crops instead of two if nature permitted. In southern Karnataka, the night temperature drops below 17 degree Celsius around December, which rules out paddy cultivation. In the delta region of Tamil Nadu, the weather is conducive. In northern parts of Karnataka that are irrigated by Krishna, farmers harvest three crops of paddy because nature allows them to. Tamil greed has nothing to do with it,” he explains.

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At the same time, he questions the Kuruvai, the shortest of the three rice seasons in the delta region beginning in June and ending late August, for its gross inefficiency. “The Kuruvai crop is entirely dependent on dam water stored through the summer. When stored water is released in the peak of summer, there is bound to be greater wastage. Why can’t farmers in delta be encouraged to switch to something less water reliant in May-June,” asks Mahadevappa.

Due to Kuruvai’s cultural importance (there are many festivals especially in the Cauvery regions such as Aadi Perukku to celebrate the onset of monsoon and rejuvenated rivers), the Tamil Nadu government undertakes a symbolic opening of the Mettur sluices even if the storage reaches dead levels as is the case by the end of May.

“The problem with the Cauvery dispute is that it’s handled entirely by politicians and civil engineers who look at the river as an inanimate system that merely carries a certain volume of water. Farmers are the most emotionally exploited lot; scientists the most neglected. But it’s only these two groups that can find a lasting solution,” says Mahadevappa.

Mahadevappa laments the state’s failure to move in lockstep with its own arms of agricultural research. He claims there are rice varieties, and zero additional-cost farming techniques developed not by multinationals but state-owned research stations that withstand delayed monsoon, or even persistent drought. “The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing,” he says with a faint smile while giving final touches to a speech he would deliver that afternoon at a felicitation organised by a Mysuru district agriculture organisation in his honour.

As I cap the pen and pack my bag to leave his office, Mahadevappa remembers a stray comment I made about my personal choice of switching to millets from rice. “Wait, wait…You know what, I’ve been pleading with governments to provide millets at ration shops instead of free rice; and spend all the subsidy they offer for rice and wheat towards marketing millets as mainstream food. Because you are in media, write about it. They’ll listen to you.”

This story was first published on June, 2019. It has been been republished today.


Artwork: Anish Daolagupu

Design: Venkateshwaran Selvaraj

Also see
article imageCauvery Chronicles II: Ponni’s Perish


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