The water level in the Mettur dam, the check point in the Cauvery where the water released by Karnataka is stored, was just 75 feet on September 4. “We can release water from the Mettur dam for irrigation only if it touches 90 feet,” said an official in the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department. The next day Karnataka started releasing water from its Krishna Raja Sagara dam, as per the Supreme Court order. This, however, might not do any good for the farmers of Tamil Nadu. “Even if 12,000 cusecs of water is released per day till September 20, as per the Supreme Court order, we will get only 15 to 16 tmc ft water. This will not be sufficient for irrigation,” said the official.
The farmers in the delta, who cultivate samba crops on about 15 lakh acres, have lost all hope. “This is the case every year,” says K.V. Ilankeeran, president of Veeranam Farmers’ Association. “For the fifth consecutive year, water has not been released from Mettur dam as per schedule.” Veeranam is one of the lakes at the tail end of the Cauvery delta, in the Cuddalore-Chidambaram region.
The Cauvery and the Vennar divide into 36 distributaries with a total length of 1,600km and feed 1,500 main channels in the delta. These channels are mostly dry. In most of the distributaries and channels, even the sand level is low owing to unregulated sand mining in distress years.
“I will not cultivate samba this year,” said Raja Marthandan, a farmer in Thiruvaiyaru. “I am sure there will be no water and there will be no yield. The court says water will be released and the politicians in my village also say that. But there is not even a single drop of water in the river.”
Marthandan used to be proud of making Thanjavur the ‘rice bowl’ of Tamil Nadu. Not any longer. “It is a curse being a farmer,” he said.
The favourable award from the tribunal in 2013 has in no way helped the farmers overcome their woes. The tribunal had stipulated release of 192 tmc ft of water from Karnataka through monthly deliveries. But the petition filed by Tamil Nadu in the Supreme Court seeking water release had stated that there was a shortfall of 50.052 tmc ft at the interstate border, Biligundu, as on August 19.
The politicisation of the issue has only made things worse. “Politics is the main reason for it getting dragged,” said S. Janakarajan, president, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, Hyderabad. “Had this not been backed by any political party, farmers will not engage in violence.”
Farmers, anyway, have a bigger battle to wage. The samba crop cultivation, which usually begins in June-July, has not begun in the delta yet. “Gazetting of the tribunal award was a moral and legal victory. But we are very disappointed. We do not know how we can save our crops this year,” said Shanmuga Thevar, a farmer in Thittai, Thanjavur.
Gazetting is just the first step. The next is the constitution of the Cauvery River Management Board with representation from all party states and the Central water resources ministry. This board will have the powers to implement the provisions of the final award. “As per the Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956 the Supreme Court should not have entertained the contending states. It should have told them to go back to the tribunal. Nobody knows the state of the tribunal now,” said Janakarajan.
The protests in the delta in Tamil Nadu have not been intense, as the farmers were worried more about samba cultivation than the politics of water. In 2011, they abandoned the kuruvai crops owing to climate change and low water level in the Cauvery. “This time samba will be a difficult proposition,” said S. Ranganathan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Association.