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Above: The government plans to build a theme park around the KRS dam in Mandya/Photo Courtesy: Mandya Collector Office

Farmer groups are seething at the state government’s plans for a Disneyland-style park at the KRS dam site in Mandya district but CM HD Kumaraswamy is determined to go ahead

By Stephen David in Bengaluru

The Cauvery is in the news again and this time there are no inter-state dimensions: rather, it relates to the Karnataka government’s plans to upgrade the 60-acre Mughal-style terraced Brindavan Gardens at the Krishna Raja Sagar dam on the river in Mandya district, 140 km from Bengaluru. It is no ordinary upgrade. Plans include building a 125-ft statute of Mother Cauvery near the dam. A global tender is likely to be floated in the next couple of months for the massive upgradation-cum-expansion of the gardens on the lines of Disneyland theme parks in Florida and Paris in a public-private partnership (PPP) model.

The Brindavan Gardens, laid out by the Diwan of Mysore, Sir Mirza Ismail, in 1927, has been the locale for hundreds of films, and logs nearly two million visitors a year. The state government wants to compete with tourist destinations in the north like the Taj Mahal or the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur circuit, by luring visitors with the massive upgrade. Apart from the roughly 13-storey Cauvery statue, it wants to house an Eiffel-tower type glass building for visitors to have a panoramic view of the 131-foot KRS dam built in 1911 by the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore, Nalvadi Krishna Raja Wadiyar. A museum complex will depict Karnataka’s rich cultural heritage and architecture.

The Brindavan Gardens, 24 km from Mysore, is famous the world over for its symmetric design along the lines of the Shalimar Gardens of Kashmir. The 60-acre tourist spot, as per the state Department of Horticulture that maintains it, “is enriched with a number of terraces, parterres, fountains, running and cascading water channels, water chutes, lush green lawns, flower beds, shrubs and trees”.

The dam is named after Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, during whose rule the chief engineer, Sir M Visveswaraya, supervised its construction. The Cauvery below the giant dam divides it into two parts.

The Department of Horticulture in 1927 began laying out the garden, then called the Krishna Rajendra Terrace Garden, in three terraces, ending in a horseshoe shape. The slopes are planted with colourful bougainvillea and ornamental plants. The illuminated running water and fountains lit up with changing coloured lights controlled by a centralised computer, like a water ballet, are major tourist draws.

In July 2018, Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy had earmarked Rs 5 crore to prepare a detailed project report (DPR) to “bring back the grandeur of Brindavan Gardens and KRS dam”. Along with reviving the grandeur, the plan is to boost revenues fivefold from the current annual revenue of Rs 6 crore. While the upgrade will involve an infusion of around Rs 1,200 crore over an additional 300-acre area of land close to the dam in the sugarcane-rich Mandya district where the Cauvery flows, the plan is yet to pass muster before the cabinet.

Opposition for the project has come from environmentalists who are not too keen over the idea of creating a new lake to house the tourism-centric structures; they also question whether grandiose ideas like housing a penguin park or a wax museum can help recover the massive capital investments. “Penguins are aquatic, flightless birds and they need to be housed in a climate-controlled environment always as they are not native to India,” says a green activist, “and the experience at the Mumbai zoo where India had imported penguins for the first time a few years back is worth noting.”

While Kumaraswamy has no problem imagining a waddle of penguins and Mickey or Minnie Mouse exchanging notes in the grand theme park that is still at the drawing board stage, knives are being sharpened by his detractors in Mandya district where farmers are worried that the project may gobble up some of their lands in the name of tourism.

Kumaraswamy was only taking a leaf out of the Congress book: embellishing Brindavan Gardens was an idea that the Siddaramaiah-led Congress regime announced in February 2015 at the platinum jubilee celebrations of the formation of Mandya district.

Farmer leader G Madegowda, a former MP who is spearheading the agitation under the banner of “Save Cauvery, Save KRS”, has cobbled groups of farmers in his district to join hands with him in opposing the project near the KRS dam. “The government should drop the Cauvery statue project and the Disneyland-like theme park idea immediately as these will endanger the safety of the KRS dam,” says Madegowda, adding: “The government must spend its resources in strengthening the dam instead.”

He wants the government to focus on reaching out to farmers as more than 130 taluks are drought-hit, revive the government-run sugar mills and repair the canals supplying water for crops in the district.

Farmers are aware that to build a 13-storey structure the ground below would have to be hollowed out with heavy equipment, and if that is done near the dam, the reservoir’s safety is endangered. As it is, farmer leaders like Madegowda are alleging rampant, unchecked mining and quarrying with dynamite in the vicinity of the dam. While there are registered stone extraction units within a 30-km radius of the reservoir, some farmer leaders have alleged that the danger to the dam is from illegal quarrying units that have mushroomed around it.

While the Mandya unit of the BJP took out a bike rally to protest against the Disneyland-style theme park plan, the district administration officials have already begun the process of identifying government land for the mega project. For the time being, however, the government’s build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) project may look great as a concept but it is clear that the growing opp­osition to the project from the farmers in Mandya district may result in it simply getting the boot.

Chief Minister Kumaraswamy is determined not to let go the project. “The idea is to make this an international tourism spot and to give employment to the youth of Mandya district. We will ensure that all safety precautions are taken by seeking advice from experts and structural engineers.”

With Lok Sabha polls inching closer and the JD(S) determined to make the best of the massive support from the old Mysore regions where the Cauvery is worshipped as a mother, Kumaraswamy is also hoping that a 13-storey statue to Mother Cauvery may turn out to be a blessing for his party, more than a tourist attraction for the region.

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