Above: Karnataka’s water resources minister DK Shivakumar (right) indicates the site of the Mekedatu project on the Cauvery river/Photo: CM’s Office, Karnataka
Tamil Nadu has objected to Karnataka’s plans to build a balancing reservoir at Mekedatu across the Cauvery river and has approached the Supreme Court to pour oil on troubled water
By Stephen David in Bengaluru
Mekedatu, in Kannada, means “goat’s leap”. Ironically, a place by the same name in Ramanagaram, 100 km east of Bengaluru, and in chief minister HD Kumaraswamy’s constituency, has got Tamil Nadu’s goat as Karnataka plans to build a balancing reservoir and drinking water project there across the Cauvery river. So irked is Tamil Nadu that it has gone to the Supreme Court over this issue.
What stirred matters was the Central Water Commission’s (CWC) green signal to Karnataka on November 27 to prepare a detailed project report (DPR) for the 67 tmcft project costing Rs 6,000 crore across 6,000 hectares. The Commission’s green signal is merely an in-principle approval for the project with the rider that the DPR be submitted to it for approval. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswamy has sought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s help to stop Karnataka from going ahead with the DPR study.
However, the Supreme Court has declined to stay the CWC’s decision to allow Karnataka to prepare a DPR. It asked the centre and Karnataka to file their replies against Tamil Nadu’s plea within four weeks, starting from December 12. The centre assured the Court that no decision would be arrived at without consulting Tamil Nadu.
On November 29, in a special session of the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly, all parties came together to oppose Karnataka’s move. The state fears it will get short shrift from the Mekedatu reservoir project, aimed to slake the thirst of Bengaluru’s 10 million citizens, apart from irrigating farm lands in the Cauvery catchment areas in the region. Another fear is that if Karnataka holds on to so much water in this region, it may lead to a drought in Tamil Nadu.
The Puducherry CM, V. Narayanasamy, will convene a special assembly on December 14 to condemn Karnataka and the centre on the Mekedatu project. The Cauvery and its tributaries flow through Puducherry and Kerala.
In fact, the Tamil Nadu assembly had in March 2015 and December 2015 adopted unanimous resolutions against Karnataka that it should not construct a new dam at Mekedatu. Then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had also met Narendra Modi, demanding that Karnataka halt the Mekedatu project. She had urged Modi to quickly form a Cauvery Management Board (CMB). But the apex court had upbraided Tamil Nadu for its aggressive pace to have the CMB after the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’s (CWDT) final award.
Part of the Tamil Nadu resolution said that “despite the Supreme Court judgment that the upper riparian states should not implement any projects without the consent of the lower riparian states, as well as the resolution passed by the assembly, the Karnataka government has proposed to commence preliminary works to construct a dam at Mekedatu”.
Meanwhile, Karnataka BJP leader BS Yeddyurappa thanked Modi and the CWC, a premier technical organisation in the ministry of water resources which oversees river management and water planning across the country. Yeddyurappa wants Karnataka to allocate special funds and complete the project quickly. “It would be a big relief to more than a million people living in villages located in the water-starved areas in Kolar and Bengaluru districts,” he said.
Kumaraswamy, who had also convened an all-party meeting of his state’s MPs and former CMs, assured his Tamil Nadu counterpart that there was no need to panic as the Mekedatu project would be a win-win situation for both states. The Cauvery, which originates in the Brahmagiri hill range in the Western Ghats in Karnataka, snakes its way across 800 km via Tamil Nadu before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. “This has been a project pending for a long time… we will work within the framework of law,” he assured.
In fact, while speaking to reporters in Hassan, Kumaraswamy had said that Mekedatu would be more beneficial to Tamil Nadu than Karnataka. Going by the orders of the CWDT, Karnataka is expected to release 172 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu from the river. But this year, as much as 300 tmcft of water flowed into it owing to heavy rainfall.
Kumaraswamy added that Mekedatu would only help store the excess water which, if not harvested as is happening now, drains away into the Bay of Bengal via Tamil Nadu. He and Water Resources minister DK Shivakumar (the project falls in his brother and Kanakapura Lok Sabha MP DK Suresh’s constituency) have been wanting a dialogue with the Tamil Nadu team to find solutions out of court. The project, first mooted in 2013 with the aim to store an additional 66 tmcft of water, has been stuck due to objections from Tamil Nadu.
Shivakumar even landed in Chennai hoping to reach out to his counterparts, but had to return without doing so. “We are brothers. With folded hands, I request the people and the chief minister of Tamil Nadu to give us an opportunity to explain Mekedatu benefits to you. We will take you to the site.” However, there were no takers from Tamil Nadu for his humble offer.
Reports say that the CWC followed all the procedures before giving the nod to Karnataka to call experts to do its Mekedatu DPR. Karnataka officials also maintain that the CWC’s in-principle approval was mainly for implementing the CWDT award as modified by the Supreme Court on February 18, 2018. But as there was no irrigation component, the Guidelines for Submission, Appraisal and Acceptance of Irrigation and Multipurpose Projects, 2017, of the CWC were not applicable. If it was so, a copy of the in-principle CWC approval would have to be sent to the stakeholders, co-basin states like Tamil Nadu in this case, by the project authority. The CWC or CWMA will give a final go-ahead only after the DPR is submitted, which will be a few months away even if Karnataka engages top-notch experts.
There are other bends in the river that Karnataka must ford—as Mekedatu also involves a plan to generate 400 megawatts of power, the project should also get a nod from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA). All projects above Rs 2,500 crore must obtain a CEA clearance under the Electricity Act, 2003, as notified by the ministry of power.
Meanwhile, cities like Bengaluru (11 million population) continue to be under water stress as piped drinking water from the Cauvery is fast drying up. In the periphery of the city, water tankers do roaring business, thanks to the parched state of affairs. Even borewells are not yielding water unless one digs quite deep.
Surveys from time to time, including from the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, show that the city is on the verge of becoming another Cape Town. The port city in South Africa too is running out of water.
Karnataka is hoping that its first step—even a goat’s leap —across the Cauvery will give the Kumaraswamy-led JD(S)-Congress coalition much-needed water to not only slake the thirst of the southern parts of the state but to cool tempers on both sides of the border.