A River Sutra: How K’taka govt sapped our city dry

The Supreme Court will deliver its verdict on the 'Cauvery River Water Dispute' between the States of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry anytime now. It said so recently. This judgment will determine the fate and future of Bengaluru, among other things.

It was a city with numerous awards, excited politicians, fun loving and partying residents. On the coming April 12, it is slated to run out of water altogether. The Government is warning everybody that it is not just a crisis. But, a 'deep, deep, deep crisis'. This would be the first time after World War II that a big city finds itself without water. The army and the military are preparing for April 12. Welcome to another Capetown. And, if the SC judgment goes against Karnataka, the world, which has all eyes fixed on Capetown today will have another city to despair over — Bengaluru.

To begin with, let's make certain things clear. Every river rises at some place and eventually empties into the sea. Often, it is joined by numerous tributaries along the way. Cauvery river makes a beautiful journey of about 800 kilometres between its birth in Karnataka and merging into the Bay of Bengal after extensively traversing Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and slightly traversing Kerala and Puducherry. It belongs to the people of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry(technically, a 'Union Territory' but we will call it as a 'State' here). The function of the Cauvery River Water Dispute Tribunal was to decide the quantum of water share that each State is entitled to. The origin of this dispute is traced to an agreement between the Princely State of Mysore and the British Presidency in Madras in the year 1892 and subsequent modifications to it.

On 25-June, 1991, this Tribunal issued an interim Order directing Karnataka to release a certain quantity of water to Tamil Nadu. However, it also severely cautioned the Karnataka government about its capital city. Its caution went, in effect  — "Bengaluru is already facing water shortages. In 1991, only 1/3rd of Bengaluru fell within the Cauvery basin and therefore, not all residents could claim its water. Also, Bengaluru's growth did not arise merely due through ancient settlements; the Karnataka government expanded it in recent decades with full knowledge of the risk of driving people in hordes to a city with little water. So, do not expand any further."

Unprecedented growth 
Later in 1991, the aforesaid interim order was notified by the Central Government. And, Southern Karnataka and Bengaluru burst into flame at many places. More than a lakh of Tamil speaking people were driven away from Karnataka. Deaths and destruction followed. 

Do you know what the Karnataka government did next? By 1990, there were more than 15 different statutes in place to regulate urban development in the state – the highest in India. Remember the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, 1961 or the Karnataka Land Reforms Act of 1961? These statutes allow the Government to regulate urban development.

Now, the facts. In 1991, the population of Bengaluru was about 41 lakhs and the city measured about 226 sqkm. Thanks to our poor electoral choices, which put idiots in political office, Bengaluru expanded like an uncontrolled cancer tumour after 1991. Today, Bengaluru's population has swelled to over 1.3 crores and officially measures about 771 sqkm. The forthcoming revision is likely to take it to about 1000 sqkm. For a city that was already put on notice about water shortage, it has seen unprecedented growth.

Now that you know about the Tribunal's interim Order in 1991, let's talk about its final judgment in February, 2007. Among other things, it allocated 8.75 tmc ('tmc' -a standard measure of large volume of water) for drinking water needs of the population of Karnataka. That is, the drinking water supply for Coorg, Mandya, Hassan, Mysore, Bengaluru and all the towns and villages claiming Cauvery water in Karnataka was pegged at 8.75 tmc annually. However, do you know how much Bengaluru alone is drawing from the Cauvery water today? Hold your breath! 19 tmc, annually. And, only 55% of Bengaluru's population has access to this water. The balance 45% depends on the rapidly drying and increasingly contaminated groundwater.

All the States appealed to the Supreme Court immediately after the Tribunal's final judgment – none were content with it. The SC is set to deliver its judgment anytime now on those appeals. Naturally, almost everybody in Bengaluru is worried about the forthcoming judgment of the Supreme Court.

Bengaluru is geologically classified as a semi-arid place. It is characterised by high ridges and lies at an altitude of 900 metres above the sea level. Until 1500s, it didn't seem to attract much habitation at all. There were lakes and waterbodies everywhere and when it rained, it was a mess and when it didn't rain at all, people had to simply leave this place. Then came Kempegowda. In 1537, he built a revolutionary artificial channel system to manage overflowing lakes by letting excess water into another lake and to remove overflowing water from the second lake into a third lake or waterbed and so on – in a cascading coverage of the entire town. Heard of Rajakaluves? Kempegowda's channels were later expanded to cover about 850 Kms in this town. After Kempegowda, people could finally count on water security in Bengaluru. In 1790, a British Resident Commissioner called Bengaluru as a 'land of a thousand lakes'.

The British knew the severe water limitations of this beautiful city. They built a reservoir in 1896 to draw the Arkavathy water to feed the rising population. They took several steps to limit Bengaluru's populationand they did manage to restrict the population of Bengaluru to about 2.5 lakhs until 1925. However, the population was not entirely contained and another reservoir was inaugurated in 1936 to feed the expanding city. However, the situation Bengaluru finds itself in today wasn’t even fathomed by our earliest planners. 

Lake drain 
Water decides the course and growth of human civilisation. Even centuries after the industrial revolution, 10% of the world lives today where water is. 50% of the world lives within 3 Kms of thewater source. And, 90% of the world still lives within 10 km of thewater source. What about Bengaluru?

You already know that Bengaluru lies at a height of 900 metres above sea level. The State Government in 1969 thought that it would be wise to let Bengaluru draw water from a distance of 100 Kms! So, Bengaluru gets Cauvery water from a distance of about 100 Kms. Bengaluru Water Supply  and Sewerage Board reports that 65% of its annual expenditure is spent on power charges to draw water from such a long distance and over pipes that must climb around 500 metres eventually.

And, let's come to how Bengaluru has been treating her precious water. A Report of the Comptroller And Auditor General in 2015 reports that for the period 2009 to 2014, half of the Cauvery water drawn into Bengaluru was unaccounted for – either due to pilferage or loss due to leakage! And, maps drawn only a few decades earlier depict around 937 lakes or water bodies in Bengaluru. However, we have lost most of it due to factors that need no separate mention – corruption, civic infrastructure, indiscriminate housing and of course, massive illegal encroachments. Some lakes, however, still carry sewerage and human wastes.

Consequently, several lethal strains of bacteria that populate the human faeces such as the E-coli are steadily draining into the underground water in several parts of Bengaluru. In short, groundwater in Bengaluru is already contaminated and is unsuitable for human consumption in most patches. In case you haven't known, persistent and long terminfection by the E-coli bacteria could be fatal in humans.

Judgment Day…
Bengaluru has already seen a few bandhs over the Mahadayi river water shortage in the four northern districts of Karnataka. 

However, what Bengalureans may not have noticed is that their own situation could become far  worse if the Supreme Court rules against Karnataka in the forthcoming judgment. Soon after the judgment, all the reservoirs in the four dispute-States will come under the direct control of an independent body known as the Cauvery River Water Monitoring Authority. 

And, this body will not take instruction from any politician or Chief Minister; it will comprise of senior bureaucrats from the Central Government and all the four dispute-States. It will only comply with the court order, whatever that may be. This is the law. Whether Bengaluru has a future to talk about will be known, mostly, this week itself.


Note from Kannada.Club :

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