Can the Save Cauvery Campaign give the river a new lease of life?

Kodagu or Coorg, a picturesque district nestled in the biodiverse Western Ghats of Karnataka is spread over 4,102 square kilometres with a population of about 6 lakhs. Despite its small size, Kodagu is significant as the site of Talacauvery or the birthplace of the river Cauvery.

Kodagu’s biodiverse-rich ecosystem has kept the Cauvery alive and flowing for years. But, this fragile ecosystem is now vulnerable to destruction by rampant infrastructure development activities that threaten the river's survival.  The Cauvery sustains agriculture, hydroelectricity, and a variety of industries besides being of religious significance.  It is the key water source for the cities of Mandya, Mysore, and Bangalore and is called ‘Jeevanadhi’ (life-sustaining river) in Kannada.

Kaveri Ponappa, in her book ‘The Vanishing Kodavas’ explains how rooted Kodava culture is in the river.  She writes,

“The land itself, they believed, belonged to Kaveramme, the Mother Goddess, the ultimate creative force of nature. They referred to themselves as Kaverammanda makka, the children of the Goddess Kaveri, and considered themselves the caretakers of her land; those who tilled the fields on her behalf.”  

The Story of Thamaya and Janaki

                                                              Janaki prepares a meal with foraged food

                                                              Janaki prepares a meal with foraged food

Thamaya and his wife Janaki belong to Kodagu’s Male Kudiya tribe. They live atop Tadiandamol, Kodagu’s highest mountain peak, at the periphery of the Shola forests, and 7 kilometres away from the nearest town, Kakkabe Post. Their house overlooks picturesque hills with pristine streams, waterfalls, and gurgling brooks that ultimately feed the Talacauvery, 40 kms away.

As a tribe, they are extremely shy and reserved and live in harmony with nature. Thamaya and Janaki were toddy-tappers living inside the forest before they moved to its periphery. They lived by bartering toddy with other forest communities in exchange for rice and groceries. Although their children have migrated to the city, they visit them regularly and are well-connected with their roots and environment-friendly culture. Like other Kodagu communities, they believe that they are Kaverammanda makka and consider themselves the caretakers of her land.  

Sacred Forest Groves

Kodagu has about 1,214 sacred forest groves or devarakad, the highest concentration of sacred groves in India, revered by many Kodavas.  The lives of the Kudiya and other Kodava communities are closely linked to the groves and their diet, comprising largely of seasonal food foraged from the forest, is nutritious and diverse. In the monsoon season (kakkada padhnet), they forage eighteen different kinds of medicinal food such as bamboo shoots (mara kembu) - a variety of taro that grows on specific forest tree trunks, maddh thoppu – a medicinal forest plant whose leaves are soaked in water to extract its purple, medicinal juice, and madhh coole and puttu (traditional rice treats) which are eaten one day a year.

                                                         Thamaya displays freshly foraged taro leaves

                                                         Thamaya displays freshly foraged taro leaves

Ponappa's book explains how community-driven grove conservation has been successful for centuries because of restricted access, prohibition of timber felling, and exploitation of forest produce. According to the International Model Forest Network (IMFN), while the groves retain their religious significance, their social and ecological value has decreased over the years, as they are now owned by the forest department, not the community.  It is these sacred groves of the traditional, nature-worshipping Kodava that have sustained the ecology of the region.

Land and River Degradation

As she traces years of history of land degradation in Kodagu over the years, Ponappa emphasises the various encroachments in the 19th century beginning with Britain's creation of coffee plantations and the new laws that regulated land use and ownership.  But, the last 5 years or so have seen a sudden spurt of very widespread infrastructure development activities that are threatening not only to wipe out Kodagu's ecology but also to destroy the life sustaining Cauvery. Sunita Narain recently elucidated how the forest-coffee plantation-paddy fields combination, traditionally a part of the ecosystem in Kodagu, has kept the Cauvery alive for centuries.  However, all this is now on the wane.  

Infrastructure Development Activities

Some of the unsustainable, often unnecessary infrastructure development activities that could sound the death knell for the nature-loving Kodava culture and region are:

High Tension Power Grid

               Numerous trees in the Dubare Forest were felled to make way for these high-tension power lines.

               Numerous trees in the Dubare Forest were felled to make way for these high-tension power lines.

A 400-kilowatt high tension power grid came up in 2015 despite a long, sustained fight against it by activists and the community.  Cauvery Sene, an organisation run by Kodagu-based activist Ravi Chengappa was instrumental in creating awareness of the repercussions of this power grid and mobilising people to help stop it.  

The grid runs from the Kaiga atomic plant in Raichur in north Karnataka, cuts through 55 kilometres of forest, coffee estates, and paddy fields in Kodagu and ends in Kozhikode, Kerala where it supplies power to the state.

Over 50,000 indigenous forest trees were axed for this project, affecting wildlife habitat, reducing the region’s water catchment capacity, and ultimately affecting potable water supply from the Cauvery to Mysore and Bangalore.  Deforestation in the name of infrastructural progress can dramatically alter the water cycle because plants and trees are vital for evapotranspiration. Reduced tree cover means lower rainfall leading to eventual desertification.  Scanty rain the Cauvery catchment in Kodagu already has officials worried and caused the Karnataka government to declare two of three talukas of Kodagu drought-hit this year.

Near the Dubare forest, popular for its wild Asiatic elephants, the buzzing of the 400 Kw powerline gave me a headache. In the midst of my discomfort, I couldn't help but wonder how painful it must be for the animals whose sensory organs are far more sensitive than ours. There has been a steady rise in human-animal conflict over the years with numerous cases of wild elephants straying into coffee estates and paddy fields, causing widespread crop destruction. They are perhaps disoriented by the buzzing, become aggressive, and stray into human habitat.

Medical research shows that high-tension power grids can interfere with foetal development in animals and humans leading to premature births, increased risk of childhood leukaemia, and possibly, other medical complications.

Land Conversion

                                    Forests and coffee plantations cleared out and readied for construction

                                    Forests and coffee plantations cleared out and readied for construction

Kodagu has large expanses of paddy fields in low-lying areas and on flat land. Paddy cultivation takes place ten months a year, beginning in April with the first showers and continuing until the January harvest.

Earlier, paddy was used as currency. Thamaya and Janaki's forest-dwelling ancestors bartered toddy for paddy with other communities. In the last few years, they attest, they have seen the glistening paddy patches and forests abutting their home dwindle and make way for concrete structures.

The most recent, lucrative investment opportunity that spells doom for centuries of socio-environmental conservation, is the swift conversion of paddy fields into resorts and commercial establishments. Paddy fields are natural water catchments, allowing rainwater to percolate slowly into the ground to recharge aquifers, and releasing the excess into the Cauvery through streams. The response to a recent RTI application by the Coorg Wildlife Society says that 2797.44 acres of agricultural land were approved for commercial purpose and 240.26 acres for housing purpose over the last decade, in addition to pending applications for land conversion. Real estate developers buy up paddies and fill them with soil to raise the level of land inviting floods, preventing rainwater catchment, and cutting water supply to the Cauvery. Many coffee plantations also face the same predicament.

Colonel Muthanna, president of the Coorg Wildlife Society, has been fervently trying to stop this urbanisation drive over the last decade, while working along with the community, the Forest Department and the government.  He says,

"Kodagu is the principal catchment of the Cauvery and it is very important to protect Kodagu from rampant urbanisation. However, we find that illegal and unauthorised building activity is growing in Kodagu.”  

He suggests that the government give incentives to paddy farmers to continue cultivation and discourage them from selling their land for a quick buck.  “This could be done by a system of ‘payment for ecosystem services’, where upstream communities are given an incentive to sustain watersheds vital for the downstream communities."

Large chunks of hillside land are also being sliced off and flattened to make way for private construction. One obvious example is in Madikeri, the capital town of Kodagu, where a huge hill has been lopped off on top to build a medical college and hospital. Such large excavations violate environmental codes and have a direct adverse impact on precipitation in the surrounding areas.

                                     Sites for sale on deforested land outside Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary

                                     Sites for sale on deforested land outside Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary

National Highway from Kerala to Mysore

A national highway from the upcoming International Airport at Mattanur in Kannur District, Kerala that will run right up to Mysore and pass through pristine stretches of Kodagu's forests, is on the anvil.

An action committee in Kerala put forth a proposal in 2013 for a highway commencing at Kanjangad and culminating in Chennai via Panathur (Kerala), Bhagamandala, Siddapura, Periyapatna, Hunsur, Mysore, Mandya, Bangalore (Karnataka), Hosur, Krishnagiri, Velloor, Yercaud, and Kancheepuram (Tamil Nadu). With the highway will come the felling of trees and clearing of forest patches, more human-animal conflict, and more stress on this fragile ecology with heavy vehicular and human traffic.  

In early 2014, the Coorg Wildlife Society and concerned citizens of Kodagu urged the government to prevent biodiversity destruction in the name of another infrastructure development initiative which will affect the water flow to the Cauvery.  The fight goes on.

Railway Line from Mysore to Kodagu

Presently, Kodagu can be reached by road and the nearest railway station is in Mysore.  A railway line from Mysore to Kodagu has been proposed to boost tourism in the district. Colonel Muthanna, like many community members and environmentalists feel otherwise. The railway line will bring with it a series of destruction, they fear, such as:

Unsustainable Tourism – Kodagu's population is less than 6 lakh but it saw an inflow of 13 lakh tourists last year. It is already reeling under the heavy tourist influx and battling rampant and often unauthorised construction of resorts over paddy fields, forest fringes, hillsides, and hilltops. Moreover, the summer tourist rush brings with it a recent phenomenon, acute water shortage.

Irrevocable Damage to the Natural Landscape – The railway line and national highway will inevitably require the destruction of forests, paddies, coffee plantations, and homes. This will greatly affect the eco-system and lead to water shortages, floods, human-animal conflict, and perhaps eventual extinction of a beautiful foraged food culture and biodiversity.

Destruction of River Cauvery – All of this will impact the water reaching Talacauvery, affecting farming in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and water supply in cities fed by the river.

Save River Cauvery

                                                   The view of Sholas from Thamaya and Janaki's home

                                                   The view of Sholas from Thamaya and Janaki's home

A centuries old, rich, socio-environmentally just culture that has survived because of the sustained efforts of its people – the Kodavas, stands to be wiped out in no time. The Kodavas are once again actively trying to save Kodagu, not in warrior gear this time, but by means of peaceful protest against unsustainable development. Thamaya and his wife Janaki are part of the effort to save their culture, heritage, forests, and the river Cauvery.

‘Save River Cauvery’ is a community-driven campaign to peacefully save the river and the biodiversity of the region which is in our national interest.  It is a campaign that is rooted in centuries of Kodava belief in the protection of the very land that sustains humans and all life. 

The following are the objectives of the Save River Cauvery campaign:

  • Stop large scale commercial degradation of the Cauvery catchment area.
  • Encourage sustainable, local initiatives in Kodagu to rejuvenate the river and the indigenous flora and fauna.
  • Protect sustainable, local riverine livelihoods
  • Create awareness  about the importance of the Cauvery catchment and the need to protect it.
  • Liaison with key decision makers in the government to protect Talacauvery for continuous water flow to South India.
  • Unite with like-minded activists and influencers to peacefully save the river Cauvery from destruction.

In the last few months, we have seen violent tension between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the shared use of Cauvery water.  Instead of destructively fighting over Cauvery waters, it would perhaps be more constructive if both the states and the people join the Save Cauvery Campaign and unite to save the river.

How you can help: A petition to revoke the plan to construct a railway line from Mysore to Kodagu needs many more signatures. Yours will count.

All images by Maya Ganesh.

Maya Ganesh is a sustainability consultant, socio-environmental researcher, educator and writer with a focus on community-driven sustainable initiatives, becoming zero waste, urban edible gardening, children and the environment, rural-urban linkages and eco-theology.  She can be reached on mayaganesh74 (at) gmail (dot) com