It is election time in Karnataka, and the situation in the Malaprabha river basin is truly troubling. Large tracts of fertile red and black soils are lying uncultivated. Queues of colourful plastic pots in near the public water taps in villages like Sampgaon highlight the acute shortage of drinking water. There is shortfall in the maximum yield of the Malaprabha Reservoir and water has receded. So much so that one can actually walk on the land which was earlier submerged by the Malaprabha Dam. The pressure from the farmers in drought stricken areas is growing.

The report of the High Level Committee to Suggest Appropriate Water Management Strategies for Karnataka State Irrigation Projects, March 1999 has this to say about the Malaprabha River Basin in North Karnataka:

    “….indiscipline in the use of water has developed in the course of time and farmers are raising crops according to their wishes violating the prescribed cropping pattern due to which it has become difficult to distribute water equitably to all parts of the command area from head reaches to the tail end reaches and thereby tail end farmers are put to loss.”

With water guzzlers like paddy, sugarcane and horticultural crops taking over the traditional cropping patterns of the area; four sugar mills mushrooming in the last three decades; the four-month cultivation cycle being replaced by the eleven-month requirement of water intensive crops, this was perhaps bound to have occurred.

Kanchi Kohli Water being lifted from the Malaprabha through electric pumpset placed on land earlier submerged by the Malaprabha Dam

Today, the farmers at the head and mid reaches of the irrigated belt of the Malaprabha Reservoir Project are using water for their entire land holdings with the tail end villages reaching an acute state of drought. There are several unauthorised irrigated lands, something that was not accounted for in the project. There is extensive cultivation just a few kilometers from origin of Malaprabha which otherwise ideally needed to be under forest cover. Adding to the water shortage are the leakages in the pipeline supplying water to Hubli-Dharwad town, which has been publicly accepted by the Karnataka State Minister for Irrigation.

But this is not because planning went awry. Irrigation projects in Karnataka in the post independence era were planned for semidry cropping patterns, which require less water in their cultivation. Further they were meant to cater to one or little above one crop every year. The Malaprabha Reservoir Project at Naviluteertha in Belgaum District, Karnataka, was no exception. The approved cropping pattern for the area to be irrigated by its left and right bank canals included crops such as jowar, grams, cotton. The 2.18 lakh hectares irrigated in Dharwad, Belgaum and Bijapur districts was to cultivate 40% in the Kharif season, 40% Rabi and 20% for two semidry crops like cotton. Only 60% of a holding was to be irrigated in any season and the rest of the 40% was to be either rainfed or fallow.

The farmers of Navalgund, Ron and other areas in the tail end of the 'irrigated' area, are rightfully demanding government action. Their lives and livelihoods are at stake. The basic requirements for every individual, that of food security is now under threat. Traditional farming was not merely about financial gains, but about ensuring that there is enough to eat for families and also communities of a region. The alteration of the cropping pattern with financial gains as the only focus and the increasing extent of land under agriculture has changed the face of cultivation.

With elections around the corner, the demands of the farmers from the drought prone areas are now of special significance. One solution that re-surfacing now is a controversial one that has been offered in the past.

This proposal, by the Government of Karnataka, is for the diversion of waters of the west flowing Mahadayi River to the east flowing Malaprabha. The Mahadayi, like the Malaprabha also originates in the Western Ghats. But it flows into Goa to become Mandovi, one of the life sustaining rivers of the state. Two points of diversion have been proposed where earthen dams are to be constructed. These are on Kalasa Nala, before it meets the Surla Nala (flowing in from Goa) at the Karnataka-Goa border at Kankumbi; and at the confluence of the Bhandur Nala, Singar Nala and Nerse Nala at Kongla from where it will be diverted to the Haltar Nala, which joins the Malaprabha. Significantly, both Kalasa and Bhandur Nalas are very important and major streams that feed the Mahadayi River.

As the proposal stands, a total of 7.56 TMC of water is to be diverted to the Malaprabha after submerging about 557.28 hectares of the forests and cultivated land along with a few villages. Ironically, the Malaprabha reservoir project had earlier submerged 21 villages in Parasgad taluka completely and 30 villages of Parasgad, Sampgaon and Khanapur taluka were partly submerged.

Kanchi Kohli Forests adjoining Nerse village

Not surprisingly, this proposal has become a major interstate issue with the Goa government severely objecting to it. Diversion of water from Mahadayi river or its tributaries will reduce its downstream flow, and impact riverine life. It will also impact the livelihoods dependant on the Mahadayi, be it fisheries, agriculture and other subsidiary activities. In Karnataka villages like Nerse who have now formed the Nerse Parisara Samrakshana Samiti (Nerse Environment Protection Group) are resisting their submergence due to the construction of the dam on Bhandura Nala.

According to Lt General (Retd) Sardeshpande from Paryavarni, who has been regularly raising these concerns for the last several years, the farmers of the drought affected areas continue to demand for government intervention, and are being assured by political authorities that talks will be taken up with the Goa Government. This is especially so with the elections due to be held very soon. With the diversion proposal still being discussed, its important to reiterate why this is not a long term solution.

The diversion proposal does not address the real reasons for the tail end farmers' suffering. As long as the current water exploitation pattern continues in the Malaprabha Basin, no matter how much water is brought and from where, we are likely to come back to the same situation in a few years from now. Diversion of the Goa bound river into Karnataka will merely create a new crisis, while not even resolving the existing one. This is an extremely short sighted approach.

The fate of villages like Nerse and whether 'political differences will be resolved' are hard to tell. Perhaps the diversion will never be taken up. This is the right time for political parties to offer viable solutions, not otherwise. It is also at this time that un-viability of the present proposal must stand exposed, more than ever.