Living rivers, dying rivers: Stuffed rivers of Vrishabhavathi-Arkavathi from the Cauvery system

The eighth lecture in the series titled "Living rivers, dying rivers" was on Vrishabhavathi-Arkavathi rivers, by Leo Saldanha and Bhargavi Rao of the Environmental Support Group (ESG).
2 Dec 2012
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Narrow flow path of Cauvery, Mekedaatu (Source:Wikipedia)
Narrow flow path of Cauvery, Mekedaatu (Source:Wikipedia)


The lecture highlighted the complex challenges faced by the much abused rivers of Karnataka because of anthropogenic threats like mining in catchments, dam construction and waste disposal into rivers. The series coordinated by Prof. Ramaswamy R Iyer aimed at understanding what has been happening to rivers across India and in drawing appropriate lessons.  

Cauvery: Of myths & stories 


                                                                          Bhargavi Rao speaks on the stuffed rivers of Cauvery system

Bhargavi Rao focused on what is happening in Karnataka especially in and around Bangalore with respect to its rivers which are increasingly getting stuffed. She began the presentation with the story of Cauvery, who was the daughter of Vishnu as per Hindu mythology. Cauvery craved to serve humanity, but her husband Sage Agasthya, did not want her out of his sight. Turning her into sacred waters, he carried her everywhere he roamed, in his Kamandala. Claustrophobic, unwilling to suffer such bondage, Cauvery prays to be set free. Naughty Ganesha descends as a crow and gamefully knocks over the Kamandala, spilling Cauvery. With boundless joy she flows to fulfil her desire to become the breath of life.

Kings bequeathed land along the banks of Cauvery to attract the best talent. Her waters fertilise fields and forests, a lifeline to millions. Revered everywhere she flows, exemplified by countless temple towns that are littered on her shores. Replete with life, memories and stories, Cauvery represents a river of life. It originates in the western ghats and her flow is augmented by her many tributaries: Kabini, Kapila, Hemavathy, Shimsha, Lokapavani, Arkavathy, Bhavani and many others. Each of these tributaries draws waters from an intricate network of tanks. Together they enhance river flow that improves supplies for farming and urban supply.

Vrishabhavathi or Vishabhavathi?

Bhargavi went on to discuss the drainage pattern of Bangalore. An inscription on the 17th century Nandi in Bangalore mentions the place as the source of a river. Vrishabhavathi, (Vrishaba, Bull), it is claimed, flows underground for a while before emerging as a proper rivulet.

That flow now, hardly resembles living waters. Sri Vyasaraya of Channapattana, philosopher-saint and Rajguru of the Vijayanagar Empire, was enamoured by Vrishabhavathi's grandeur. In reverence, he established Gali Anjaneya temple in 1425, at the convergence of Vrishabhavathi with Suvarnamukhi south west of Bangalore.

Today, the river is full of Bangalore's sewage, which seasonally spills into the temple. Vrishabhavathi's banks are heavily urbanised and industrialised and the river that once breathed life to the region is now a toxic river. Its putrefying, dying waters carrying Bangalore's refuse feed Arkavathy which soon after joins Cauvery.

Bhargavi discussed how Vrishabhavathi passes through Sewage Treatment Plants. Largely untreated waters of Vrishbhavathi enters Byramangala tank which irrigates vegetable gardens, orchards, paddies, ragi and sugarcane fields.

She then dealt with the costly clean-up that fails to deliver with the result that Vrishabhavathi flows dark and toxic for miles and miles.

Farming distress, low yields and crop failures are causing massive migration into cities, she said. Pollution is making farming increasingly difficult in large agrarian areas. Mega urban-industrial projects are disrupting lives and livelihoods by the thousands. In this context, a river that nurtured people now needs nurturing.

Aren't cities overreaching their environmental limits?

Cost economics

A city's ambition is quite independent of its environmental limits.  Can this growth be sustained? Bhargavi discussed how Bangalore's sprawl is at the cost of water security. Water is being lifted from the Cauvery to quench Bangalore's thirst and supplied from 100 kms away and lifted over 500 metres head. This demands enormous investment of energy and infrastructure. Cauvery waters meet needs of half the city's populous while the rest depend on groundwater.

Bhargavi dealt with the water economics of Bangalore. The cost of rainwater harvesting is very high particularly the initial capital cost especially in case of retrofitting. In Bangalore it is mandatory to have a rainwater harvesting system built in for a minimum of 5000 litres for plots built over 30 ft X 40 ft.

She thereafter discussed the water supply and demand conundrum in Bangalore.

Rivers and their associated politics

Leo drew attention to the fact that lakhs of people get affected by floods or droughts in the state every year. The river Tungabhadra in North Karnataka drains good fertile soils but mining has devastated most of the watershed. The politics of the state has been determined by the levels of corruption that Bellary mining has created. So there is an association between the state of our rivers, watersheds and its politics.

Lecture by Leo Saldhana on the threat faced by river Cauvery

Many of the state’s rivers are heavily polluted. Cauvery is under serious threat because almost all its tributaries are heavily polluted in the Bangalore region. The government is planning to industrialize the drainage area of Cauvery where it emerges from Coorg. A massive controversial industrial corridor project called Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor project on BOOT basis is underway. The project today has 21000 acres of land in Bangalore-Mysore region, the irrigation region of Cauvery basin. 2 TMC of water has been allocated to the project without any consideration to the existing towns, some of which are three-four hundred years old.

The city of Mysore is growing and its population exceeded one million as per this census. The Population in Bangalore-Mysore region is 1.5 crore now. This is the type of density at the source of the river which drains for another 5-600 kms and is basically the lifeline for Tamil Nadu. What kind of impact will this kind of development and densification have for the river system? Between 2001 and 2011 the population has almost doubled. How do you sustain this kind of population?

Leo dealt with the environmental problems arising from the massive thermal power plant in Kabini, a tributary of Cauvery. Under the Indian Electricity Act the Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission has an advisory power to the state and this provision was used (by Major General Vombadkere) to file a petition on the issue.

A public hearing was held thereafter and encouraged by this Environment Support Group petitioned the Cauvery River Authority. The river Kabini’s flow data was sought and plotted. The water level is very low in the month of February, so how can a super thermal power plant which has a consistent demand of water be maintained. Large settlements depend on Kabini for drinking water needs and for agriculture. There is a lack of water for drinking or agriculture but somehow 3.9 TMC was promised for the thermal power plant.

The Electricity Regulatory Commission understood this point and made this submission the determining factor as a result of which the power plant was disallowed.  They did not have the power to reject the proposal but they recommended strongly to the Karnataka Government. There was a massive movement and a groundswell of opposition against the thermal power plant. Eventually the project was abandoned in 2008.

Leo also discussed how on the contentious policy relating to privatization of lakes, the Justice N K Patil Committee appointed by the Karnataka High Court has recommended that private sector participation solely based on commercial interest is not desirable. This was in response to the Public Interest Litigation by Environment Support Group challenging the privatization of management and rehabilitation of lakes in Bangalore.

The Committee was constituted by the Principal Division Bench of the High Court to formulate a long term plan to conserve and manage lakes of Bangalore, and involved top officials of nine agencies connected with lake management. This objective was achieved in the formulation of a comprehensive plan for the “Preservation of Lakes in the City of Bangalore” with inputs from Petitioners and the Respondents under the Chair of Justice Patil. This report was submitted to the High Court Principal Bench and was comprehensively accepted per its order of 3rd March 2011 and implementation is being monitored quarterly by the Court.

As the Court observed then, the report ”satisfies all the prayers made at the hands of the petitioners in the instant writ petition, except the one pertaining to leaseholders, who have made construction in the periphery of the lake, or are in the process of making such construction” referring to lakes already privatised.

To arrive at this recommendation, the Committee has observed that “the private entrepreneurs to whom the lakes have been handed over for maintenance have not been able to do complete justice to ecology. Ultimately, “profit motive” has prevailed over the “public interest” and “public trust”. It has also observed that “any model involving “Private Public Participation” wherein “Dominion over the Natural Resource” belonging to the State is handed over to a Private Entrepreneur either for rejuvenation or for management/ maintenance, the same is likely to result in an anamolous situation requiring constant supervision by the State and its Authorities to ensure that there is no deviation from the state policy and norms.

At times, it becomes extremely difficult for the State and its Authorities to find a workable solution which furthers public interest and prevents the private entrepreneur from making an unjust enrichment at the cost of the general public and natural resources which belong to the State”. On such rationale the Committee proposed that “it becomes just and necessary that the participation of private sector in the rejuvenation and development of lakes and tanks in and around the city of Bangalore has to be highly discouraged if not eliminated”. 

Rivers of Karnataka - Video playlist

Playlist: Rivers of Karnataka

The lecture in various parts can also be viewed on YouTube here.

Related content 

The lectures in the series can be viewed here:

India Water Portal is grateful to Prof. Ramaswamy Iyer and the India International Centre for allowing it to record the lecture and share the videos online. 

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