Last Friday, the Karnataka government decided to file a special leave petition in the Supreme Court against the July 27 interim order of the Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal that rejected its plea to divert 7 thousand million cubic feet of water from the Mahadayi river to the water-stressed Malaprabha river basin.

The Mahadayi is known as the Mandovi in Goa, where the state government has been opposing any move to divert the water as the river provides drinking water to 43% of the state’s population.

The tribunal was set up by the Centre to decide on the sharing of the Mahadayi river’s water between the three riparian states of Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra.

Following the tribunal’s order, major protests broke out in parts of North Karnataka particularly in the three districts of Dharwad, Gadag and Belagavi (formerly known as Belgaum), which were to benefit from the proposed diversion of water. Farmers, local leaders and members of the public went on the rampage; buses and government offices were attacked and set on fire, highways and roads were blocked, and some youth tried to commit suicide. In the police crackdown that followed, villagers were beaten up and 187 people were booked under various charges.

This reporter visited Yamanur village in Navalgund taluka of Dharwad, which was one of the villages that faced a brutal police crackdown on July 28-29. Old women and men, pregnant women and young children said that they were mercilessly assaulted by the police force with laathis and boots.

“We have been demanding water from the government, but what we received in return is verbal abuses, boots and laathis,” said an angry Aasif Yalegar, president of the Yamanur panchayat samiti. “Our women were beaten on body parts they cannot even show.”

Water stress

Both the Mahadayi and Malaprabha rivers originate in the forests of Belagavi in Karnataka. While the Malaprabha flows eastwards to join the Krishna river, Mahadayi flows in the opposite direction, enters Goa and ends in the Arabian Sea.

North Karnataka, comprising 12 districts, is a semi-arid zone facing a scarcity of water for irrigation and drinking purposes for more than four decades now. In order to address this shortage, a state government committee in 1980 recommended that the water from the Mahadayi river be diverted to the Malaprabha basin via the Kalasa-Bandura project.

The Kalasa-Bandura project proposes to build dams and diversion canals on tributaries of the Mahadayi river – Kalasa nullah, Bandura nullah, Haltara nullah and Surla nullah – and transfer their water into the Malaprabha basin. Maharashtra also plans to build a dam and diversion canal on the Kattika nullah in Sindhudurg district. Kattika nullah flows into Haltara nullah, which in turn joins the Mahadayi river.

Besides fulfilling the drinking water needs of 43% of Goa’s population, the water of the Mahadayi river also feeds four wildlife sanctuaries in Goa – Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollen National Park, and Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary. The Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary is within 300 metres of the proposed Kalasa dam site.

The Kalasa-Bandura project is set to destroy 501 hectares of forests, but so far, the Karnataka government has not taken any clearance under either the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 or the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. It has already completed the construction of the Kalasa canal in non-forest areas.

Water-intensive crops

Environmentalists and water experts say that diverting the Mahadayi’s water into the Malaprabha basin will not solve the water crisis in North Karnataka, where farmers have increasingly adopted water-intensive crops like sugarcane, moving away from traditional rain-fed millets.

A 2008 report, Hydrology and Water Allocation in Malaprabha, had pointed out that 50% of the severity of drought in the Malaprabha basin could be reduced by decreasing the area under sugarcane cultivation by 56%.

Industrialisation has also added extra pressure on the Malaprabha basin. There are five sugar mills in the area, which consume large amounts of water to process sugarcane. Also, 0.4 million litres of the Malaprabha’s water is supplied every day to a Pepsico unit in Dharwad. This water can meet the daily domestic water needs of at least 16,000 people.

Sector experts recommend that Karnataka conduct water budgeting at each watershed level to understand the extent of water scarcity in the Malaprabha basin. This should be followed by construction of decentralised water harvesting structures to capture rainwater.

However, Karnataka seems adamant in diverting the Mahadayi’s water as its decision to approach the Supreme Court indicates. The Goa government has already filed a case against the proposed Kalasa-Bandura project in 2006. Meanwhile, the tribunal, whose term was to end this month, has been given a year’s extension to pass the final order on the matter.

All photographs by Nidhi Jamwal.

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who reports on the environment. Her Twitter handle is @JamwalNidhi.