For over a decade now, farmers in the districts of Erode and Tirupur have been protesting against a proposed government move to concretise the Lower Bhavani Project canal, fearing it will deter groundwater recharge and eventually affect their crops and livelihoods.
Erode, Tamil Nadu: “If the canal gets concretised, there won’t be any system for the groundwater to get recharged,” said Ravi, a farmer and former president of the Murungatholuvu panchayat in Tamil Nadu. This is the thrust of the decade-long protests in the state against the government’s attempted upgrade of the Lower Bhavani Project.
The 45-year-old has been among the many at the forefront of a movement aimed at stopping this proposed project. He fears that it will lead roughly two lakh farmers and 163 revenue villages along the canal to suffer from a shortage of water for drinking and irrigation.
Local residents of Tamil Nadu’s Erode district launched a protest movement in 2013 — Keezh Bhavani Pasana Pathukappu Iyakkam — to prevent the government from lining the 201-km-long Lower Bhavani Project Canal with concrete. The canal irrigates 2,07,000 acres of ayacut land, which is divided into two blocks of 1,03,500 acres that are irrigated one side at a time over the year. When one of these zones gets directly irrigated by the canal water during its turn, the other half gets irrigated indirectly due to seepage through the channel.
Ravi estimates that there are more than one crore trees along the 750-km stretch of the canal on either side and along its branches. To understand the biodiversity of the region and measure the environmental impact of the concretisation project through a formal tree count, he had filed a Right to Information (RTI) application, to which the Public Works Department (PWD) had replied saying it had no data on the number or classification of trees here.
“We will lose our water permanently in 36 streams, 1.50 lakh borewells and thousands of wells. We will be forced to migrate,” said the former chief of the Attavanai Anumanpalli gram panchayat, Krishnamoorthy.
Over the course of their fight against the project for over a decade, local residents have registered their opposition through several mediums — from fasts, demonstrations and roadblocks to public campaigns. In 2013, Krishnamoorthy, along with 500 other people and panchayat leaders, even went inside the dry canal near Arachalur to protest against the PWD’s inspection work for the concretisation.
Although all the mesh drains and branch canals are heavily damaged, seepage water from the Lower Bhavani Project Canal plays a vital role in fulfilling the water needs of the region. In fact, the concretisation of the Parambikulam Aliyar Project (PAP) has already dried up all the wells, dams, streams and groundwater along the canal, leaving lakhs of farmers devastated, the 60-year-old said.
Advocate Esan Murugasamy, who is also a PAP-dependent farmer and founder of Tamilnadu Farmers' Welfare Association that opposes the project, added: “After the concretisation of the PAP, the environment of the area lost its rich biodiversity. Our wells and streams have water only when there’s rainfall.”
The advocate further questioned the report submitted by the Mohanakrishnan Committee, which in 2009 recommended that the Bhavani canal receive a concrete lining to prevent the loss of water at the tailend due to seepage. Arguing that the present scientific measure of water efficiency was against environmental science, he pointed out that the capacity of the canal was 2,300 cubic feet, though only 1,600 cubic feet of water was used for irrigation. However, he advised that the proposal be implemented in part, wherein it suggested that maintenance work be taken up where the canals were dilapidated due to anthropogenic activities.
On May 27, during a protest organised by the Keezh Bhavani Pasana Pathukappu Iyakkam at the Nathakadaiyur Junction, over 250 farmers said they received sufficient water at the tailend of the canal. This left Govindammal, a 72-year-old farmer, baffled as the officials had claimed that the proposed project was the only way to get water to the people in this region.
Here, Janakarajan, water expert and a retired professor from the Madras Institute of Development Studies, suggested a complete prohibition of illegal water tapping for commercial purposes, as the primary step to get water to the tailend. He said authorities should first ascertain the original command area and assess why it was not getting irrigation water. "There is no point in putting concrete and allowing people to steal water," he echoed the views of the protesters.
Podaran, a 70-year-old farmer, recalled an event where hundreds of people who lived downstream in Mangalapatti had gathered to thwart the concretisation project. He’s tired that after battling the proposed plan for a decade, it still continues to come up after every election. During an election campaign in 2015, he was among the villagers who handed over a petition in Kangeyam to the then chief minister, J Jayalalithaa. Though the project was stopped due to stiff opposition in the previous reign, Jayalalithaa’s successor Edappadi K Palaniswami was not ready to put an end to the matter. According to Podaran, Palaniswami even denied receiving the petition from them.
“Now the government has changed again, but we remain firm in our demand,” he emphasised. “We sacrificed our land for the construction of the Lower Bhavani Project Canal. Why were we not consulted about the concretisation?”
Farmers voice their concerns
Kathiresan, a 40-year-old farmer from the village of Ayyampalayam, worries that the polluted water from the Cauvery and Noyyal rivers could contaminate their groundwater if it’s not replenished by the water from the irrigation canal.
“All of us have agri-loans to pay off. With this being a dry region, we’ll never be able to repay them if we lose our source of groundwater,” he added.
Furthermore, during the 2015 drought, Lakshmi spent a significant sum on efforts to keep her coconut trees alive. She worries that after this so-called developmental move, her farm will see no produce and push her further into financial trouble.
“It’s not just about us; our cattle will also die without water as we are majorly dependent on groundwater for our drinking water supply,” the 50-year-old said.
Similarly, Maheshwari, a 42-year-old farmer, questioned why the government had not desilted the canal in the past 55 years but was proposing its concretisation now. Here, Ravi added that the response to his RTI query didn’t have any record of desilting either. And after spending years in this battle, he is not ready to leave the matter in the hands of governments or politicians alone.
“Around 2,350 of us were arrested during our road block protest in Chennimalai in 2013, and hundreds of us were recently booked when we stopped the construction at Aayaparapu and Thalavumalai,” he said, adding that the protests are people-led and people-funded.
On April 24, Ravi organised a conference in Perundurai, which involved 13 farmers’ associations and assembled 25,000 people, including women and children, in the forefront. The conference passed a resolution against this proposed concrete lining of the Lower Bhavani Project.
Green Tribunal support
The presidents of 10 panchayats in Erode and Tirupur filed a case on 24 May this year in the National Green Tribunal against this move.
“Thirty village panchayats passed resolutions and sent them to authorities, who are now ignoring them,” said Mahasamy, one of the petitioners and president of Kandikattu Valasu panchayat. “If not stopped now, there’s a chance this project could be extended to branch canals.”
Advocate Anandamoorthy, who holds an anti-concretisation stance, shared: “According to a 2006 notification of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and its subsequent amendment in 2018, the modernisation of existing irrigation canals or the formation of new ones in irrigation areas exceeding 50,000 hectares requires an environmental clearance from the ministry. However, this project has more than 83,000 hectares of ayacut area, and the government order passed for the proposed project was illegal.”
In his petition, Anandamoorthy, who is representing the panchayat presidents, also quoted Section 48A of the Constitution, the directive principle which says: “The state shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country”. He also emphasised Article 51A(g), which proclaims it to be the fundamental duty of every citizen of India “to protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures”.
As the first step to success, the NGT on May 30 deemed the felling of trees for the project illegal in the absence of environmental clearance and permission from authorities. The tribunal also imposed an injunction against the Tamil Nadu government for proceeding with the project, making both the state and environment ministry answerable. Anandamoorthy, along with the panchayat presidents and the public, is looking forward to the next hearing on July 22.
Every year, the canal receives water on August 15. For now, the movement can rest assured that the project cannot proceed at least till next year.
Edited by Shraddha Chowdhury
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