“Karuvelam tree absorbs water as well as moisture, making it difficult for other plants to grow nearby”

It’s June end now. But, still, there is no let-up in the heat wave conditions. People running after water tankers even for other than drinking and cooking purposes are a common sight.

The cracks on the tank beds give better picture about the drought-like situation. But, is it all because of failure of monsoon alone? Or does over exploitation of groundwater by the people make life difficult?

The Madras High Court in its recent judgement has made it clear that there is much more a serious issue affecting the groundwater table. That is, the Prosopis juliflora, or ‘seema karuvelam’ menace. The Court has ordered the State government to make the irrigation tanks free of the jungle growth.

At last the malevolence of juliflora has been realised, is what former Superintending Engineer of Public Works Department R. Jeyaraman says. In a study he did in 2004, the 72-year-old engineer found the negative impact of ‘seema karuvelam’ in Gundar river basin. “It has infested almost all the tanks in the district,” he said.

The species came from Australia in the 1950s as a thorny plant, good for fencing farms. Since the plants were free from cattle attack, farmers preferred it for fencing. However, soon it found its roots along the canals, channels, riverbeds and tanks as the fruits travelled in rainwater.

The phreatophytes or water-loving plant has the ability to suck water from as deep as 100 feet. “It absorbs not only the water in the soil, but also the moisture, making it difficult for any other crops to grow nearby,” he added.

Over the years, the population of the species has increased in the tanks resulting in depletion of groundwater. “Therefore, the rain that used to fill up the tanks earlier, was now able only to saturate the bone-dry ground water table and there is little or no water left on the surface of the tank,” Mr. Jeyaraman said.

The engineer also found fault with the elected representatives of local bodies, officials of Social Forestry and innocent villagers, who found huge returns on auctioning of the jungle growth on the tanks.

“People did not realise that it was because of this jungle growth that they were denied the opportunity to grow paddy, sugarcane or other crops,” he said.

It has not only affected the rural economy. “The thorny bushes that cover the water-spread area in tanks deny access to water for the cattle. Thus, cattle-rearing has become very difficult,” N. Tirupathi, a farmer said.

Lack of awareness among the people is the main cause, he reasoned. “While even a short spell of rain used to be good enough for the cattle as it brings greenery and also pools of water in the tanks. But, now, even this little quantity of water is robbed by the seema karuvelam,” he said. Even tethering cows under the shade of the tree is affecting their fertility, he complained.

Mr. Jeyaraman said many rural water schemes that were dependent on tanks for water source were affected. He wanted the government to remove all the plants and trees, along with their roots, by using heavy machineries. “Once a tank is free of juliflora, the PWD should entrust its maintenance to the farmers. It will be easier for them to weed out if there were new saplings growing on the bed or channels,” he added.

Mr. Tirupathi suggested that the government could make use of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for weeding not only juliflora, but also parthenium, and water hyacinth from waterbodies.

Based on the Court order, the PWD has begun the work on removal of the thorny bushes and trees at Sellur Tank. “This is a pilot project to make cost analysis of the work,” PWD Chief Engineer (Madurai Region) E. Tamilarasan said.

Based on the outcome, the department will make a detailed project report to wipe out ‘karuvelam’ from all the tanks in a phased manner.

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