In summer as drought burns his paddy fields dry, Cheriyekkan has cause to worry.

Lately, the canal running parallel to the septuagenarian farmer’s paddy fields, carrying the Kuttiady river water from the Peruvannamuzhi dam, has been causing difficulties. Either the plastic garbage piled up in the canal causes water to overflow and dunk his paddy at Edakara in Thalakkulathur panchayat, or leaks prevent the water from reaching his fields. Either way, it is an annual gamble.

The canal is one of many under the Kuttiady Irrigation Project. The project has been a trusted ally against drought for the past 41 years. Ever since it was commissioned in 1973, it survived shoestring budgets, indiscriminate dumping of garbage, and perennial leaks to supply the bounty of water.

For farmers, the project provides water to agricultural land spread over 14,568.70 hectares.

Its canal network, spread over 602.54 km, meets drinking water needs during the parched summer months. The network runs through the legislative Assembly seats of Vadakara, Nadapuram, Kuttiady, Koyilandy, Balussery, Perambra, Elathur and Kozhikode north.

Now, after years of funds shortage, the project is on crutches.

For one, though the region gets an annual rainfall of 5,173 mm, the breaches and garbage have worked to cripple its efficiency.

“Plastic garbage dumped in the canal blocks the flow. Water would rise, spread to the paddy fields and destroy crops. Besides, drinking water quality is suspect owing to untended leaks and garbage. The Irrigation Department has promised to clear the garbage and plug the leaks this time,” said V.K. Mohanan, Thalakulathur grama panchayat member and chairperson of the agriculture working committee.

Wishful thinking

But the department’s promise may be wishful thinking. At the project’s divisional office in Perambra, broken cables, dusty rooms, and skeletal staff greet the visitor.

The mood is tense in the building located near the Perambra fire station. The sluice gates of the dam were opened on February 11. Staffers brace themselves for irate phone calls from the public about leaks and overflow in the canals. This situation would continue for the next 31 days during when the gates would be opened eight more times. But, officials say things would get back to normal after the first rain. They say water, or the lack of it, draws public attention only during the two or three months of peak summer.

“Unlike roads and bridges, water is not a core issue here. It is only a seasonal problem. People cry foul during the months of April and May. With the first rain in June or July, the complaints dry up,” said R. Sanjeevan, executive engineer, Kuttiady Irrigation Project.

‘Seasonal amnesia’

This ‘seasonal’ amnesia is reflected in the allotment of funds for the upkeep of the dam and the project canals. Proposals forwarded to the government for repairing the Kuttiady canal network have been lost in the bureaucratic labyrinth.

Consider this: A working report prepared by the executive engineer’s office shows Rs. 44.9 crore was sought to take up urgent repairs to the canal network before the onset of drought in 2014. The report had listed 130 works, including renovation of weak and vulnerable portions of the canals, strengthening, urgent maintenance, silt removal, rectification of aqueducts and supporting walls and construction of surplus escape and leading channels. But only Rs. 2.40 crore was received.

“This money was meant to pay for everything, from staff salaries to plugging leaks,” Mr. Sanjeevan said.

Another instance: A project proposal was submitted to the government on June 7, 2013 under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP) for 121 urgent works on the canal network. The AIBP document shows 121 works. Those categorised as “most urgent” include the demolition and reconstruction of aqueducts in Vallikkadu, and Karthikappally in Vadakara and Puramery in Nadapuram constituencies.

The project, submitted by the superintending engineer, is estimated to cost as Rs. 84.31 crore. If sanctioned on time, the proposal would get 80 per cent subsidy from the Centre. But there is no word of sanction till date.

Finally, the department had sought Rs. 52 crore to strengthen the Peruvannamuzhi dam under the Dam Rehabilitation Improvement Programme (DRIP).

Meanwhile, the Kuttiady Irrigation Project limps on.