The Krishna water supply scheme, which has been catering to Chennai’s drinking water requirements for over 25 years, may be regarded as unique in the country.
A few days before the launch of the scheme in September 1996, Duraimurugan, now Water Resources Minister and then handling a bigger portfolio of the Public Works, emphasised that “for the first time in the country”, a scheme, envisaging inter-State and inter-basin water transfer exclusively for the drinking water requirements of a city, had been executed. Even now, the record created by the scheme remains unparalleled, say water experts.
Numerous drinking water supply projects have been taken up, including the New Veeranam Project in Tamil Nadu, but most of them serve more than one purpose. New Veeranam involves an inter-basin transfer — from the Cauvery to the Kosasthalaiyar — but it is within the State or an intra-State scheme.
Conceived in 1881 by W.M. Ellis, a British irrigation expert who served in the erstwhile Madras Presidency, the Krishna water scheme was buried in administrative tangles and revived after Independence. Between 1947 and 1953, the authorities formulated what was then called Krishna-Pennar project. It had two components: irrigation of 17.83 lakh acres in the State and providing 15 thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) for Chennai’s drinking water supply.
As early as in 1963, the then basin States — Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (which was, in 2014, split to create Telangana) — conveyed their willingness to the Central government for sparing five tmc ft each from their respective share for Chennai, but there were no signs of the scheme taking off. It was left to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in February 1976, to announce at a public meeting on the Marina, Chennai, that the three basin States had agreed to spare 5 tmc ft each from their share. An agreement was signed by all the States in New Delhi two months later.
Except for the discussions among the States after this development, the scheme again went into a state of limbo. Chennai’s water crisis in late 1982 and early 1983 gave a push to the scheme, compelling the then Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), to revive it. In no time, did he come to an understanding with his Andhra Pradesh counterpart N.T. Rama Rao (NTR), who had been a long-time resident of the city before plunging into politics in 1982. The neighbouring State got Tamil Nadu’s consent for combining the component of irrigation in its territory along with the Krishna water supply scheme. Rama Rao rechristened the entire scheme as “Telugu Ganga Project”.
As part of the agreement, the water transfer, over 433 km, including 25 km in Tamil Nadu, involves the dams of Srisailam (in the Krishna basin), Somasila and Kandaleru (both in Pennar), all in Andhra Pradesh, and the Satyamurti Sagar, Poondi of Tamil Nadu (in Kosasthalaiyar). Eight tmc ft of water is to flow for the city during July-October and 4 tmc ft during January-April.
As MGR and NTR were founders of the regional parties AIADMK and the Telugu Desam Party, they were keen on getting the support of the other States and the Centre for the scheme. At a gala function in Chennai, on May 25. 1983, the Krishna water supply project, covering the work in Tamil Nadu, was launched by Indira Gandhi, in the presence of the Chief Ministers of four States, including Karnataka and Maharashtra. Describing the project as a “symbol of national unity”, she said the Centre had “no territory of its own” and the power of implementation of programmes belonged to the States. “They are indeed our limbs and our tools,” she pointed out.
Political controversies over and hurdles to getting forest and environmental clearances had marred the execution of the scheme. On September 29, 1996, at an event at Tamaraipakkam, a little-known village on the border between Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, a manually operated shutter was lifted to let the water into Tamil Nadu in the presence of the then Chief Ministers of the two States, M. Karunanidhi and N. Chandrababu Naidu. Thanks to the scheme, the capacity of the reservoirs in Poondi, Cholavaram and Red Hills went up, apart from the Chembarampakkam tank becoming one of the sources. Now, the State can store a maximum of 11.757 tmc ft for the city. Till now, it has paid to Andhra Pradesh ₹912 crore, including ₹50 crore released by the present government in January towards the execution of the scheme.
In view of the Kandaleru-Poondi Canal suffering leakage regularly, the Satya Sai Central Trust carried out lining more than 15 years ago. The Tamil Nadu government is now executing a portion of the canal. It is also considering laying pipelines to bring water from Andhra Pradesh.
Despite many of its shortcomings, the scheme has ensured that Chennai, on an average, is getting five tmc ft annually in the last 10 years. V. Sivakumaran, former Chief Engineer of Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, says the constraint of storage has to be addressed, as, on certain occasions, Tamil Nadu had not been able to store water despite the willingness of the neighbouring State to increase the quantum of supply.