Tamil Nadu

Cleaning up the Cauvery: TN CM's proposal addresses the need of the hour

Muck runs through it: A polluted stretch of the Cauvery near Pallipalayam in Namakkal district.  

“Nadanthai Vaazhi Cauvery” (Move on, and live long, [Oh] Cauvery). These words of Ilango Adigal in his classic, Silappadikaram, have been coming up repeatedly in public discourse over the centuries.

Nearly 50 years ago, eminent Tamil writer T. Janakiraman (1921-82) and veteran writer-journalist ‘Chitti’ P.G. Sundararajan (1910-2006) teamed up to write a travelogue, Nadanthay Vaazhi Kaveri, recapturing the ancient culture of the region, beginning from the point of origin in Talacauvery, Kodagu, Karnataka, to Poompuhar, the point of confluence with the sea.

On June 15, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who was in New Delhi, referred to the phrase again. He was pitching for a mega project aimed at rejuvenating the Cauvery and used the phrase to title this project, submitted to the Prime Minister. Estimated to cost ₹7,000 crore- ₹10,000 crore, the project has been mooted, drawing inspiration from the Ganga rejuvenation programme of the Central government. Called Namami Gange, the programme of over ₹28,000 crore, benefiting five States in the Ganga basin, is being funded fully by the Centre. Apart from consolidating efforts under old schemes (Ganga Action Plan-I of 1987 and GAP-II of 1993), the central project, approved by the Union Cabinet in May 2015, has two objectives — effective reduction of pollution and conservation-cum-rejuvenation of the Ganga river.

Among its components are the improvement of sewerage infrastructure, establishment of modular sewage treatment plants (STP), rural sanitation, bioremediation, industrial pollution abatement and riverfront development. Its implementation is divided into two phases — medium term (5 years) and long-term (10 years).

Cleaning up the Cauvery: TN CM's proposal addresses the need of the hour

According to a reply given in January 2019 by the then Union Minister of State for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Satya Pal Singh, 254 projects, which also covered construction of ghats, crematoria development. biodiversity and afforestation had been sanctioned. As on November 30 last year, 31 projects of pollution abatement were completed, leading to laying of 2,268 km of sewer networks and creation of 560 million litres a day (MLD) of sewage treatment plant capacity in the Ganga basin. A report published by The Hindu in May 2019 stated that 10 of the 100 sewage infrastructure projects, commissioned after 2015, had been completed.

Though the finer details of the Tamil Nadu government’s project are not yet ready, the broad contours have been drawn up, taking a cue from the Namami Gange. Within a week of the Chief Minister seeking the help of the Central government, President Ram Nath Govind, in his customary address to Parliament on June 20, announced the Union government’s intention to clean up rivers such as the Cauvery, to the delight of the State government.

Concerns not new

The problem of pollution of the Cauvery river has been a concern for the Central and State governments for over 25 years. Several projects under the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) and Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission were taken up not just for the Cauvery and Vennar but also for Vaigai, Tamiraparani and Cooum, especially during 2000-2010. Around ₹970 crore was spent, of which the Centre’s share under the NRCP alone was about ₹624 crore. STPs of about 161 MLD capacity were set up. Nine Tier II and III towns including Mayiladuthurai and Kumbakonam were covered.

Commenting on them, a senior official, formerly with the Municipal Administration and Water Supply (MAWS) Department, recalls that the NRCP was of “immense help” in pollution reduction.

Meanwhile, the latest development has already kicked off a discussion among specialists on the pros and cons of the project. While one section feels there is need for such a project, another section does not agree with the comparison of the Cauvery with the Ganga and bats for other issues that require greater attention.

Swaran Singh, former IAS officer who had observed the Cauvery river system in his capacity as Commissioner of Tiruchi Municipal Corporation, Commissioner of Municipal Administration and Chairman-cum-Managing Director of the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage (TWAD) Board, is worried about the way the river is being polluted by domestic sewage — treated or untreated — and solid waste.

Unchecked discharge: Sewage flowing into the Cauvery near Mela Chinthamani in Tiruchi.

Unchecked discharge: Sewage flowing into the Cauvery near Mela Chinthamani in Tiruchi.   | Photo Credit: M. Srinath


The problem is quite rampant from Tiruchi to areas downstream. “You can’t treat the Cauvery as a dumpyard of waste. In some places, I’ve come across even the dumping of carcasses in infiltration wells of the TWAD Board. It is all completely unacceptable, considering the preciousness of the river to the State and its people,” he says, conceding that industrial pollution in the upper reaches of the river in Erode, Namakkal and Karur is another serious problem.

Mr. Singh is insistent that in future, any new STP that may come up in the delta or in the Cauvery basin, should have zero liquid discharge, a point that V. Sivakumaran, former Chief Engineer of Chennai Metrowater, underlines.


Even about 25 years ago, the US understood the importance of the concept, Mr. Sivakumaran says. Instead of discharging into surface waterbodies or courses, Orange County in California had a system of using treated sewage for recharging the groundwater table.

If zero liquid discharge is not possible for some reason, the former MAWS official wants the State Pollution Control Board to examine critically the quality of treated sewage so that urban local bodies feel the pressure to maintain STPs properly.

S. Pushpavanam, a consumer activist and Tiruchi resident, says one would not have to dwell on the severity of pollution of the Cauvery system if one looked at the state of the Uyyankondan Canal and Korayaru, apart from tributaries and branches of the Cauvery in the delta. The project would yield benefits fully only when the government’s other project of modernising the irrigation system of the river is implemented simultaneously. The authorities are also apparently proceeding in the same direction. The government has already prepared ₹17,600-crore Cauvery modernisation project, which has not yet been fully cleared by the Central government. Two years ago, the Union government gave its nod to the Grand Anicut canal sub-basin, one of the nine components of the project.

‘Integrated’ approach

As for the issue of Cauvery pollution, the State government, in its recent memorandum, alluded to the projects undertaken under earlier programmes. Yet, it justified the need for the project on the ground that there is a need for an “integrated, centrally funded multi-sectoral and multi-departmental” approach. The State government, apart from seeking the Centre’s approval, wants to seek external funding for the project. Paul Appasamy, a veteran academic who carried out several studies on pollution of rivers including Noyyal, says the degree and complexity of pollution of the Ganga cannot be compared with that of the Cauvery. Besides, unlike in the case of Ganga, several major cities of the State such as Chennai, Madurai and Coimbatore are not located on the banks of the Cauvery, as a result of which the load of urban pollution is not that high. What is required is to have the existing water resources shared among people effectively so that the degree of the problem of water shortage is lessened.

Waste materials, including plastics, floating in River Cauvery in Erode.

Waste materials, including plastics, floating in River Cauvery in Erode.   | Photo Credit: M.GOVARTHAN


S. Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association, points out that as there are flows in the river for a maximum of six or seven months, the problem of pollution is not insurmountable. He says the big issue with Cauvery now is illicit sand mining. This has lowered the level of the riverbed vis-a-vis that of canals and distribution channels, aggravating the long-standing problem of water not reaching the tail-end areas. Conscious of this aspect, a PWD official says the project has factored in such a component.

‘Total ban not advisable’

While acknowledging the enormity of the problem of sand mining, G. Ajeethan, technical secretary to the Consortium of Indian Farmers’ Association, says he will not advocate a total ban on sand mining as otherwise there will be an adverse impact on the State’s economy. But the authorities should ensure that the mining activity is carried out in tune with the norms. Only then will sand deposition occur, which wild revive and rejuvenate the river.

Considering the “rich experience” that the State has in tackling the problem of pollution of rivers, concerned citizens are anxious that the authorities make the latest project a success story instead of repeating the same old mistakes.

Cauvery: why it is so important to Tamil Nadu

  • Also called Dakshina Thondaradippodi
  • One of seven sacred rivers of the country
  • Regarded as intrinsic to Tamil society, culture and literature
  • References in mythological accounts on Agasthya, Pattinapalai of the Sangam era, Silappadikaram, Thondaradippodi, Azhwar's hymns to saint Thyagaraja's compositions Kalki's Ponniyin Selvan.
  • Principal source of water for the delta - Thanjavur, Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam districts and parts of Karur, Ariyalur and Cuddalore,  Tiruchi and Cuddalore districts.
  • Covers 70% of canal irrigation
  • Takes care of irrigation requirements for at least 24.71 lakh acres
  • Ensures food security for the delta accounting for 40% of paddy production
  • Sustains livelihood for around three million farm workers in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam
  • Provides drinking water to the tune of 1,775 million litres a day to areas such as Ramanathapuram and parts of Madurai in the south, Vellore and Chennai (through New Veeranam Project) in the north, Dharmapuri in the west and Vedaranyam in the east

Cleaning up the Cauvery: TN CM's proposal addresses the need of the hour

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2021 4:37:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/cleaning-up-the-cauvery/article28112638.ece

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