The things that divide us

According to Tamil legend, the Cauvery River came into existence around 1800 years ago when the Chola king, Kanthaman, prayed to the great sage, Agasthya, that his realm might be filled with water. The sage answered the prayer by tilting his great pot, and its waters flowed from the highlands of what is now Karnataka all the way to the Bay of Bengal. The river became known as the ‘mother to the people’.

The river’s almost mythical status was hinted at by the renowned Tamil scholar, Dr Prema Nandakumar, who had cause to write, on 20 October 2002, that for Indians, ‘A river is more than just the waters that flow in it. Cauvery is a goddess.’ In its long history, the Cauvery has nurtured the kingdoms of the
Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas and Pallavas, leaving along its fertile banks a splendid architectural, spiritual and musical heritage. Today, the Cauvery still rises from the hills of Karnataka and empties into the Bay of Bengal after a journey of over 850 km. Along the way, it irrigates 453,400 hectares of agricultural land in the Mandya and Mysore districts of Karnataka before sustaining 918,000 hectares of rice paddies around Thanjavur in the state of Tamil Nadu.

But this mother/goddess is now the subject of bitter infighting among her children.

On 8 August 2002, the Cauvery Water Tribunal (an independent agency set up in 1990 to handle water disputes along the river) ordered the state of Karnataka to release the waters of the Cauvery to alleviate hardship being experienced downstream in Tamil Nadu, where the monsoon rains had not arrived. The tribunal’s ruling was followed by an identical Supreme Court edict on 3 September.

Karnataka stalled, playing a dangerous game of compliance and defiance. A poor local farmer named Guruswamy protested against the release of Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu by jumping to his death in the Krishnarasagar dam in Mandya district. The following day, Karnataka’s Chief Minister, S.M. Krishna, suspended the release on the grounds that its own farmers needed the waters because the monsoon hadn’t fully arrived in Karnataka either.

Kannada (the indigenous language of Karnataka) film stars supported the chief minister’s stand, demanding that no water be released to Tamil Nadu. Their action prompted retaliatory fasts and protests by Tamil film stars in Chennai. A state-wide strike across Tamil Nadu was accompanied by inflammatory threats to cut electricity supplies from Tamil Nadu to its neighbour. In Karnataka, Chief Minister Krishna embarked on a nine-day march across affected areas of his state with promises to defy the Supreme Court and protect the interests of local farmers. On 20 October, the Sunday Times of India reported that Chennai—a sprawling metropolis of over six million people—had, at most, 25 days’ worth of drinking water in storage. City authorities announced that they had full confidence in the rain god.

It was not until 40 days after the waters were withheld that the chief minister tendered an unconditional apology to the Supreme Court and allowed the release of the waters as ordered. He did so in part to avoid contempt-of-court cases pending against him, in part because rains had begun to fall across Karnataka. His announcement sparked off protests by farmers in Mandya, over 500 of whom were arrested, along with sundry MPs. In the subsequent violence all road and rail links in the area were closed.

It had become a bitter fight between ‘us’ and ‘them’. S.K. Shivalingiah, from the village of Somanahallia (and a neighbour of Krishna), declared that ‘We never expected our own man to betray us’. He promised that the chief minister would pay at the next elections. Farmers in both states dropped any pretence of solidarity with fellow farmers—all of whom depend on the waters with equal desperation—and divided instead along linguistic and state lines. For its part, the Supreme Court told the Karnatakan leader: ‘Curiously enough, you have fights with all your neighbours with regard to water. You do not have the spirit of sharing. You want to keep everything to yourself and that is selfishness. Your generosity will be measured by your attitude at the time of scarcity and not when you have surplus.’

On 11 November, I visited the banks of the Cauvery in the central Tamil Nadu town of Tiruchirappalli. It was more sand bar than river—the release of waters had done little to restore the levels once enjoyed by this grand old river.

A few days later, The Hindu newspaper reported that the Tiruchirappalli district of Srirangam—home to the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, one of the largest and most impressive temple complexes in south India—is one of the most underdeveloped regions in the state. The small huts of agricultural labourers crowd the river bank. They have no sewerage and no electricity. Consequently, the Cauvery, the goddess, is used as a public toilet.

Weeks earlier, in Fort Cochin, I listened to local organisers of a festival called ‘Everybody’s Place’. It was designed to counter the perception among locals that, while their own homes should be kept spotless, public places were not their responsibility. But the festival, which featured art installations ingeniously made from piles of garbage, is long gone, and the beach is again piled with rubbish that is anything but artistic.

I walked along the banks of rivers in Madurai and Chennai, picking my way through the rubbish and sewage, averting my eyes from the ramshackle shanty towns that crowded the river bank. It is difficult to understand what such desperate living actually means.

From Tiruchirappalli, I travelled with my partner, Marina, to the southern pilgrimage centre of Rameshwaram, a sleepy outpost that is taken over at night by packs of stray dogs. We checked into the Hotel Maharaja, the best hotel in town—bloodstains on the floor and walls, and mosquitoes circling above the bed.

The heat and the high-decibel music blaring from a temple loudspeaker system made it impossible to sleep. We found ourselves talking with David, one of the hotel workers. Shyly, but sunnily, David told us his story—how he is married to a Muslim woman who has never travelled from Rameshwaram, how he dreams that his two children will one day go to university, how he earns 40 rupees ($A1.50) per day.

The following morning, Vijay from the corner shop embarked on an excited monologue while he served his customers, us among them. No single thought bore any apparent connection with what had gone before. At one point he announced that he cared nothing about the colour of somebody’s skin—‘black, white, green, I don’t care’—or their religion. ‘I am Hindu but I go to church because my friend is Christian.’

Later the same day, we fled Rameshwaram because we could. By then, Marina had become ill. Aboard the train, Krishnan from Mumbai, latterly of Nagpur, offered with supreme graciousness to move elsewhere so that Marina could lie down. He returned only to offer some tablets of ayurvedic medicine and to tender apologies that he had nothing more to give. Throughout the night, railway officials brought blankets and pillows, each expressing genuine concern for our well-being.

At one point, the train ground to a halt—one of those incomprehensible stops in the middle of nowhere. I stood in the open doorway, staring at the tracks. Brambles merged seamlessly with backyards and rubbish tips. A train sped past. Passengers waved gleefully and the attendants on our train rushed to the door, searching for and then waving enthusiastically at their friends and colleagues as they passed. A moment of connection in the wilderness.

At the end of the journey, in Thanjavur, I stood at the window of our hotel room. It was seven storeys above the street, and cost almost two months of David’s salary. About 150 metres away, a ragged old man sat on a discarded railway sleeper by the tracks, chewing a biscuit he had found, resting all his worldly possessions alongside him in a small, grimy sack. We made eye  contact. There was a moment’s pause and then he waved and flashed a beaming smile. I waved back, looked away, waved again and then closed the window.

I gave him nothing, too overcome with the inertia of passing through his world and too comfortable to countenance leaving the comfort of mine to cross the tracks to offer him my hand or something more. Yet in his gesture of fellow human feeling, which for a fleeting moment I shared, I saw how people endure.

And I understood how the separation between states, between peoples, perpetuated by new lines drawn on maps across ancient lands, is where we all went wrong.

When I moved back to the window, the old man was gone. 

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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