“I am thirsty,” the river complains, “from quenching your thirst. I am tired from the turns along the way.”
That’s what the 475-mile Cauvery River in India says in a song called “Pyaasi’ (the Hindi feminine adjective for ‘thirsty’). A young musician wrote the song during a drought in 2009, when the two states through which the river flows were arguing over rights to its water.
Seven years later, India is again suffering from a drought, the states are still quarreling over the river and the song is getting another round of attention on India’s social media and blogs.
The musician, Vasu Dixit, was inspired by a heated dispute he heard in the general compartment of an express train. For an hour and a half, he recalls, a group of young men from the Raitara Sangh, a farmer’s group, argued with an older lady, an ascetic of some sort dressed in traditional robes of saffron, over which state had rights to the river: Karnataka, where it originates, or the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu that it enters.
The old lady was saying, “Water is nature, it should flow, it’s not something you should have control over.”
The young men angrily countered, “But what to do we do if we don’t have any? Besides, it starts flowing from our lands.”
In that year, India was reeling from its third driest monsoon — or rainy — season since 1901. The rivers were low. There was not enough water for farmers in Karnataka, but, owing to treaties that go as far back as 1892, the state was beholden to let Tamil Nadu have some of its waters.
The topic wasn’t new to Dixit. “Every two years this issue boils over about who should have how much water.” But what got him thinking was when the lady said, —
Dixit, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist for the band Swarathma, had a tune he’d started composing with the band. “I was still on the train, the tune and this old lady’s thought came together.” Based on that exchange Dixit wrote ‘Pyaasi.’
In 2016, several states are facing drought conditions. Both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka don’t have enough water for drinking, let alone irrigation. In absolutes, according to the Central Water Commission, 93 percent of Tamil Nadu’s districts have an agricultural drought — reservoirs, lakes, and rivers are dry. Next door, 90 percent of Karnataka faces the same situation, according to the state’s Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre.
The issue of river rights is back in the news this month because the state of Tamil Nadu sued Karnataka for not upholding its agreement to share about 17 thousand million cubic feet of water each month. Karnataka dug its heels in and said there’s not enough water to go around.
In two judgments, the Supreme Court ordered the state of Karnataka to release about 200,000 cusecs of water in September — a cusec is about 7.5 gallons. That would add up to more than 25 percent of the river’s total water stock. The ruling brought people in Karnataka’s state capital of Bengaluru out to the streets in protest, burning buses, attacking Tamil residents and rioting.
“We feel like nature belongs to us, we have a right of ownership over it, something we address through the lyrics of ‘Pyaasi'” says Jishnu Dasgupta, bass guitarist for Swarathma. “Then we use it to beat up people we didn’t like anyway.”
Lyricist Dixit was 11 years old in 1991, the single most violent year for Cauvery disputes, marked by riots, curfew, and massive violence against the minority Tamil community that lives in Karnataka. That tension is reflected in the song. “The river asks, ‘Kahan se aayee, kahan hai jaana, kiski boli bolna hai ab?’ I’m coming from here [Karnataka] and then I reach Tamil Nadu, so what language should I speak?”
Residents in Bangalore are also dealing with another sobering fact: A new report by IndiaSpend, a data journalism site, says that half of the Cauvery water it gets is lost to leaks in the city’s pipes and drains.
There seems to be no respite in sight. “Unless both states come off their hard-line positions there is no solution,” S. Janakarajan, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Adyar, and president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies. “A river is nobody’s private property. The river doesn’t know Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, it doesn’t know boundaries. This is what we need to tell the younger generation — whether it’s Indus [river] water between India and Pakistan, or the Cauvery, it flows.”
Humans create problems and conflict, he adds. “That is the biggest issue.”