Has the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s pet project been a success or a failure?
The Kudimaramathu scheme was launched in March 2017 by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami with a stated aim of desilting of irrigation canals and water bodies such lakes and tanks in order to reduce wastage of water and to improve groundwater recharge.
Three years on, The Lede investigates how the Kudimaramathu Scheme has panned out on the ground.
“For the past 15 odd years, there has been no water in the lake,” says 34-year-old M Marimuthu who lives close to the Muthanampatty lake in Dindigul district. “A few years back they cleaned up the lake bed and built embankments around it too but the lake is covered with Juliflora trees even now. It has had no effect on the borewells and wells around the lake,” says Marimuthu.
“They have all continued to be dry.”
“What is the use of cleaning the lake when there has been no rain for the past many years?” he asks. “But even the quality of work that has been completed is useless. They dug up dirt from different places on the lake bed creating a lot of depressions of varying depths. When it rains, the water still remains spread over a larger area instead of going to the deepest portion first. Once the weather becomes hot, all of it just evaporates.”
While Marimuthu does not own any farmland adjacent to the lake and hence is immune to the consequences of the dried up lake, farmers who own land next to the lake are despondent.
“Even 10 years back all of these lands here were paddy fields,” says 37-year-old V Muruganadhan. Muruganandhan owns 1.5 acres of land right next to the lake.
The lake having dried up, he has taken a hit. While he now works as a daily wager digging pits and other such works, his wife is working in a nearby cotton mill.
“I am finding it difficult to ensure a good education for my children,” says Muruganandhan. “We incurred losses which had led to my father selling off an acre of paddy fields earlier. During my time I too had to sell 1.25 acres due to my being unable to pay back loans taken from a relative for farming. Now even he is finding it difficult to continue farming.
If you see, all the farmers have planted cotton on their lands. But none have bothered to harvest them as it is simply not feasible. The labour charges alone would cost too much for us to be left with anything.”
Muruganandhan has not dug any borewells, a phenomenon common to most farmers around the lake.
“Muthanampatty is an SC (Scheduled Caste) dominated village and almost all the people here are SCs. We don’t have so much money to invest in borewells,” he explains. “If you see, the only farm where anything is still grown is in the land owned by a farmer from the Thevar community from the nearby Velichampatty village.”
Their higher social capital, Muruganandhan says, allows them to arrange the money needed for expensive explorations such as borewells.
While all fields on the sides of the lake lay unused or covered in now dry cotton which have been left to die, one patch of land with a very visible borewell has a lush green nanana plantation which seems to be thriving in the relative parchedness of its neighbours.
“When we are unable to arrange money for three meals a day, how can we arrange money for a borewell?” asks Muruganandhan.
Recollecting the better days that his land and in turn his family have seen when the lake still had water, Muruganandhan becomes emotional and starts crying.
“This lake was the source of water for 30 villages here,” says Muruganandhan.
“Everyone used to sit here and wash their clothes, clean their cattle,” he says pointing to the sluice gate which seems unnecessarily clean and painted.
“This was the canal which would carry water from the lake across to all the farm lands around us here,” he says pointing to a now indistinguishable separation overgrown with weed by the exterior side of the embankment.
“These lands used to be submerged in water year around,” Muruganandhan says standing on farmlands now planted with cotton, on the inner sides of the lake.
Kudimaramathu, though undertaken, hardly has led to any perceptible changes for farmers like Muruganandhan. And it was not for lack of local involvement either.
“We had all taken part in the repair works when they were undertaken,” says Muruganandhan.
“But what can we do when there has not been enough rainfall to fill the lake ever since?” he asks.
For now, the only positive addition the scheme has resulted in is the board that has been put up to publicly acknowledge the expenses incurred in the execution of the scheme to repair the lake’s embankment and the little de-silting that had been undertaken.
The fallow lands, the drying cotton and the thriving Juliflora Prosopis all suggest little has changed for the good.
“Kudimaramathu scheme is not a big success,” says V Thankapandian, the panchayat president of Konur Panchayat in Dindigul district where widespread Kudimaramathu activities are still being undertaken. Thankapandian hails from DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), the party in opposition in Tamil Nadu.
“Without any rains, what are cleaning lakes meant to do?” he asks. “What is the purpose of cleaning lakes such as this? By the time this lake will be filled, the entire Tamil Nadu would have had more than sufficient water.”
The Kudumbi Naicker and Gounder Kulam he was referring to had seen Kudimaramathu activities being undertaken and plaques laid which announce a total spending of Rs 5 lakh for the activity. This is apart from the Rs 10 lakh plaque commemorating the NREGA labour spending.
“The priority here is not of doing that which will help the locals, but doing that which is easiest and can help those involved make the most money,” alleges Thankapandian. “For this lake to even have water, all the six lakes in the upstream would have to be filled. But work was undertaken here first,” he says.
“For whose benefit?” he asks.
“None of the locals here were consulted nor involved in whatever was done here. Kudimaramathu scheme was supposed to involve the locals living in the surroundings of the water body. But that doesn’t happen at all.”
“That has happened on the lake bed. But the benefit of that will go to those living in the downstream areas and not here. They have also dug a small patch of land and used the soil extracted to top up the embankments. But the work done and amount spent is disproportionate,” he claims.
To prove his point, he takes The Lede to the much bigger lake near the village centre in Konur. The lake has seen desilting done on a much bigger scale.
“The entire work here was completed by the locals here with Rs 1.5 lakh they collected from amongst themselves and Rs 50,000 donated by the MLA,” he states.
“The total spent here is Rs 2 lakh whereas there the spent is Rs 5 lakh for Kudimaramathu alone. Now you decide. Here at least, since the work on the Konur Lake was done, we have been able to draw water from the borewell and use it to provide drinking water to the villagers.”
“What purpose has the money which government spent achieved?” asks Thankapandian. “The work that has been done there could have been completed by hiring a few tractors and with Rs 10,000. The amount of money spent should be seen as shameful for the government. There are a lot of committees but all remain on paper alone. Locals are kept away by design and their opinion never counted. That is the sad reality here.”
50-year-old Valiammal who lives closest to the lakes also says that locals were never consulted.
“One day they came with a few tractors and a JCB and did something,” she says.
Belonging to the SC community, Valiammal is a daily wager in a village which claims to have come out of open discriminatory practices only recently.
“For Kudimaramathu Scheme to work well, the practice of inviting tenders from contractors should be done away with. It should be either transferred to the horticultural and agricultural departments who have expertise in lake restorations and knows what is good for the farmers or handed over to the locals alone.
It will in the very least improve social cohesion and coordination among villagers. Even as we speak, two tenders are underway for undertaking activities in two of the seven lakes here. No one knows what they plan to do and when,” says Thankapandian.
Five years back, Anumamantharayakottai was heralded as a success story for the villagers had come together under the leadership of panchayat president Inbaraj and laid a 3000 foot long pipeline to bring water from a nearby river to the village lake. River linkages being a very attractive idea, the experiment was much touted too.
Five years down the line, that story is a distant memory for the villagers of Anumantharayakotai.
“It didn’t even last a year,” a villager said. “The river itself dried up.”
Thamarakulam, the biggest lake in the village with an area of 276 acres has meanwhile seen some very enthusiastic activities under the Kudimaramathu scheme.
Embankments have been laid and boards installed announcing the amounts spent. But villagers say that that is where the effectiveness of the activities ends.
“I own 16 acres of land right opposite to the entrance to the lake and I wasn’t even aware of the activities that were undertaken,” says Joseph Rayan of Ponmantharai settlement of Anumantharayakottai.
“For all I know about Rs 1.45 crores has been spent on the lake. But does the lake look like that much money has been spent? Ambika Cotton Mill had contributed Rs 1 crore, the MLA had given Rs 25 lakh and Rs 20 lakh was allocated from the Kudimaramathu scheme.”
“They didn’t even remove the Juliflora trees. Around five JCBs and three Hitachis worked along with a few tractors and trucks for 15 days. Is that all that could be done in Rs 1.45 crores?” he asks.
“The farmers’ committee only had members holding minuscule land and that too far from the boundaries of the lake. Bigger farmers like me or my neighbours who share boundary with the embankment itself were not included. The thing is that with the smaller farmers, those involved are easily able to get necessary clearance signatures.
The bigger farmers who actually depend on the lake might demand accountability and transparency. At the end of 15 days or so of work the collector, the farmers in the committee and the panchayat president all came, took some photos, installed a plaque and left,” said Rayan.
“Three panchayats are dependent on the Thamarakulam lake - Mylapore, Anumantharayakotai and Ponmantharai. More than 2500 acres of farm land is dependent on it in total. But this is what has been done for such an important water body. I am farming using the two borewells I have dug. Even that is not enough to water all of my land. I irrigate only a part of it,” says Joseph Rayan.
“Even five years back this region was lush green,” says Kamaraj who has been a contract banana planter for decades together.
Kamaraj has worked in the fields surrounding the lakes since before the area went dry.
“For the past five years there is no water at all and the entire area around the lake has dried up. What is the purpose of undertaking Kudimaramathu when there is no use of doing it?” he asks.
“Even in Kanniwady lake a board has been put up saying Rs 25 lakh has been spent but nothing has been done there too.”
The lake bed is today being used to dig borewells to provide drinking water for the villagers.
Five borewells have been dug and connected to a well still standing in the lake. Motors keep alternating between the different bores and water trickles into the well.
“It is from the well that the villages are being pumped drinking water,” says Joseph Rayan.
Whether there was any need for spending Rs 1.45 crore if the borewells were to be used anyway is what farmers like him are wondering.
The Panchayat President Inbaraj claims all allegations of corruption or misdemeanours are unfounded.
“Everyone was made part of the committee,” he insists. “We uprooted trees, deepened the lake and did everything as required under the scheme. There really was no room for any corruption,” he said.
Inbaraj but did not agree to the figures that the villagers have touted as the amount spent.
“The MLA gave Rs 10 lakh, Ambika Cotton Mill gave Rs 10-20 lakh and about Rs 10-15 lakh was spent from the Kudimaramathu scheme,” he says.
This would bring the total amount spent to anywhere between Rs 30 lakh to Rs 45 lakh, much lower than what local farmers have said.
The plaque announcing the amount spent under Kudimaramathu scheme placed in the middle of the lake though quotes the total amount spent as Rs 20 lakh. When asked about the lower amount he mentioned Inbaraj said, “I don’t remember the figures exactly. It was some time ago that the work was undertaken. There is no corruption. We put around 20 tractors to work for 20 days. IP (I Periasamy, the local DMK strongman) had provided two Hitachis, and Ambika Cotton Mill had also provided Hitachis.
We had put into work trucks, JCBs and many tractors. A Hitachi alone costs Rs 1300 per hour. If you work out the money spent and the work done, you will realise that there was no scope for corruption,” he says.
Asked about what happened to an earlier scheme, in which he had taken the initiative to pump water from a river by laying a 3000 feet pipe, Inbaraj says, “We did it thinking it will solve our problems. But the river itself has no water now for the past many years. What are we to do?” he asks. “It only worked once.”
Asked about allegations that he was misusing public money using these schemes Inbaraj says, “The pipes which we had laid are still underground. It is only the motor that we have removed. When the river has water again, we will re-install them. The problem in Anumantharayakottai is that there is no rain at all.
Everyone talks about the good rains in the hilly areas of Kodaikanal and then assume it is the same everywhere. But the fact is that the downstream areas are not getting rains at all for many years now. That is where the problems lie.”
In the final part of the series The Lede speaks to experts to understand what exactly is happening, why and what could be done now to mitigate what is increasingly transforming from a story of acute shortage of water for farming to one that has reached alarming levels of shortage for drinking water even.