On June 2, water gushed into the Lakshmisagara Lake in Karnataka’s arid Kolar district, bringing to completion the previous Siddaramaiah-led state government’s ambitious plan to use treated waste water from Bengaluru to increase the groundwater level in the region.

However, a month later, villagers in the district have turned sceptical of the Rs 1,342-crore project, fearing that “toxic water” was being supplied to the region’s three lakes under the scheme.

The Koramangala-Challaghattapura Valley lift irrigation project, as it is officially called, seeks to fill 226 lakes in the district with treated sewage water from the state capital through a series of channels and pumps. The government has argued that the water provided was fit for fisheries and propagation of wildlife and its quality was better than that of the existing groundwater, which it said has high traces of fluorides and nitrates.

Groundwater drains

The groundwater in the district is also fast depleting due to residents’ overdependence on it with villagers stating that they now have to dig up to 1,000 feet to get water.

Despite this, the farmers in the region have increasingly moved towards growing horticultural crops, especially tomatoes, which are relatively water intensive. However, as the prices of tomatoes fluctuate, the farmers have also tended to rely on animal husbandry and dairying, which in turn has increased their dependence on groundwater.

Rumours spreading

Standing on a narrow mud lane on the southern side of the Udupanahalli lake, 34-year-old Krishnegowda, a farmer who owns 10 heads of cattle and 20 goats, said rumours had surfaced that two goats had died after drinking water from the upstream Lakshmisagara lake, which had received treated sewage water as part of the KC Valley Project.

Although Krishnegowda admitted that he had never seen the lake filled up until last month, he said he could not afford to take a chance with the health of his cattle. “It is the key source of income for most of us because tomato prices are like a lottery,” he said.

Krishnegowda’s neighbour, Nanjundappa, 75, said he had heard that the so-called unclean water in the lake had triggered the sale of 1,000 goats in Lakshmisagara village.

However, in Lakshmisagara, residents gave a different reason for the distress sale of goats.

Lokesh, whose goats died last week due to a “mysterious disease”, said he had sold 10 of them because access to the nearby common grazing land had been cut off as bunds had not been constructed along the channel through which the water flowed to the next village.

“I didn’t claim that they died after drinking the water. Now that the water is flowing in full force, our goats refuse to cross over. As a result, we had to sell them,” Lokesh said. Other villagers echoed the reason given by Lokesh as the deciding factor behind the move to sell goats.

Fear about quality

The fears expressed by villagers in Udupanahalli regarding the “poor quality” of water supplied through the multi-crore project resonated in Lakshmisagara as well. Mahesh, a resident of the village, said the water coming from the pipeline was visibly darker. “We should be given proper water, not sewage water from the city. If this water is so clean why isn’t it being used in Bengaluru?” he asked.

Residents of Lakshmisagara and Udupanahalli villages said they were suspicious of the scheme since its inception as they had seen how the Bellandur and Varthur lakes in the state capital had frothed because of pollution.

The scepticism over the project led to the filing of a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Karnataka high court seeking further quality tests of the treated waste water before the target of filing 126 tanks is met.

“The Minor Irrigation Department believes it is doing charity by providing us with water. But how can we be sure that this water will be safe, when it has waste from industrial units mixed in it?” said Anjaneya Reddy, the petitioner and president of the Shashwatha Neeravari Horata Samiti, an outfit demanding a permanent irrigation project for Kolar and Chikkaballpura districts.

Govt’s defence

The Minor Irrigation Department has argued that the groundwater quality in the district was already poor with high fluoride and nitrate content.

“This scheme is aimed at groundwater recharge. We are also not claiming that the water (supplied) is fit for drinking,” said department’s principle secretary R Rudraiah. He added that the end goal of the scheme is to turn the arid Kolar and Chikkaballapura districts into water surplus ones. “Bengaluru’s water usage will only increase. As long as the city exists, water will be supplied to these districts,” he said.

Brushing aside villagers’ fears, Rudraiah quoted studies conducted by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board at Lakshmisagara and Udupanahalli lakes to argue that the treated waste water was fit for fisheries and wildlife.

However, water conservationist S Vishwanath said the villagers’ wariness was natural and the onus was on the government to dispel their fears. “The department should conduct studies and make the data accessible to win people’s trust,” he said.

Although Rudraiah blamed “some activists” for spreading apprehensions about the project, Karnataka’s minor irrigation minister CS Puttaraju said: “I have been informed about fears of the people there and have conveyed them to CM Kumaraswamy. We have asked the department to look at providing tertiary treatment for the water to make it fit for drinking.”

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