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Above: Kerala and Tamil Nadu have locked horns over increasing the height of the Mullaperiyar Dam on the Periyar river in Kerala/Photo: wikipedia

In an effort to resolve disputes with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the state, which has 44 rivers, will construct a permanent hub in Palakkad to tackle the cases effectively

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

The Kerala government has decided to establish a permanent hub in Palakkad for handling inter-state river water disputes. The hub will become a reality in three months. The decision was taken at the tri-monthly review meeting of the irrigation department convened by Water Resources Minister K Krishnankutty. The facility will be constructed at a cost of Rs 1.5 crore.

Kerala’s water dispute is mainly with neighbouring Tamil Nadu over the sharing of waters from Siruvani and Bhavani rivers. Besides, there has been a serious conflict with Tamil Nadu in the past over the issue of increasing the height of Mullaperiyar Dam, a surki dam over a century old, which is posing a serious threat to the lives of over 30 lakh people in three districts of Kerala.

Speaking to India Legal, Kerala irrigation department chief engineer Shamsudeen said the hub would be to safeguard the interest of the state in water disputes involving neighbouring states. “As of now, we have a dispute with Tamil Nadu only. But in the Cauvery water dispute, Karnataka is also a party. We have already set up an office at Palakkad under an executive engineer. But a permanent hub would help the state to handle the cases more effectively,” he said. Asked whether it would be relevant to have such a hub when the central government has already approved the Inter-State Water Dispute (Amendment) Bill, 2019, he said the permanent hub would help in handling water disputes in an effective manner.

Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have been fighting legal battles over the sharing of river waters across political boundaries. Managing water conflict is more serious and complicated when the river basin involves different political boundaries of states.

The conflict between Kerala and Tamil Nadu is about sharing the east-flowing river waters from the Western Ghats. Tamil Nadu is dependent on these rivers, flowing either from Kerala or Karnataka.

Kerala has 44 rivers in a small geographical area and one would think it should have no water scarcity. But climate change, large-scale destruction of river basins and environmental degradation caused by mindless encroachment in the catchment areas of the rivers have resulted in a water crisis even during the monsoon months in certain parts of the state. In environmentally fragile areas, such as Kuttanad in Alappuzha district, also known as the rice bowl of Kerala and lying below sea level, over 20 lakh people depend on piped water and water from tankers.

Of the 44 rivers Kerala has, only three are flowing towards the east and the rest flow towards the west. Even on these three rivers, Kerala has constructed 336 micro watershed projects. In Karnataka, the major east-flowing rivers are Krishna, Cauvery, North Pennar, South Pennar and Palar. Each river has several tributaries. In addition, there are nine west-flowing rivers in Karnataka. But Tamil Nadu has to depend on Kerala and Karnataka.

Coming to the conflict with Tamil Nadu over sharing the Siruvani river water, a tributary of Bhavani, it started in the 12th century. The Siruvani river originates in Muthikulam hills of the Attappady plateau on the Kerala side. It then has a confluence with Kodungarapallam river and flows with six major tributaries and finally merges with Bhavani river. This river, though it originates in the Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu, flows through Kerala about 50 km and comes back to Tamil Nadu. These two rivers are very important sources of drinking water for Coimbatore and Tiruppur and the districts of Erode and Karur in Tamil Nadu. The sources of the Coimbatore water supply scheme are from the Siruvani and Bhavani rivers, the tributaries of the Cauvery.

When the Siruvani-I project was proposed in 1912, Palakkad district was part of Madras Presidency and hence, there was no conflict between present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu region. Even after the reorganisation of the states in 1956, Kerala did not raise any issue on the Siruvani-I project and Bhavani dam. However, since 1956, Kerala initiated projects on the east-flowing rivers as well as protested the further diversion of water towards Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu wanted Kerala to allow diversion of more water to Coimbatore and Tiruppur and neighbouring districts. But as the Kerala government refused to consider the proposal, a meeting of the chief ministers of both states was held in Thiruvananthapuram on May 10, 1969, for finding a working solution for the sharing of the river waters. A solution was arrived at on the Parambikulam-Aliyar Project, Bhavani project, Pambar basin and Siruvani project supplying drinking water to Coimbatore and sharing of Kabini river waters.

Based on the agreement, a new dam on the Siruvani river was accepted to enable water to Coimbatore and neighbouring areas. In 1973, an agreement was worked out for 99 years between Kerala and Tamil Nadu to divert the Siruvani river water, not more than 1,300 mcft annually, to meet the drinking water supply of Coimbatore. This agreement categorically mentioned that “drinking water supply includes the supply of water for domestic, community and industrial needs but shall not include for irrigation purposes”.

Though the sharing of waters of the Cauvery has been the source of a serious conflict between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, it has not affected Kerala seriously in spite of it being a stakeholder. The genesis of this conflict rests in two agreements in 1892 and 1924 between Madras Presidency and Kingdom of Mysore. The 802-km Cauvery river has a 44,000-sq-km basin area in Tamil Nadu and a 32,000-sq-km basin area in Karnataka. The inflow from Karnataka is 425 tm cft, whereas that from Tamil Nadu is 252 tm cft.

Based on the inflow, Karnataka is demanding its due share of water from the river. It states that the pre-Independence agreements are invalid and are skewed heavily in favour of Madras Presidency, and has demanded a renegotiated settlement based on “equitable sharing of the waters”. Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, pleads that it has already developed almost 3,000,000 acres of land and as a result has come to depend very heavily on the existing pattern of usage. Any change in this pattern, it says, will adversely affect the livelihood of millions of farmers in the state.

Following the failure to arrive at a solution even after decades of negotiations, under the provisions of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, the Government of India constituted the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal by a notification dated June 2, 1990. After hearing arguments of all the parties involved for the next 16 years, the Tribunal delivered its final verdict on February 5, 2007.

In its verdict, the Tribunal allocated 419 tmc of water annually to Tamil Nadu, 270 tmc to Karnataka, 30 tmc to Kerala and seven tmc to Puducherry. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu being the major shareholders, Karnataka was ordered to release 192 tmc to Tamil Nadu in a normal year from June to May. The dispute, however, did not end there as all four states decided to file review petitions seeking clarifications and possible renegotiation of the order.

The Kerala government made a representation to share the Cauvery water as it has about 2,866 sq km in the Cauvery basin. The state argued that after the re-organisation of the state, determined efforts have been made for improvement of the basin and diversion of the water in the Cauvery basin for utilisation, but several of their claims had been objected to by the other states. However, the Kerala government did not get any interim relief under the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal’s Inte­rim Order of 1991. But in 2007, in the final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT), Kerala was awarded six tmc from the Bhavani river sub-basin and 2.87 tmc was specifically awarded to the Attappady Valley Irrigation Project, giving it a fresh lease of life. Based on the final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, the Kerala government is planning to construct six check-dams across the Bhavani river.

Former Chief Minister of Kerala Oommen Chandy had stated that there was no dispute over water sharing with Tamil Nadu from the Mullaperiyar dam. “We always wanted to maintain a good relation between the neighbouring states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. We always took the position that Kerala had nothing against giving any amount of water to Tamil Nadu from the dam. But we are only concerned about the safety of the people,” he had stated.

Tamil Nadu managed to reach an agreement with the British rulers for water supply from the dam for 999 years. While doubts on the validity of such a contract had been raised, citing that it had no sanctity as it was reached with invaders and a princely state, the Tamil Nadu government has been taking the position that it would raise the height of the dam to 152 ft even when Kerala is opposed to any further increase in height from 136 ft. While Kerala wants to construct a new dam, Tamil Nadu is vehemently opposing the move.

The Kerala government under CM Pinarayi Vijayan has also expressed its willingness to give water to Tamil Nadu from the proposed new dam. The new hub for handling such cases will help the state in the days to come.

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