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River water dispute with TN: 'Kerala has only accounts of injustice to narrate'

By SP Ravi* 

The Tamil Nadu government has opposed the attempt to build a check dam at Vattavada in Idukki district of Kerala across the Silandhi river (tributary of the Amaravathy across which there is a dam in Tiruppur district of Tamil Nadu) for a drinking water project. According to the 2007 Cauvery Tribunal Award, Kerala is entitled to 30 TMC feet of water. Of this, 21 TMC ft is from Kabini, 6 from Bhavani and 3 TMC ft from Pambar rivers. 
At present Kerala is using only a small part of the water that the State is entitled to. Tamil Nadu opposes even a small construction for drinking water when Kerala has its rightful share of water in Pambar. A state that uses Kerala’s water to cultivate lakhs of acres of land opposes even a small drinking water project! This is complete injustice.
In interstate river water issues, Kerala always has only accounts of injustice and loss to narrate. On May 29, 2024, two water agreements that have caused much harm to the three major rivers of central Kerala turned 54 years old. The Mullaperiyar Agreement (Periyar Lease Deed) and the Parambikulam Aliyar Project (PAP) Agreement signed on 29 May 1970 are tales of denial of water and justice.
The Periyar Lease Agreement between the then Travancore Kingdom and the British Government of India was signed in 1886. According to the agreement, 8,100 acres of land and all the water flowing into it would be leased to the Madras Presidency under the British Government for a period of 999 years at a rate of 5 British rupees per acre. 
After India got independence, there was the possibility for revoking or revising pre-independence agreements. Unfortunately, without taking advantage of this, the then state government approved the Periyar lease deed on 29 May 1970, keeping most of the provisions of the 1886 agreement intact, including the 999-year tenure. This later proved to be the biggest stumbling block for the state in its legal battles. 
Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer had earlier secured an order that Tamil Nadu has no right to use water flowing from Mullaperiyar for power generation. But in the agreement signed in 1970, Kerala gave Tamil Nadu even the right to generate electricity.
The Mullaperiyar dam and its catchment area of more than 600 square kilometers are entirely within Kerala. In other words, the agreement was to divert to the east, the westward flowing river, over which Tamil Nadu had no right. 
According to documents, the Maharaja of Travancore signed this agreement under pressure from the British government of that time. However, the British did some justice to Travancore, which was given the value of the water by fixing the lease at a very high rate of Rs 5 per acre (it is another matter that this was not paid in cash but deducted from the tribute due to the British).
Five British rupees in 1886 would have amounted to thousands of rupees in 1970. But when the contract was renewed in 1970, the lease amount was fixed at only Rs. 30 per acre, which is not more than one or two percent of the old rate if the value is calculated. And the royalty amount for the right to generate electricity? That was fixed at Rs 12 per kilowatt year -- ie 8,760 units, or 0.137 paise per unit!

All the gain goes to Tamil Nadu

An average of 22 TMC feet of water is diverted from Mullaperiyar to Tamil Nadu every year. Lakhs of acres of farmland in 5 districts benefit from this abundance of water. Tamil Nadu generates electricity worth Rs 200 to 250 crores a year using Mullaperiyar water. Kerala, on the other hand, gets Rs 2,40,000 per year as rent and around Rs 7 lakh as royalty towards electricity generation.
Commissioned in 1895, the Mullaperiyar dam is now 129 years old, more than twice its expected lifespan. The dam was constructed using surki mixture with the technology available then and its safety is of grave concern to the people living downstream. Studies by IITs Roorkee and Delhi have shown that the dam could collapse in the event of a major earthquake or flood. 
Unfortunately, neither the Tamil Nadu or the central governments nor the Supreme Court acknowledge that the dam is a security threat. The concerned authorities are not even ready to conduct a safety study of the dam by impartial international experts.

The Parambikulam-Aliyar project agreement

The PAP agreement too narrates an account of huge losses to the state. Various tributaries of Periyar, Chalakudypuzha and Bharathapuzha are part of this project. Before the project came into existence, the water in these tributaries used to flow almost entirely to Kerala. But with the implementation of the project and the agreement, about 30 TMC feet of water from these rivers flows to Tamil Nadu every year. 
Here too the gains have all been Tamil Nadu’s and the losses all Kerala’s. Tamil Nadu has constructed 8 dams and a few diversion structures as part of the project. Of these, three dams built in the Chalakudy river basin in the Parambikulam region are within Kerala. 
Similar to Mullaperiyar, here also not a single drop of water is available for Kerala's needs. But during the rainy season, large amounts of water are released from the Mullaperiyar and Parambikulam & Thunakadav dams, which aggravate flooding at the Periyar Chalakudipuzha basins respectively.
In 1955, when Tamil Nadu proposed the PAP, Shri Panambilly Govinda Menon, then Chief Minister of Thirukochi, opposed it. Then after the formation of formation of the state of Kerala in 1956, the first ministry approved it in 1958. There were supplementary agreements in 1960 and 1969. 
The present agreement was signed on May 29, 1970. The project itself was against the interests of Kerala. The state government could not do even minimum justice to Kerala while preparing the provisions for water sharing in 1970.
Let me end by raising some questions equally applicable to Mullaperiyar and PAP:
  • The Mullaperiyar, Parambikulam, Thunakadav and Peruvaripallam do not get a single drop of water from the dams from their respective rivers except during floods. Who gives power to the governments who are only the custodians of the rivers to kill the rivers below the dams? Isn't this a denial of the river’s fundamental right to flow?
  • One can clearly see that both the agreements are against Kerala’s interests. If the wrong decision of a government that has a mandate to rule for 5 years harms all future generations, shouldn't there be an opportunity to correct that decision?
  • The concept of a contract entered into by two or more persons (parties) is that all parties should get equal benefits. But here all benefits accrue to one party. How can this be justified?
In the projects covered by the two agreements, Tamil Nadu is using the water that Kerala is entitled to. Ideally, Kerala should have been giving them water. Instead, they are taking it even from inside Kerala. Isn't this a big failure on the part of Kerala?
The government should take strong legal action as soon as possible to renew and revise the PAP and Mullaperiyar agreements equitably. Without waiting for a comprehensive contract review, the government should urgently approach the Central Water Commission to implement a rule curve in Mullaperiyar, Parambikulam and Tamil Nadu’s Sholayar dams that are under Tamil Nadu's control so as to control the increased risk of flooding as a result of the climate crisis; and approach the Supreme Court if it does not get justice from the Commission.
---
*With Chalakudy River Protection Committee.  Translated from Malayalam by Smita Ramanathan

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