Even as the Indian Ministry of Water Resources has been maintaining that it is inching closer and closer to implementing the first of the proposed 30 links under the grand programme of interlinking rivers (see Himal, Aug, Sept 2003), the Kerala Legislative Assembly showed just how weak this claim is by passing a resolution that called the linking of two rivers in the state with one in neighbouring Tamil Nadu as discriminatory and unconstitutional. The proposed link would divert waters from the Pamba and the Achankovil rivers of Kerala to the Vaippar river in Tamilnadu.
This move by a state in India to question the diversion of water to a neighbouring state mirrors the opposition voiced by Bangladesh to the Indian government’s ambitious project. Bangladesh has officially protested what it has called “a unilateral move to appropriate transboundary waters”. It is evident that once serious thought was given to the ramifications of the project from affected quarters, the voices of protest would not only increase in volume but would also be raised from different corners of the Subcontinent. The cavalier disregard for issues of equity and fairness in the distribution of water displayed by the creative thinkers who dreamt up this scheme in India has had its obvious consequences.
The architects of this fanciful scheme have been forced to go into trouble shooting mode since, unlike in the initial stages when the opposition was being voiced from civil society alone, the protests have now begun to emanate from within official institutions. On the international front, the crisis has been managed by exerting diplomatic pressure and Bangladesh has been advised to show restraint, as befits a smaller neighbour. But in this particular case the international dimension is more amenable to a forced solution than the domestic dimension is. If Bangladesh is eventually short changed that is a problem for the Bangladesh government to deal with, whereas if a state in India feels cheated it is likely to have more or less direct political repercussions. Besides, there really is no mechanism similar to diplomacy to iron out domestic discord.
It is, therefore, not entirely surprising that the Government of India has been conspicuously silent on the Kerala assembly resolution. Obviously the government at the Centre, at present, is not keen to be embroiled in a political tangle that may scuttle its desperate efforts to build consensus aimed at gaining the desired electoral edge for the general elections due next year. To make matters worse, that the legislative assembly of the most-literate state in the country has unequivocally condemned the project can only vindicate the stand of critics outside the arena of state institutions. This is the first point of intersection between the polity and civil society on this issue, and may well set a trend that accelerates in momentum with time.
Critics who have been studying the ecological effects of the project have welcomed the boost to their efforts that has come from the political class. “It offers a respite to Kerala rivers, which have a short running span but significant ecological functions to perform from their point of origin in the Western Ghats”, says Dr Latha of the Chalakudy Puzha Samarakshan Samiti (Chalakudy River Conservation Organisation) in Thrissur district of Kerala. Of the 41 west-flowing rivers in the state, only two rivers are allowed an uninterrupted flow into the Arabian Sea.
Storage or diversion of waters for irrigation from the remaining 39 rivers has caused ecological damage reflected in the irreversible saline ingress along the state’s coast. Periyar, the longest river of the state, with a length of 244-kilometres, has already lost 22 per cent of its average flow due to diversions. Likewise, the Bharathapuzha has had its flow reduced by 12 per cent on its 209-kilometre-long journey to the sea. By far, the biggest victim has been the 140-kilometre-long Chalakudy river, which has suffered a 37 per cent reduction in its natural flow. Interestingly, the tributaries of these three rivers are the main culprits in reducing the volume of flow, as they are locked into a puzzling inter-basin water transfer called the Parambikulam Aliyar Project (PAP).
This particular transfer arrangement is puzzling because the PAP treaty was signed between Kerala and Tamil Nadu only on 29 May 1970, in a ritual of post facto validation. The construction of dams to transfer the waters had been commissioned much before the actual treaty legalising the diversion was signed. It is puzzling also because the state was reportedly forced to sign the controversial treaty in exchange for the majestic Idukki hydropower project. And it is even more perplexing because the three dams involved in the transfer—Parambikulum, Peruvarippallam and Thunacadavu—are all inside the territory of Kerala, but the land on which they stand and their operations are still under the control of the Tamil Nadu government. Is this the model that the hydraulic visionaries at the Centre in New Delhi have in mind to enforce the proposed new transfers?
Indeed, Kerala has been duped many times in the past over inter-basin water transfers by Tamil Nadu. The first such instance was in 1886, when the Maharaja of Travancore signed the Mullaperiyar Agreement with the British administration in the Madras Presidency. By the terms of this agreement the Madras administration was granted the right to construct and maintain the Mullaperiyar dam located in Travancore region of Kerala and divert the water to irrigate arid lands in Madurai region. This 106 year old agreement was evidently the precursor for the 33-year-old Parambikulam Aliyar Project treaty.
If these two treaties and the more recent Siruvani treaty are any indication, the idea of ‘surplus water’ has been consistently misconceived. PAP is one of the many cases in Kerala that illustrate how vested interests have hidden facts from the public. The nine dams built on the eight tributaries of Periyar, Chalakudy and Bharathapuzha rivers, as part of the Parambikulam Aliyar Project, have made available a total of 33 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) of water for diversion. As per the treaty, Tamil Nadu is entitled to 16.5 TMC of water every year from the yield of those three dams (viz., Parambikulam, Peruvarippallam and Thunacadavu) but in effect it is diverting the entire flow into its territory.
By fudging the flow data, Tamil Nadu has appropriated the entire available water from PAP by forcing the three tributaries of the Chalakudy river to run dry for a stretch of anywhere between five to six kilometres from the dam sites. All these dried stretches lie in forested areas and are inhabited by tribal populations. Further, as the water is not released downstream, the Kerala Sholayar and Poringalkuthu hydropower projects on the Chalakudy river operate well below their installed capacity.
More importantly, these diversions have forced the west-flowing tributaries to flow eastward. The ecological impact of such aberrant acts is only now beginning to be understood across the state. According to the noted environmentalist S Sathischandran Nair, Kerala has already paid a heavy price for the erroneous conception of surplus flow in its rivers. In an ecological context, no river can have a drop of surplus. (For a discussion on the idea of surplus, see ‘Rivers of collective belonging’, Himal, October 2003).
Given the fact that Kerala has a unique topography that undergoes significant altitudinal variations within its maximum width of about 60 kilometres, the management of its meandering rivers emerging from the forested Western Ghats assumes special significance. Since these rivers reach the sea in quick time, they must perform significant ecological functions of sustaining flora and fauna along their course. Any discontinuation or reduction in their flow could be ecologically disturbing. Needless to say, the impact of such ecological disturbances has already been felt along the Kerala coast.
The assembly resolution has come at the right time in recognising the merits of the ecological critique of artificially diverting rivers. This critique was articulated with force at the National Conference on Interlinking of Rivers, organised by the Chalakudy Puzha Samarakshan Samiti and the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), in July 2003 in Thrissur. It was at this meeting that the state administration confirmed its stand on the Kerala component of the river-linking scheme. The State Planning Board categorically stated that Kerala was opposed to the Pampa-Achankovil-Vaippar link. It would appear that after a long history of compromising on ecologically sensitive issues, by succumbing to the idea surplus waters in its rivers, the Kerala government seems to have learnt its lessons finally. What remains to be seen is not only how the central government reacts to this unexpected jolt, but also how many other states are enthused to follow in the footsteps of the Kerala legislators.