Originally Published 2011-12-14 00:00:00 Published on Dec 14, 2011
Controversies over the safety of the Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala and Koodamkulam Nuclear Power Project in Tamil Nadu, development issues regarding Sangur and Nandigram in West Bengal have exposed the political double talk on the excuse of people's concerns.
Double-talk on development?

Between them, public protests in Tamil Nadu over the Koodamkulam Nulcear Power Project (KNPP) and in neighbouring Kerala over the 'Mullaperiyar dispute' have exposed the political double-talk on developmental issues and people's concerns in the matter. In recent years, Singrur and Nandigram in distant West Bengal were the trend-setters, but it has not ended as the unfolding events in the two southern States continue to show.

In Tamil Nadu, over KNPP, the State Cabinet passed a resolution for the Centre to address people's concerns less than a week after Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had wholly backed the project, as a must for ending power-cuts and fast-tracking industrialisation all over again. But when it comes to the perceived concerns of the people of Kerala on the Mullaperiyar issue, the Tamil Nadu Government has told the Supreme Court that they were based on rumours. It has come to a stage that the State has urged the Centre to post personnel of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), obviously to check against possible mischief by the other side for creating post facto evidence to support the latter's argument.

The situation is no different in the case of Kerala on the Mullaperiyar issue, or by others on such other issues. The polity and people of Kerala, for instance, looked the other way when protestors in Koodamkulam warned them that the State could be affected if disaster struck the nuclear power project. Tamil Nadu may also get caught in a bilateral perception of the kind as State fishers continue to interfere with the traditional trade of fellow Tamils in the war-ravaged regions of neighbouring Sri Lanka. The focus now is on the Sri Lankan Navy attacks on Tamil Nadu fishers but sooner than later, the Government would be seized of the continuing concerns and complaints of the fishers of the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka, whose larger cause the polity and society in Tamil Nadu advocate locally and propagate in distant Delhi.

There is a third element in the Mullaperiyar issue absent in Koodamkulam. Based on expert opinion, the Supreme Court ruled years ago that Tamil Nadu's plea for raising the water-level in the dam to 142' from the existing 136' and later to the original 151' feet should be conceded. Falling back on State Government studies, Kerala has since argued that the storage-level should instead be brought down to 120'. Media reports, quoting Tamil Nadu officials, say that the latter was technologically impossible.

Kerala's Advocate-General K P Dandapani has since told the High Court in Kochi that a dam break-up might not cause as much damage and destruction as feared. Not being an expert otherwise, he has refused to comment on the current Kerala fears on the impact of tremors on the health of the refurbished reservoir. Prima facie, the AG's submissions were contrary to the known official position of the Government. Chief Minister Ommen Chandy was in New Delhi recently, heading an all-party delegation that met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to press the State's case for retaining the storage level at 136', and clearance for a new dam, to store the excess waters that is otherwise going waste.

Over the past years, experts from the Central Water Commission (CWC) had advised the Supreme Court while adjudicating on Tamil Nadu's demand for restoring the original storage level. The CWC and the Supreme Court were convinced even more after adequate repairs had been undertaken to address Kerala's concerns on water-seepage in the dam. Tamil Nadu has also countered recent Kerala claims about tremors in the area in recent weeks. Citing Met figures, the State has said that numbers did not add up -- in terms of frequency, intensity and distance from the dam site.

Migration and inundation

Kerala's concerns erupted in the Sixties after seasonal floods inundated large areas of human habitation and recent plantations in the high ranges of the Idduki district, to which destination political parties had encouraged plains people to migrate in large numbers. That was also when arguments about the safety of the dam were put forth. The population now forms a vocal section of prosperous middle class not only in Central Kerala but also throughout the State. Their identification with various Church denominations has given them an organisational structure that political parties have found hard to match.

Built under the British Raj within the present-day Kerala, the reservoir had irrigated southern Tamil Nadu farms for more than half a century before the 'seepage issue' was thrown up by the Kerala side. To keep the storage-level low and at the same time not to deny Tamil Nadu its due share of waters, Kerala then proposed a 'baby dam', a suggestion shot down by the Supreme Court, too. The current protests against the existing dam in Kerala also go to strengthen the Government's proposal for a new dam, which has acquired an inexplicable urgency, lately.

The current phase of protests in Kerala coincides with the revival of judicial/quasi-judicial processes initiated in or by the Supreme Court. Past protests, post the earlier verdict, attesting to Tamil Nadu's position, the court later created a panel under former Chief Justice of India A S Anand with legal and technical representation from the two States. Given the dead-locked public perception and politico-administrative positions in the two States, the panel is not expected to do more than already. The Justice Verma panel, in the eyes of Tamil Nadu, serves the very same purpose that the Supreme Court's direction for Prime Minister P V NarasimhaRao to discuss the 'Cauvery water dispute' deadlock with the Chief Ministers of the four riparian States, namely, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, in the Nineties. Political party leaders in the State have accused Karnataka in the case of Cauvery water dispute, and Kerala in Mullaperiyar row were adopting delaying tactics, to deny the State and its farmers their due.

Exploiting genuine concerns

Pan-Tamil politics that has often sought to exploit public concern in narrow political terms in Tamil Nadu has often helped soften people's mood in the State for long now. It is no different this time, too. While public protests have been reported from Kerala over the past weeks, and the otherwise divided polity in the State has also remained united, in Tamil Nadu, as has often been in the past, the 'Dravidian polity' has not seen eye to eye on a collective approach to problem-solving even while voicing their concerns in near-similar terms. DMDK's actor-leader Vijaykanth's suggestion for Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to lead an all-party team to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has not been acted upon. Instead, the ruling AIADMK and the DMK partner at the Centre have led separate delegations to meet with the Prime Minister. For his part, Prime Minister Singh, as if by after-thought, has content with writing to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and urging her in so many words, not to precipitate matters.

Political reaction to the Kerala's current, unilateral initiative has begun gathering momentum in Tamil Nadu since. While urging the local people not to indulge in retaliatory violence against Keralites and their businesses in Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa also appealed to the population in the two States not to raise the crescendo that would only help cause of extremist elements. As may be noted, pan-Tamil elements at times identified the 'Sri Lankan Tamil cause' and the LTTE and had begun highlighting the Mullaperiyar issue this time round have become increasingly demonstrative and vociferous over the past weeks. At the same time, the belated entry of the DMK Opposition onto the protests front on its own, through calls for fast and rallies, has also contributed to the Chief Minister reviewing the initial reluctance and calling for a special, day-long session of the State Assembly on December 15. In this regard, the State Government was also under increasing pressure after the polity and Government in Kerala kept reiterating the earlier resolve not to increase the storage level and build a new dam across the Mullaperiyar.

Tamil Nadu, as is known, has water-sharing problems with Karnataka. Here again, the Supreme Court and the Central Water Commission favoured the State's position on the sharing of the Cauvery waters. Karnataka has seldom obeyed the court orders in spirit, though in letter it may have done so in years of bountiful rains. Tamil Nadu has also not created additional storage facilities at the tail-end before excess rain waters escaped into the seas. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have also been quarrelling over the location of a new reservoir across the Cauvery apart from the relatively recent five dams built by Karnataka over the past 50-odd years. Independent of the Cauvery water issue, the rain-deficient Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai alone may have drained three months' needs of drinking water during last fortnight's rains, thus.

Larger questions thus remain: One, how should political parties, both in the Government and outside end double-talk on developmental issues and/or on accompanying concerns about people's safety? The double-talk has had its origins in the so-called national parties, starting with the Congress and not excluding the BJP and the communists, among others, took different positions on the same issue in two adjacent States, as between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Two, how does the Centre and the Supreme Court enforce their decisions in such matters, against the mood of the population and methods of the polity, including the Government, in the States concerned? In the case of the Cauvery water dispute, the Karnataka Government of the day was seen as being behind the massive anti-Tamil riots in the State. The riots witnessed hundreds of Tamils being brutally massacred and their homes and businesses ransacked or set afire. All these happened in the Nineties, when the nation thought it had moved ahead in matters of civility and nobility. On Mullaperiyar, political parties in Tamil Nadu have, from time to time, blockaded goods movement to Kerala, which otherwise is dependent on 'internal imports' to meet its daily needs of a variety of stuff, starting with food material. More recent reports have indicated attacks on Tamil settlers in Kerala along the border with the State. Even rumours of the kind have the potential to ignite retaliatory attacks.

Three, how do courts and governments at the Centre act/react when their decisions are flouted with impunity, in the name of State Governments concerned bowing to the democratic pressure from the polity and society that it seeks to represent? After pronouncing its verdict, upholding the interim award of the Cauvery Waters Commission, appointed under an Act of Parliament and directing the Centre to notify it, the Supreme Court asked then Prime Minister P V NarasimhaRao to convene a meeting with the Chief Ministers of the four Cauvery riparian States, to discuss the delays caused by Karnataka. The elevation of then Karnataka Chief Minister H D DeveGowda as Prime Minister in 1996 did not help matters, either.

Federalism and national unity

If political defiance by a State Government, or public protests could be allowed to build resistance to the implementation of laws, as formulated by Parliament or pronounced by the higher judiciary, there is always the difficulty in separating chaff from the grain. While more centralised authority may have given way to greater federal characteristics as India progresses as a nation-State in the post-Independence era, the complexities thrown up by the transition need to be addressed with care and caution, and with urgency and tenacity. Half-hearted, half-way solutions could only complicate issues.

It could cause a national drift, not only in the South but elsewhere too. In the case of Tamil Nadu, there are still remnants of pan-Tamil separatist politics from the time of Independence but neutralised positively through electoral integration since 1957 and political integration since the DMK came to power ten years later. The Sri Lankan ethnic issue and a host of others on the domestic front have the potential to whip up forgotten sentiments, tactics and more if their sense of persecution as a people is not addressed adequately. It is no different elsewhere too, as the history of Akali Dal (in the context of Ravi-Beas water dispute) and the National Conference (on the border dispute) would show.

All such forces have moved away from their traditional positions, at times revived owing to specific issues and concerns as flowing from 'Operation Bluestar', for instance, in the case of Punjab. But larger issues that they indicate have not been addressed by inquiries such as the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State Relations and the Venkatachalaiah Committee on the Review of the Constitution, even as they facilitated greater federalism in thought and action. The reverse course also needs to be addressed, and solutions within a federal model instilled in the democratic institutions and their thinking, before it became too late and begin eating into the institutional scheme and structures. While calibrated federalism has contributed in no small way in ensuring the nation's 'unity in diversity' through constitutional means over the past decades, there is greater urgency now than ever before for addressing and answering queries and concerns flowing in the reverse direction, as well.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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