Originally Published 2012-02-08 00:00:00 Published on Feb 08, 2012
The Mullaperiyar dam agreement commits only the waters of the reservoir to Tamil Nadu. It does not guarantee supplies if the dam fell into disuse. So, a new agreement with commitments from Kerala for fixed supplies would be in Tamil Nadu's interest too.
Finding a judicious way out of Mullaperiyar impasse
Now that much of the political dust and accompanying cacophony and commotion caused by contradicting protests in the riparian States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have settled down over the ’Mullaperiyar issue’, it may be time that a saner approach is adopted to end the impasse that has added to the conflict and confusion, without clearing and/or clarifying any. With the Supreme Court seized of the matter already, and the Executive of the Union having displayed no initiative or imagination either on this one, or other river water disputes before it, the very way out of the problem may also lie at the portals of the highest judiciary of the land.

It beats one’s imagination to see reason for the sudden urge of the Government and the polity in Kerala to whip up sentiments over the State’s pending demand for a new dam across the Mullaperiyar. The idea, if at all, may have been to pressure the Experts Committee set up by the Supreme Court to revisit the issues as also Kerala’s concerns. It is anybody’s guess why the Supreme Court at a particular point should have nominated the Experts Committee in the first place, the very same issues having been agitated before the court earlier. At that time, the court had accepted Tamil Nadu’s submissions on the dam’s safety, and its demands for restoring the storage level from 136’ to 142’ in the first phase, and up to the original 151’ subsequently. The well-reasoned Apex Court ruling in the matter was based on a series of expert opinion offered by the engineers and other technocrats of the Central Water Commission.

The recent posturing in and by Kerala having triggered similar and expected reactions in Tamil Nadu, with unintended violence vitiating the atmosphere even more in both the States, the Mullaperiyar issue has also exposed the weaknesses of the federal system as conceived and practised. In this instance, it has also exposed the hidden fissures that are better left hidden, and not forced out in the open. In Tamil Nadu, where peripheral pan-Tamil groups have begun rearing their heads after decades of near non-existence, fresh groups and fresh issues are now keeping the concept alive -- if not kicking (the State and its people) in any serious way.

Such groups would not also keep the otherwise controversial ’Koodamkulam protest’ out of their perverted ambit and convoluted logic. They see a hidden hand that targets the Tamils as a community through all this and more. The Mullaperiyar protestors in Chennai, with their known pan-Tamil and pro-LTTE stand, not only violated the ban order that was in place to hold a rally when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the State in December. They made a song and dance of their anti-national politics, bad-mouthing the Prime Minister of the land and other national-level political leaders, that too in the context of the ethnic issue and war in Sri Lanka -- which had nothing to do with the Mullaperiyar dispute.

The ’Cauvery’ precedent

Tamil Nadu’s concerns over the Mullaperiyar issue flowed from the State’s experiences from the Cauvery water dispute, involving another neighbour, Karnataka. There again, despite the Supreme Court and the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, the latter appointed under the law and under the directions of the former, coming up with verdicts that favoured the State’s position, the latter could not be enforced. Massive anti-Tamil riots took place in Karnataka, where people were killed and their property and industries destroyed. The mood in Tamil Nadu was milder but that cannot be guaranteed any more in the State, particularly in the context of the revival of pan-Tamil politics in the aftermath of the ’ethnic war’ in Sri Lanka.

On the ’Cauvery water dispute’ at the time, the Centre was found wanting -- on more than one occasion, and in more ways than one. The Supreme Court, having passed an order based on the recommendations of the lawful panel constituted by the Centre at its instance, later had to send back the issue to the Prime Minister in the early Nineties for finding a negotiated political solution among the four riparian States, chiefly Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. If the Mullaperiyar waters irrigated what is essentially an agriculture-dependent region of Tamil Nadu, the Cauvery water dispute had denied waters to one of the most fertile farm lands in the country.

Ending the impasse

It is anybody’s guess why Kerala started off the protests or why it called them off later. The same is true of their Tamil Nadu counterparts, if only to a lesser degree. Yet, given the sensitivities and the possibilities, a judicious way out has to be found out of the current impasse. Left to rot, it could create more problems than solving any. Given the increasing pressure on irrigation sources and resources, and also the increasing pitch of the political protests and governmental protestations with each passing episode over the past decades, the overall situation can only worsen, not improve.

Considering that the political class has failed to address the multifarious concerns or come up with a comprehensive solution acceptable to the different stake-holders, a judicial way to problem-solving may be the best way out under the circumstances. Considering that the Supreme Court has been able to carry the nation’s polity and people alike with it on such issues as the use/abuse of Article 356 (’S R Bommai case’), the appointment of CBI Director and the CVC, and more recently on corruption cases (2-G scam, CWG scandal, etc), it would not be impossible for the courts to get across their views to the nation at large and create an environment where such judicious verdict could become as pragmatic as they are otherwise actionable.

Sticking to own reasons and justification, which has not found favour with the Supreme Court, Kerala wants a new dam, promising to continue the current quotas available to Tamil Nadu from the Mullaperiyar project. Going by its experience regarding the implementation of the various legal and legitimate orders on the ’Cauvery water dispute’, Tamil Nadu would want, if at all, a greater guarantee not only on the quantum of committed supplies but also the leverage to implement that. As it turned out in the case of the Cauvery water dispute (and also in the case of another neighbour of Karnakata in the ’Allamatti case’ involving Andhra Pradesh), Tamil Nadu has had a bad experience with the upper riparian States controlling the levers of supplies.

If that alone were the issue, it could make sense for the Centre to be empowered (possibly by the judiciary) to construct the new dam that Kerala proposes now and also control and maintain the same -- and thus guarantee that the supplies for Tamil Nadu would not be interfered with even in the ’lean years’, so to say. Any other method to empower the Centre through negotiations involving the States concerned could involve large issues of federalism, and broaden the discourse without any plausible solution flowing out of it.

By extension, such a course could also be applied to the ’Cauvery water dispute’, where again the proposal for the construction of an additional dam to store, share and use the excess flows now being wasted into the seas, has been under consideration for decades now. It is the location of this dam that is at the centre of this additional dispute, with both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu wanting it constructed on its territory.

While Tamil Nadu’s case for continued waters from Mullaperiyar cannot be contested, and there is justification for believing in its case that there was no need for another dam as sought by Kerala, the proposal would serve Tamil Nadu’s interests in the uneventful event of the other State’s apprehensions coming true even in the distant future.

The Mullaperiyar dam agreement commits only the waters of the reservoir to Tamil Nadu. It does not guarantee supplies if the dam fell into disuse, whatever the reason. A new agreement, where Kerala commits itself to continuing supplies of the existing quantum to Tamil Nadu would be in the latter’s interest, too. If Tamil Nadu could be convinced about this, then the question would remain as to what would convince the State, the Government and the people on its enforcement, if not implementation, over the long term.

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

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

Read More +