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Will the floods muddy TN's water row?

By N Sathiya Moorthy
December 17, 2015 16:44 IST
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N Sathiya Moorthy explains how the recent floods may complicate the Cauvery issue among Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.

Unacknowledged by many in the state, the furious floods may have put a spoke in Tamil Nadu’s ongoing case on the Cauvery water dispute with neighbouring Karnataka.

The Cauvery Tribunal, appointed by the Centre under a law and attendant Supreme Court orders, has allocated 205 tmc of waters for Tamil Nadu, with 5 tmc going to downstream Kerala. Yet, issues have remained, particularly over Karnataka honouring the monthly quotas.

Apart from socio-political reservations, legal arguments to the tribunal and apex court orders and the Centre’s notifications, successive governments in Karnataka, cutting across party-lines, have also been releasing waters when the Cauvery reservoirs in the state are overflowing during successful south-west monsoon years.

Yet, when the chips are down again now, it is unlikely that an impression would be sought to be created that Tamil Nadu’s Cauvery woes exist because of mismanagement and corrupt practices of every conceivable kind at its end, and not necessarily due to non-release by Karnataka.

The present public mood, cited by sections of the local, national and international media, might have already been fed an argument.

Karnataka might seek to bolster the same, when Cauvery waters might still become necessary for delta farming in Tamil Nadu, for the next season commencing in June.

If there are needs and issues in between, they could come to be aired in the TN poll campaign, as well.

Tamil Nadu has another water dispute with Kerala, where the ongoing Mullaperiyar dam dispute could be a competitive poll issue too.

As irony would have it, the rains in Mullaperiyar catchment areas inside Kerala have helped the water-level in the reservoir to rise up to 141 feet, literally one foot short of the 142-feet storage level sanctioned by the Supreme Court, and the original 152 feet, which Tamil Nadu wants restored.

Five districts in Tamil Nadu get their irrigation water from the dam which is located inside Kerala, under a bilateral agreement signed between the then British-India rulers and the Travancore royalty.

With rains subsiding in catchment areas, the storage level did not touch the SC-cleared 142 feet, but it is still much higher than the 136-foot level to which the dam-controlling state of Kerala had lowered it for decades.

Citing the age of the reservoir, reports of seepage and the disastrous Koyna earthquake in 1967 in Maharashtra (largely attributed to the Koyna dam), Kerala side-stepped the real political issue of the flooding of Idukki district, which itself was a work in progress, after people from the plains were encouraged by local political parties to occupy the higher ground, otherwise owned by the government.

The current storage level rise has echoed in the Kerala assembly, which is now in session.

The state government has expressed concern again over the flooding of downstream localities (cash-crop plantations) and the Idukki hydro-power project.

Chief Minister Ommen Chandy promised to take up the issue with the Centre, and met the prime minister in Delhi in this regard.

At the meeting, Chandy reiterated the demand to get local and international experts to study the state’s proposal/demand for the construction of a second dam on the Periyar river.

Kerala has promised to release Tamil Nadu’s committed share of irrigation waters (and possibly more) from the same -- and not increase the storage level of the existing reservoir.

But Tamil Nadu would have none of it.

Kerala is not likely to produce fresh data, urging the Supreme Court too to re-visit its verdict, which has conceded Tamil Nadu’s demand for restoration of the original storage level -- if only in phases.

Kerala is not unlikely to cite the poor management practices of Tamil Nadu, yes. But, then, there is also a lesson that Kerala could learn from Tamil Nadu's ‘bad practices’, if any.

Also read: What the Cauvery dispute is about

For, if the Supreme Court is convinced of the TN case for raising the storage level to 152 feet, based on studies, it might ask the Centre to undertake at the current 141 feet storage-level, and Kerala would have to look for a solution.

It would imply that Kerala would have to learn to manage its own ‘flood situation’ in Mullaperiyar catchment from within, rather than asking Tamil Nadu to waste away millions of cusecs of stored/storable rain waters down the seas, when the larger issue would still be about managing flood waters, particularly during rain-starved years.

Independent of whoever is in power, the state government has not even given it a thought. It’s again poll politics, with an element of Kerala’s very own religion-centric socio-political pressures attaching to it.

Maybe, the floods in Tamil Nadu and the increased storage level of Mullaperiyar reservoir now could well encourage the Centre and/or the apex court to have a relook at all river water disputes involving Tamil Nadu, which is otherwise water-starved, for irrigation and drinking water alike.

Last but not the least, Tamil Nadu this time had excessive flows of Krishna waters from Andhra Pradesh, at the height of shared rains and floods in the two states, to augment the drinking water supplies for Chennai.

Like Karnataka vis-a-vis the Cauvery, Andhra too releases excess waters to Tamil Nadu during heavy rainfall weeks/months, into the Kandaleru reservoir. It holds back monthly quotas, again like Karnataka, when its own supplies are ‘inadequate’.

But the controversy is not as competitive or as continual.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter.

Image: A family makes its way through a flooded street in Chennai during the recent floods. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters.

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