An intervention from the Union Government is essential

This is an English translation of a Malayalam article by Mr. N. K. Premachandran, former minister for water resources (2006-2011) in the state of Kerala. Every attempt has been made to remain faithful to the content and meaning of the original. However, if and where the article deviates from the original, the ideas and views presented in the original Malayalam version are to be considered those of the author.

Once again, Kerala is haunted by a 126 year old water lease treaty and the 115 year old Mullaperiyar dam. Every year, the floods that accompany the onset of the south eastern monsoon lead to increased water levels in the dam. The nightmarish scenarios that may result from such an increase are a constant reminder to the people of Kerala- of the fragility of their lives. To make matters worse, the first nine months of 2011 has seen the occurrence of nearly 20 earthquakes (some as strong as 3.8 in the Richter scale) in the region where the dam is situated. The personal report of Mr. Sasidharan, a retired Chief Engineer who was the Kerala representative on the dam inspection team adds to the concerns. The team was constituted by the High Power committee appointed by the Supreme Court and involves the Central Soil and Materials Research Station (CSMRS). The report highlights the failure of the dam structure. A survey of the submerged section by a remote operated vehicle has shown cracks, some of which run across the width of the 1200 feet dam and are nearly 5 feet deep. The retired Chief Engineer also voices his doubt as to whether these findings, that include exposed boulders, will be represented in the final report of the CSMRS. His concern stands justified. The findings of the expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India in 2000 omitted findings regarding the 'baby-dam' in the final submitted report.

Thus, in the backdrop of a failing dam structure and repetitive earthquakes,there arises a need for an urgent discussion on the immediate measures to be adopted regarding the dam. To clear the doubts and address the concerns of millions of people, a collective effort is the need of the hour. This is an emotional issue affecting the people of both the states. However, it needs to be addressed with both impartiality and political maturity. As an opportunity to find a permanent solution to the issue has now presented itself, it is imperative that the interests of Kerala are protected. Our historical experience teaches us that even the slightest of errors from our part can lead to grave social consequences for our people. All the inter-state water-sharing treaties of which Kerala is a signatory have been bitter experiences for the state. Thus, Kerala needs to make every statement and perform every action with utmost care and precision.

The constitution of India clearly outlines the powers of the Union Government while mediating on an issue that concerns two state governments. However the Union Government of India needs to muster the will to utilize this power effectively. The statement by the Union Water Resources Minister that he is willing to mediate in the issue is a welcome step, in the right direction. However, the condition that he puts forward for the beginning of the talks is totally unacceptable. The condition that Kerala must honor a water-sharing treaty made in 1886 to the word, for the construction of the new dam to take place is a one-sided and unjust suggestion. Neither is it impartial, nor is it sensible. Kerala has made it clear that is forever ready to supply Tamil Nadu with the same quantity of water as it has done for many decades; even after the construction of the new dam. The discussions between the previous Chief Ministers of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, in the presence of the then Union Minister for Water Resources, Mr. Saifuddin Soz had reached an agreement to this effect. This has been confirmed by the Government of Kerala before a five member constitutional bench and a three member division bench of the Supreme Court. As per the instructions of the Supreme Court, this has been assured in writing as well. At this critical juncture, discussions or negotiations regarding this issue must happen keeping this stance of Kerala in perspective. Once the issue of the new dam has been accepted in principle, the associated details can be worked out by meetings between the state governments or negotiations under the auspices of the Union Government.

In a nation where the federal system is guaranteed by the constitution, which other state has shown the resolve to adopt such a liberal stand? This should be understood not as a sign of weakness on the part of Kerala; but rather as a sign of the high level of political maturity, wisdom and national interest that Kerala has maintained in this issue. Tamil Nadu must honor this gesture. A river that originates in Kerala and flows through Kerala has been the source of water for a dam situated in Kerala which provides water to five districts of Tamil Nadu, at a meager price. How is it that Tamil Nadu has difficulty in appreciating this gesture?

The intervention of the Union Government in this issue is thus indispensable. The Supreme Court has on numerous occasions observed,verbally, that a politically amicable solution would be the most feasible option in this regard. A Supreme Court three member division bench on February 27,2006 had ruled that the dam is safe and that the water level may be increased from 136 feet to 142 feet. It also ruled that if the 'baby dam' is strengthened, the water level may be increased to a height of 152 feet. As a result of the collective and incessant effort on our part, Kerala could convince the very same Supreme Court to order a study regarding the safety of the dam and to investigate the possibilities of a new dam. The safety of the dam in the case of floods, the state of the dam in the case of an earthquake, the ecological impact of increasing the water level were studied studied by subject experts and organizations of international repute. Numerous documents that were condemned to the dustbins of history were brought out to convince the honorable Supreme Court and the Union Government of the gravity of the issue.

The safety of the dam was not the only issue that lies ahead of us. The constitutional challenges raised by the 1886 water lease treaty was presented before the Supreme Court by none less than the eminent Harish Salve, the former Solicitor General of India. As a direct result, the Supreme court of India agreed to form a constitutional bench. A five member high power committee headed by the retired Chief Justice K. T. Thomas was formed to study all aspects of the issue and submit a report. Kerala now needs to take every further step with utmost care and caution. The idea of a new dam has found acceptance amongst the general public. Kerala needs to prepare itself for the terms and conditions that must accompany the new dam. It is in this regard, where the responses of certain sections of the Union Government have been disheartening. A pre-talk agreement assuring that Kerala will safeguard all the interests of Tamil Nadu in order for the talks to begin is suicidal. The erstwhile princely state of Travancore was forced by the imperial might of the British Raj to sign the 126 year old water sharing treaty. The unified state of Kerala has paid a heavy price for ratifying the treaty in 1970. All the inter-state water-sharing treaties of which Kerala is a signatory have been bitter experiences for the state. However we must understand that the solution to the issue does not lie in an emotional approach.

A carefully planned, mature and practical approach is the need of the hour for safeguarding the interests of Kerala. The duty and responsibility of one and all lies in ensuring the same.