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Water rights and wrongs

K.G. Kumar

FOR most Malayalees, the Periyar is not just 244 km of gurgling water originating from the Sivagiri Hills and meandering north-west through Vandiperiyar, Malayattoor, Kalady, Aluva... Just as these names are forever etched into the collective cultural memory of Malayalees, so is the Periyar.

It is more than a river. It is a cultural symbol, an iconic representation of all that Malayalees hope to find in the idea of Kerala. Thus, when the late film star Satyan sang aloud the river's name as he punted down its stretch near Aluva in the classic film, Bharya, he was singing for all Malayalees.

Today, some of them wish to carve up the Periyar into little bits, package them in market-friendly wrapping and sell off the new goods to the highest bidders.

For them, the Periyar is a mere commodity, suddenly very saleable in a newly liberalised environment. But to view the Periyar as a mere source of water is akin to calling the Earth a mere piece of rock.

That is the sentiment behind the movement led by writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair and other prominent Malayalees against the recent moves to "privatise" water bodies such as the Periyar river and the Malampuzha irrigation reservoir.

The main imperative for such privatisation comes from the Cochin Industrial Water Supply Scheme, a prestigious project that the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) Government hopes to showcase at the Global Investors' Meet at Kochi on January 18.

The project is meant to supply water to a number of industrial consumers in and around Kochi, including schools, medical colleges, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, the Cochin Port Trust, the Vallarpadam container terminal, the seafood processing industry centred around Aroor, and a number of industrial parks and estates.

The Managing Director of the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation, which is the co-ordinating agency for the project, is reported to have claimed that the Periyar has a yearly surplus of 3,468 million cubic metres.

Since the capacity of the proposed project was only 240 million litres a day, the average withdrawal, he claimed, would be only 2.5 per cent of the total flow of the water, leaving enough for the reservoir.

These figures and claims are bound to be contested, as the campaign against the project appears set to grow, with the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) throwing its weight behind it.

The real issue, however, is one of water rights. The laws applicable to rivers vary from country to country. The US law closely resembles the British common law, from which it is derived.

In the US, the common-law doctrine of "ordinary use" implies that each owner along a river is entitled to have the waters in the natural channel unpolluted in quality and essentially undiminished in quantity. Where water is plentiful, no one, of course, would object to this principle. However, in situations of scarcity, the doctrine of prior appropriation has been adopted.

Under this doctrine, actual use and chronological order of use become the measure and test of the right to appropriate water. Thus, it would appear that those who have traditionally enjoyed access to the waters of the Periyar cannot be denied that right.

From an environmental point of view, privatising the supply of water often marginalises protection of the environment. Private entrepreneurs will find that there are other, more pressing and economically less taxing, issues to be tackled.

Even if the principle of "polluter pays" is applied, Governments in the past have been pressured to apply the lowest possible water pollution standards for financial benefits.

These are just some of the issues that are bound to surface as Kerala gropes for ways to provide infrastructure to attract industrial investment. And industry needs water.

After all, the bodily needs of human beings account for only a very small fraction of the total demand for water. It is the domestic, agricultural and industrial use that accounts for the greatest proportion of water consumption. Can the Periyar serve as the primary source of water for Kerala's industrial nerve centre?

The writer can be contacted at kg@tug.org.in

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