Rivers for sale

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

The Congress(I)-led Kerala government's decision to hand over public water resources to private companies meets with spirited resistance from local communities and people's movements.

in Thiruvananthapuram

THE controversial trend of governments transferring public water resources to private players, established two years ago by the Chattisgargh government on a stretch of the Sheonath river and projected as the first "successful" example of its kind in the country, seems to be catching on. In Kerala, the Congress(I)-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government has catalogued at least five water project profiles that are suitable for private investment, which, if implemented, could prove detrimental to the basic needs of local communities.

Thus, at a time when the State administration is going all out to entice private investors and to make a success of the first-ever Global Investors' Meet (GIM) in the State, to be held in Kochi on January 18 and 19, an unsavoury controversy is raging in Kerala over the government's discreet efforts to allow private companies to draw water from some of the major rivers, irrigation dams and groundwater sources on long-term lease and treat and sell it for a profit.

A few such projects, to supply potable water to industries, commercial establishments and other bulk consumers in the Greater Cochin Area in Ernakulam district, in the Kanjikode industrial belt in Palakkad district, in the temple town of Guruvayoor and at the tourist resorts of Kumarakom in Kottayam district and Kovalam in Thiruvananthapuram district, were initially included in the list of investment opportunities for the global investors who would participate in the meet. But when questions were raised about the implications of the move for local communities, members of the State Cabinet began to speak in different voices: they contradicted themselves about the existence of such projects, and some of them even refused to say whether the Cabinet had approved some of the projects.

Eventually, Chief Minister A.K. Antony said that the projects would not be included in the list of potential investment areas for the GIM because of the controversy. While Industries Minister and Indian Union Muslim League leader P.K. Kunhalikutty said they were being dropped from the GIM list because they would be considered only after the approval by the Cabinet, Irrigation Minister and Kerala Congress (Jacob) leader T.M. Jacob said that some of the projects were already approved by the Cabinet for being offered to private investors.

According to a revised scheme (the revision was done after the controversy broke out) presented by Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation Ltd. (KSIDC, the implementing agency), the Rs.330-crore (the investment originally anticipated was Rs.250 crores) Cochin Industrial Water Supply Scheme (CIWSS) is meant to allow the private investor to pump out 200 million litres a day (MLD) from the Periyar river at Mahilalayam in Aluva, purify it at a 20-acre (eight hectare) treatment plant near Kalamassery, and distribute potable water to major industrial and commercial units in and around Kochi at a rate of Rs.14 a kilolitre (out of which Rs.2 a kl is to be paid to the government as water cess). Other details of the build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) scheme, considered to be operated fully by the investor for the lease period of 20 years, are yet to be announced.

The major beneficiaries of the project will include the Vallarppadam Transshipment Terminal, Carborandum Universal Ltd, the super-speciality Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, the Kalamassery industrial estate, Phillips Carbon Black Ltd., the Southern Railways, the Cochin Port, the Southern Naval Command, sea food industries at Aroor and Eramallur, the super-speciality Lakeshore Hospital, HMT Ltd., KINFRA Park and Cochin University and other educational institutions. The project is expected to function independent of the four schemes of the Kerala Water Authority (KWA), including the one under implementation by HUDCO, which together supply 220 MLD (against the present demand of 290 MLD). Informed sources in the government claim that the project will ease the supply constraints of the KWA and in turn make more drinking water available for domestic consumers in Kochi. In addition, 10 per cent of the capacity of the new project (20 MLD) is to be provided to the KWA's domestic water supply scheme at a subsidised rate.

The private company that would run the scheme is also expected to implement "long-term steps to improve the flow rate in the river", such as constructing check dams in the upstream points and regulators to check salinity intrusion from the sea (the Kochi area being at the mouth of the river) and dredging reservoirs to improve their storage capacities.

The Rs.1,351-crore Kanjikode Industrial Water Supply Scheme (KIWSS) is to meet the "present and ultimate water demand" of the new industries being established in the industrial belts and the proposed industrial townships at the Kanjikode Industrial Development Area (IDA) and the Pudussary Industrial Development Area in Palakkad district. The scheme is to cater to the 215.58- ha Kanjikode IDA, the 296-ha WISE Park, of which the most prominent occupant is the bottling unit of the multinational softdrink producer, Pepsi, the three KINFRA Parks at Kottilapara, Vengody and Kanalpirivu, together occupying 433.6 ha, and parts of Elappully and Pudussary villages. The main source of water is to be the Malampuzha irrigation dam. Moreover, the investor will also be allowed to "rely on groundwater sources" and "rainwater harvesting" during the monsoon season.

Eventually, the scheme is to draw 75 MLD of water from the Malampuzha irrigation system, to be supplied by the private investor (a United Kingdom-based company has reportedly shown interest in the project) to the industrial units at Kanjikode and Pudussary. Protest is mounting as the Malampuzha dam, originally meant to irrigate paddy crops on 20,000 ha in the district, is also the source of drinking water supply to Palakkad town and six panchayats in the district. The dam is never full and is unable to supply water for more than 60 days for the two crops of paddy. The new scheme would mean an assured supply of water for the private investor, irrespective of the water shortage in the region.

The government refused to part with the details of the other schemes once the Kochi and Palakkad schemes became controversial and said the latter was not even discussed by the Cabinet. However, a Government Order issued on June 10, 2002, based on a Cabinet decision taken on May 15, 2002, to give sanction for the implementation of the CIWSS also provides sanction for "similar projects elsewhere in the State". The KSIDC has short-listed three companies for the CIWSS Mahindra Infrastructure Developers, Mumbai, Construction Industry Development Board, Malaysia, and Subash Projects and Marketing, Bangalore and advertised in newspapers abroad seeking investors for the KIWSS.

The Periyar, flowing through Idukki and Ernakulam districts, is a river already in trouble. It is the biggest river in Kerala, with 17 tributaries, and feeds six power plants and caters to the domestic, industrial and commercial needs in nearly 50 local bodies. Several industrial units are situated on the banks of the Periyar and depend on it for water supply. By the time it flows into the industrial belt of Ernakulam district, the Periyar is highly polluted, its nature altered by indiscriminate sand mining (according to one estimate, about 50,000 tonnes a day) and its supply heavily utilised. Since its mouth is at a lower level than the sea, salt water intrusion into the river had been a problem for long during the summer months. It is now made worse by the reduced flow in the river for most of the year. Industries depending on the Periyar are shut down periodically and domestic water supply is affected by increased salinity.

The State government intends to sanction private players to draw water upstream of the existing KWA treatment plants. For the 20-year lease period, the investor will be assured of a supply of 240 MLD, which the Ministers are keen to say is only 2.5 per cent of the flow in the river. The government claims that the project would ease the pressure on the KWA system and generally accelerate development activities in Kochi and surrounding areas. But concern is rising about the impact the scheme would have on areas close to the lower stretches of the river, especially on domestic consumers, a few years down the line.

KERALA badly needs industrial investment. And industries and commercial establishments need water, which they are now drawing mostly through the inefficient supply network of the KWA and from the State's water sources, significantly, at rates much lower than their treatment and supply costs. For example, in Kanjikode, the Pepsi bottling plant now draws 1.75 lakh litres of water a day from the Malampuzha dam, which is unable to meet the needs of agricultural and domestic consumers. But the new scheme also offers the possibility of the industrial units and the newly sanctioned distilleries at Kanjikode tapping the ground water sources in the water-starved region, a cause for more concern for the local people.

At Plachimada on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in Palakkad district, for example, another soft drink giant, Coca-Cola, is facing the people's wrath on account of what is proving to be the worst example of a public resource being offered for business interests. Within two years of the Coca-Cola bottling unit being inaugurated, several places in Chittoor taluk, including 10 colonies of tribal people, began to experience severe drinking water shortage. Estimates by people's committees suggest the company is drawing 10 lakh litres of groundwater from the region, and scientific studies are being quoted to prove that the factory is the major reason for the drought and drinking water scarcity in Chittoor taluk. An agitation is now on in the region, spearheaded by leaders of the tribal people and mass organisations of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), demanding that the company be closed down.

More protest movements are sprouting up in other parts of the State. At Thiruvaniyoor in Ernakulam district, a people's movement is gaining strength against yet another attempt by a private company to draw water using tube wells and supply bottled water reportedly to U.S. troops in Kuwait.

The Kerala government is trying to engineer a major policy shift on the sly, under the pretext of solving the twin problems of industrial underdevelopment and growing unemployment. The very character of such BOOT water supply schemes makes them attractive to investors, who are assured of high profits, the industrial units, which are assured of constant water supply (though at higher rates), and the government, which wants to claim credit for encouraging more industrial ventures through "infrastructure development". But, like the people who live along the 23.6-km "privatised" stretch of the Shoenath river, the people in Kerala are the ones who stand to lose. If the demonstrations that are being organised in Kochi and Malampuzha are any indication, they have already started asking the question, "Don't we have a right to our waters?"

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