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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 16 New Delhi April 7, 2018

Tamil Nadu-Kerala Water Conflicts: A Pragmatic Picture

Saturday 7 April 2018

by Velayutham Saravanan

This article was sent to us quite sometime ago. But it could not be used earlier for unavoidable reasons.

In the developing countries, competing demand for water with the different stakeholders has increased, particularly during the last quarter of the twentieth century. This competing demand is mainly due to the population growth, agricultural expansion, urbanisation, industria-lisation, domestic water supply and water pollution, and many other factors. Consequently, water scarcity and the demand to augment it became a common phenomenon in most of the developing countries, in recent decades.1 ‘Conflicts over water have steadily increased in number due to the various reasons of population growth, rapid industrialisation, consumerism, pollution, environmental degradation, inequities in the access to and use of water, poor governance and complications arising out of managing multiple uses across multiple users.’2

Managing water conflict is much more serious and complicated when the river basin involves different political boundaries of the country or States and also different cultural set-ups. ‘The sharing of rivers across political boundaries is an area of both contention and conflict, be it at the international, national, regional or local levels.’3 According to Vaidyanathan (2007), ‘... in several parts of the country, utilisation of both surface and groundwater has been reached or even exceeded the limit of sustainable use’.4 The problem has now been further exacerbated owing to decline of water quality, caused by pollution.5 At the international level, in the river basin, there are four types of water conflict, namely, conflict through use, conflict through pollution, relative distribution conflict and absolute distribution conflict due to the following causes respectively: water use, water quality, and water distribution and availability.6

Given the macro picture, let us see the ongoing conflict between the Kerala and Tamil Nadu States in sharing the east flowing river waters from the Western Ghats. For Tamil Nadu, east flowing rivers are the only sources of the surface water, either from Kerala or from Karnataka States. Invariably, in Tamil Nadu all rivers are flowing towards the east. In contrast, in the neighbouring States, namely, Kerala and Karnataka, most of the rivers are flowing towards the west, particularly the rivers of the State of Kerala. For example, there are 44 rivers in the Kerala State of which only three are flowing towards the east and the rest 41 rivers are flowing towards the west.7 Even on these three east flowing rivers, the Kerala Government has constructed 336 micro watershed projects.8 In Karnataka, the major east flowing rivers are Krishna, Cauvery, North Pennar, South Pennar and Palar. Each river has several tributaries. In addition to that there are nine west flowing rivers in Karnataka; of course the ayacut area is limited.9

Hence, geologically Tamil Nadu is having the disadvantage because of its location. Therefore, it has to depend on the neighbouring States like Kerala and Karnataka and to some extent the east flowing rivers passing through Andhra Pradesh. Hence, whatever is happening at the head of the east flowing rivers either from Kerala or Karnataka has became a cause of concern for Tamil Nadu, as it curtails the natural flow of the east flowing rivers. In other words, Tamil Nadu does not have any other option but to depend on the rivers from the States located on the west and north-west. Consequently, any development initiatives in the upstream of the east flowing rivers in Kerala or Karnataka State is a matter of concern for Tamil Nadu as the State does not have any other options like what Kerala and Karnataka States have with wider options for the water resources.

Given the geography and river basins, let us see the history of water conflicts between the Tamil Nadu and Kerala States in sharing the Siruvani river water, a tributary of Bhavani, and the river Bhavani since the early twentieth century. The contemplation on diverting the Bhavani river water emerged in the early nineteenth century and finally the Bavani Sagar dam across the river was constructed in 1946. But for Coimbatore’s domestic water supply, the Siruvani water was diverted only in 1932. Precisely, there was no water conflict in sharing either the Siruvani or Bhavani river water until independence, particularly till the reorganisation of linguistic States in 1956.

The Siruvani river originates in the Muthikulam hills of the Attappady plateau and the confluence with Kodungarapallam and flows with the other six major tributaries of which five are from the Varadimala slopes joining on the right bank and one tributary from the Muthikulam hills on the left bank, and finally merges with the Bhavani river. The Bhavani river, though it originates in the Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu, flows through Kerala about 50 kms and comes back to Tamil Nadu. These two rivers are very important sources of drinking water for the Coimbatore and Tiruppur cities being a source for irrigation of the Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode and Karur districts of Tamil Nadu. The sources of the Coimbatore water supply scheme are from the Siruvani and Bhavani rivers, the tributaries of the Cauvery. The Siruvani-I was started in 1931 and Siruvani-II in the 1970s and Pillur in the 1980s. The Lower Bhavani Project canal was opened for irrigation in 1956.

Kerala-Tamil Nadu Siruvani Agreement

When the project Siruvani-I was proposed in 1912, Palakkad district was a part of the Madras Presidency and hence there was no conflict between the present Kerala and Tamil Nadu region. Indeed, in the Siruvani catchment region the people did not express any resentment to the diversion of water for the Coimbatore drinking water supply scheme. Even after the reorganisation of the linguistic States in 1956, the Kerala Government did not raise any issue on the Siruvani-I project and Bhavani dam. Precisely, until 1956, the present Kerala regions did not make any issue on the diversion of river water either for domestic supply in the 1930s or for irrigation in the 1950s.

However, after the reorganistion of the linguistic States, the Kerala Government initiated projects on the east flowing rivers as well as protested the further diversion of water towards Tamil Nadu. To meet the increasing demand for water to the Coimbatore and Tiruppur cities and neighbouring villages, the Government of Tamil Nadu approached the Kerala Government in the 1960s. But then the Kerala Government refused to consider the proposal. Nevertheless, a meeting of the two States’ Chief Ministers and the Union Minister for Irrigation and Power was held at Trivandrum on May 10, 1969 for finding a working solution for the sharing of the river waters between the States. The meeting was presided over by the then Union Irrigation and Power Minister, Dr K.L. Rao. At the conclusion of the meeting, a settlement on the Parambikulam-Aliyar Project (PAP), Bhavani project, Pambar basin, Siruvani project supplying drinking water to Coimbatore and sharing of Kabini river waters was finalised.10 Based on the agreement, a new dam on the Siruvani river downstream of the existing one at Muthikulam to enable water facilities to Coimbatore city and the neighbouring areas was accepted. Based on this decision, in 1973, an agreement was worked out for 99 years between the Kerala and Tamil Nadu States to divert the Siruvani river water not more than 1300 M.cft annually (July 1 to June 30) to meet the drinking water supply to the Coimbatore city.11 This agreement categorically mentioned that ‘drinking water supply includes the supply of water for domestic, community and industrial needs but shall not include for irrigation purposes’.12 The agreement further mentioned that the Kerala State can divert the regulated flow of five cusecs of water to meet the riparian requirements from the dam.

Attappady Valley Irrigation Project (Kerala)

Since the 1970s, the Kerala Government has proposed for the Attappady Valley Irrigation Project (AVIP), a concrete gravity dam across the Siruvani river, a tributary of the Bhavani river at Chittur in Agali village of the Mannarkkad taluk in Palakkad district of Kerala to serve the irrigation facilities. The proposed reservoir falls within the radius of five kms from the inter-State boundary of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This project was proposed to impound 65 Mm3 (2.29 TMC) of water and to facilitate irrigation for a cultivable command area of 4900 ha (Gross Irrigated Area 6150 ha) and water distribution system of 84 kms length including main canals and branch canals.13 The investigation for the location of the dam was carried out during the period of 1975-1982 with the assistance of geologists from the Geological Survey of India (GSI). Till March 31, 1983, Rs 508 lakhs was spent on the project.14 Due to non-clearance by the Central Water Commission and paucity of funds, the work relating to the AVIP was kept in abeyance until 1989. However, this proposal was constantly opposed by the Government of Tamil Nadu from the beginning.

Since the 1970s, the Kerala Government has brought the issue to the notice of the Government of India. Various initiatives have been made by the Government of India and among the States, namely, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Pondicherry but these were unable to resolve the conflict. The negotiations between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and the attempts made by the Government of India since the 1970s have completely failed. Consequently, under the provisions of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956 (33 of 1956), the Government of India constituted the ‘Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal’ by a notification dated June 2, 1990. The Kerala Government made a representation to share the Cauvery water since it has about 2866 sq. kms in the Cauvery basin. The Kerala Government stated that: ‘After the re-organi-sation of the State, determined efforts have been made for improvement of the basin and diversion of the water in the Cauvery basin for utilisation by the State, but several of their claims had been objected to by the other riparian States.’15

However, the Kerala Government did not get any interim relief under the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal’s Interim Order of 1991. According to the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, ‘The State of Kerala has not applied for any interim order, therefore, this order is without prejudice to the claims and contentions of the State of Kerala about the equitable distribution.’16 However, in 2007, in the final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT),17 Kerala was awarded six TMC from the Bhavani river sub-basin and 2.87 TMC was specifically awarded to the AVIP dam project, giving it a fresh lease of life.

Projects of Kerala on Bhavani River

Immediately after formation of the Kerala State (1958), the Public Works Department (Irrigation Branch) had proposed to construct the dam on the Bhavani river at Seramankandi and divert the water towards the south-west through a tunnel to Tenkara and from there towards Ambankadavu Thodu to irrigate around 22,200 acres in the Wulluwanad and Palghat taluks of Palghat district.18 However, this project did not materialise. Though the Kerala Government did not construct any major dam on the Bhavani river, they constructed several micro watershed schemes. At present, there are 97 micro watershed schemes developed by the Kerala Government on the Bhavani river.19 The Kerala Government attempted to construct the dams across the Bhavani river since the early period. ‘In 2002, the Kerala Government tried to divert water from the Bhavani river at a place called Mukkali, but there was strong opposition from the Tamil Nadu State farmers and Tamil Nadu Government and the plan was dropped,’ recalls K. Kalidas, President of the OSAI, an environmental NGO based in Coimbatore.20

Based on the final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, the Kerala Government is planning to construct six check-dams across the Bhavani river. In fact, the Minor Irrigation Department, Kerala Government has begun the construction of two check dams at Thekkuvattai and Padavayal across the Bhavani river in the Pudur panchayat of Attappadi. It has been proposed to construct three check dams and implement four lift irrigation projects at a cost of Rs 13 crores. In Padavayal, the Kerala Water Authority (KWA) has proposed to implement drinking water schemes which can also be used for irrigation purposes.

Athikadavu-Avinashi Project

Since the early nineteenth century, there was a contemplation to utilise the surplus water of the Bhavani river. But, only in 1834, Arthur Cotton mooted this proposal to put in use the surplus water. Subsequently several alternative schemes were considered to use the flood water in the Bhavani river but nothing materialised. Finally, in 1856, it was concluded that without a storage reservoir in the Bhavani river, extension of irrigation would not be feasible.21 In 1857, the dam site was located at Pulavur, just below the confluence of the Siruvani with the Bhavani river. Though this proposal was considered, nothing was done to execute it.22 After consideration of the proposal in 1857, there was no initiative made in regard to the project due to the Sepoy Mutiny and reduction of grants.23 In the 1880s, the importance of constructing the dam across the Bhavani was emphasised but surprisingly by the close of the nineteenth century, it was suggested to wind up the Bhavani dam projects.24 Since the early twentieth century, several proposals were made to utilise the surplus water to irrigate the Coimbatore district. During this period there were two proposals to construct dams across the Bhavani river: one was the Lower Bhavani Project (wet) and another the Upper Bhavani Project (dry). In 1905, there were three proposals made for two sites in Upper Bhavani, and one in the lower reach of the Bhavani river.25 Subsequently, detailed reports were prepared for all the three proposals. Of the two Upper Bhavani reservoirs, one was proposed at Pulavur and the second one seven miles lower down below the junction of Kundah with the Bhavani river.26 The Lower Bhavani Project was proposed 18 miles below the Mettu-palayam.27 Considering the revenue aspects, in 1908, the government decided to construct the Lower Bhavani Project and dropped the Upper Bhavani Project.28 However, there was no further development until 1925.

In 1925, again two alternative estimates were submitted both for the Upper and Lower Bhavani Projects. In 1928, the government ordered to drop the Upper Bhavani Project. The Public Works Department prepared the plans and estimates; the government was satisfied with the scheme proposals in 1938, but the Coimbatore District Board members and other influential persons made representations to take up once again the Upper Bhavani Project.29 The government re-examined the Upper Bhavani Project with four alternative proposals and finally the government dropped the Upper Bhavani Project once and for all in 1946.30

After the construction of the Lower Bhavani Project, there was a constant demand from the people of the Avinashi region before indepen-dence. Since independence, several proposals were also made in different names at different points of time. The main demand was that the surplus water of the Bhavani dam be diverted to recharge the tanks and ponds which will increase the water table in the Avinashi region. The claim was that the surplus water from the Bhavani dam is going to the sea as waste. The storage capacity of the Bhavani dam is only 53 TMC. Between 1956 and 1996, in these 27 years there was a surplus water flow from the Bhavani dam, of which, 15 years 20 TMC and above, 4 years 10-20 TMC, 4 years 5-10 TMC and 4 years less than 5 TMC. (See Table 1) Hence, this surplus water has to be diverted towards the Avinashi region to recharge the ground water. For this project the required water was only 1.5 TMC.

There was a demand from the Avinashi region people to revive the Upper Bhavani Project even before independence. However, later they demanded that the surplus water of the Bhavani river dam be diverted for the Athikadavu-Avinashi Project. But, the demand was not considered by the government since this constituency either elected a Congress representative earlier or one from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) later. Hence, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was not interested to take up this project. However, the demand was intensified since the last decade of the twentieth century.

Finally, in 2012, the Athikadavu-Avinashi Project was implemented to divert the flood water from the Bhavani river at Pillur to 31 tanks maintained by the Water Resources Department, 40 panchayat union tanks and 538 ponds combined together at the Coimbatore, Tirupur and Erode districts.31 ‘It has the capacity to irrigate more than 1.5 lakh acres of agricul-tural lands besides improving the water levels in the Coimbatore, Erode and Tirupur districts. ‘The Athikadavu-Avinashi Flood Canal Project has been conceived to mitigate the effects of flood, by means of excavation of a Flood Carrier Canal from the Pillur Dam water spread area. The Flood Flow Canal includes one Main Canal and two Branch Canals, namely, the Avinashi Branch Canal and Perundurai Branch Canal to divert the flood water to the tanks and ponds in Coimbatore, Tiruppur and Erode districts which act as flood absorbers.’32 The main purpose of this project is to recharge the groundwater table and to solve the drinking water problem in the villages of Karamadai, Metupalayam, Annur, Avinashi, Puliampatti, Kavilipalayam, Perunduri and Nambiyur in the Coimbatore, Erode and Tiruppur districts of Tamil Nadu.

Water Conflict between Kerala and Tamil Nadu

The Kerala and Tamil Nadu States agreed to share the waters of the east flowing rivers as well as a few west flowing river waters from the late nineteenth century. For example, the agreement between the Madras Government and Travancore King was made to divert the west flowing river waters to the Madras Presidency in 1894. Even after independence, the Kerala Government had agreed to divert the waters from different rivers of the Kerala region. For example, in 1973, the Siruvani river water was diverted to Coimbatore to meet the drinking water project there. Around the same time, the Kerala Government agreed to divert the waters of the Parambikulam-Aliyar river water projects. As long as the Kerala Government accepted Tamil Nadu’s proposal, there was no problem from the Tamil Nadu side. However, in the last five decades, the Tamil Nadu Govern-ment has made representations to the Central Government, Supreme Court and tribunal against the unauthorised diversion of waters by the Karnataka Government. In 2007, the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal delivered its final judgment to share the waters among the States sharing the Cauvery river basin. Accordingly, the Kerala Government can use 6 TMC from the Bhavani sub-basin. As per the Siruvani Drinking Water Project Agreement (1973) between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, five cusecs of water have to be diverted to the riparian rights holders of the Kerala State. But according to the data, the Government of Tamil Nadu never abides by that clause citing the scarcity of water in Coimbatore city.

It is an interesting fact that whenever Tamil Nadu wanted to divert the river water for irrigation and drinking water supply they designed the project accordingly while when the same was proposed by the Government of Kerala, Tamil Nadu made an issue out of it. The Tamil Nadu State has to realise that the when they approach the tribunal for the redressal of their grievances, they have to also abide the tribunal order. When the Tamil Nadu State approached the tribunal and Supreme Court, it has to respect the rights of the other States as well. The problem is that the demand for water has always been on an increasing trend during the post-independence period due to several factors like population growth, industrialisation, domestic water supply and agriculture invariably in different parts of the country.

Obviously, every State has to meet these increasing demands. Now, the available options in the basin and sub-basins are almost on the verge of being exhausted. In other words, every basin and sub-basin is now getting closed. For example, in the Bhavani river basin, only four diversions were there until independence: three diversions for irrigation purposes and one for the water supply scheme. One such is the diversion for irrigation from the Bhavani river and drinking water supply from the tributary of Bhavani, that is, Siruvani. After independence; through the Lower Bhavani Canal 2.5 lakh hectares was brought under irrigation from the Bhavani Sagar. In addition to that waters from one dam from the Siruvani, a tributary of the Bhavani river, and yet another from the Bhavani river were diverted for drinking water purposes. Further, recently the Athikadavu-Avinashi project was implemented to divert 1.5 TMC water for the water recharge programme. In other words, without considering the downstream requirements, we have diverted the water from the upstream of the main river and its tributaries and finally the basin and sub-basin have become closed.

If the diversion of the surplus in the upstream of the river basin is made, maintenance of the river flow poses a challenge. In other words, for diverting the water at the upstream either for irrigation or for recharge, the groundwater concerns of the downstream have to be studied. The past experience clearly indicates that the Tanjore fertile land has became a desert. If best practices are not ensured for the natural flow of the river, serious ecological and environmental consequences are inevitable. Further, again the demand to divert the waters from both Kerala and Tamil Nadu would increase. Hence, sittings to resolve the conflict between Kerala and Tamil Nadu are of little relevance. The Tamil Nadu State has to think about how to save water and how effectively to put to use the water management practices. Instead of that, picking up conflicts with the neighbouring States will not help in solving the problems in the long run.


1. World Bank, Water Resources Management in Asia, Vol. I, Main Report, Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 1993, p. 2.

2. Shantha Mohan, N. (2010), ‘Locating Transboundary Water Sharing in India’ (eds.), Shantha Mohan, N. Routray, Sailen and Sashikumar, N., River Water Sharing: Transboundary Conflict and Cooperation in India, New Delhi: Routledge, p. 3.

3. Ibid. 

4. Vaidyanathan, A. (2007), ‘Foreword’ in Water Conflicts in India: A Million Revolts in the Making, ed. by Joy, K.J., Gujja, Bissham, Paranjape, Suhas, Goud, Vinod and Vispute, Shruti. New Delhi: Routledge, p. xv.

5. World Bank, Inter-Sectoral Water Allocation, Planning and Management, Washington, D.C.: The World Bank and New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1999, pp. 7-14.

6. Helga Haftendorn, ‘Water and International Conflict’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2000, pp. 52-53.

7. (accessed in January 2017).

8. (accessed in January 2017).

9. (accessed in January 2017).

10. The agreement between the Chief Ministers of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and the Union Minister of Irrigation and Power during discussions held on 10.5.1969 at Trivandrum regarding the Parambikulam Aliyar Project and other river water questions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. (accessed in January 2017).

11. Kerala-Tamil Nadu Agreement on Siruvani Drinking Water Supply Agreement, dated August 19, 1973.

12. Ibid.

13. Pre-feasibility Report of Proposed Attappady Valley Irrigation Project (AVIP) in Palakkad District, Kerala, 2016, p. 6.

14. State Planning Board (1984), Report of the High Level Committee on Land and Water Resources, Trivandrum, Government of Kerala, p. 117.

15. The Report of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal with the decision, Vol. 1, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 52-53.

16. Ibid., p. 71.

17. (accessed in January 2017). StateWaterDisputes FINALDECISION OFCAUVERYWATERTRIBUNAL4612814121.pdf

18. Government of Kerala (1958), Water Resources of Kerala: Advance Report, Public Works Department (Irrigation Branch), Trivandrum, p. 213.

19. (accessed in January 2017).

20. (accessed in January 2017).

21. Government of Madras (1948), Report on the Lower Bhavani Project (1946 scheme), Madras: Government Press, p. 1; Government of Madras 1966. History of the Lower Bhavani Project, Vol.I Head Works, Madras: Government Press, p. 8.

22. Government of Madras (1966), History of the Lower Bhavani Project, Vol.II Canals, Madras: Government Press, p. 1.

23. Government of Madras (1948), Report on the Lower Bhavani Project, p. 1.

24. Ibid.

25. Government of Madras (1966), History of the Lower Bhavani Project, Vol. I Head Works, Madras: Government Press, pp. 9-10.

26. Ibid., p. 10.

27. Ibid., p. 11.

28. Ibid. 

29. Ibid., p. 13.

30. Ibid., pp. 14-18.

31. Government of Tamil Nadu (2012), Public Works Department, Irrigation, Demand No. 40, Policy Note 2012-13, p. 19.

32. Ibid.

The author is a Professor and Director, Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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