Mullaiperiyar Dam Controversy:Issues And Concerns


nterestingly, Mullaiperiyar dam controversy is not about sharing water as in the case of Cauvery. Kerala, any way, cannot use the dam water as most of it is going to the sea and the Kerala is least bothered about use of water that flows through the dam. It is also not a case of rehabilitation, at least as on date, as in the case of Narmada. Vast areas that would be submerged if reservoir level were increased are the Periyar Tiger Reserve and it is a different matter of concern altogether of protecting forest species. It is not even the question of increasing height of the dam because the original storage level was 152 ft, which was reduced to 136 ft in the backdrop of mild tremor to the magnitude of 2 on Richter scale in the region in 1979.
Still, the tempers are running high on both states, if not to the level of confrontations and clashes. Because, it is a matter of providing livelihood to several lakhs of people and of increasing agricultural productivity in the rain shadow districts of Tamil Nadu that would benefit out of water flow, which otherwise goes waste, by increasing the reservoir level. On the other hand, it is a matter of environmental concern for Kerala that would like to avoid ‘bursting’ or ‘breaking’ of the 110 years old, 175 ft high, 5704 ft long lime and brick dam in question. Kerala, being a land-locked state, appears to be over cautious. The state being land hungry, any environmental imbalance snowballing into imbalance in and destabilization of irrigation and, in turn, agrarian economy also cannot be ruled out. Kerala appears to be more concerned about the consequences inland than about the Mullaiperiyar dam as such.
Tamil Nadu went to the Supreme Court and succeeded in convincing the Court to pass an order, in February 2006, in its favour to increase the height of the reservoir level of the dam to 142 ft from the present 136 ft. Kerala countered it by moving swiftly to the extent of holding a special two-day assembly session in March to discuss the issue and unanimously passed a legislation, Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006 in order to steal away the basis of the Supreme Court order. The amended act has empowered the Kerala Dam Safety Authority to fix maximum reservoir level for scheduled dams and to instruct custodians of the dam accordingly. In this case, Mullaiperiyar is a scheduled dam and custodian is the Tamil Nadu state government. When the Kerala government approached the Court for revision of its order, the Supreme Court rejected it and has advised talks between the two governments. Talks that have been on for last few months appear not to have yielded desired results and it is only a matter of time for the Tamil Nadu State Government to approach the court to enforce the verdict.
The Kerala government is coming up with the issue of safety of the 110-year-old dam and the consequent issues that are expected to affect more than 35 lakh people living in downstream in the districts of Idukki, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Pathananmthitta and Alappuzha. Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, is raising the issues of irrigation and drinking water in the rain shadow districts of Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Virudhunagar, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram which would otherwise have no access to any water facilities. Tamil Nadu claimed to have lost 45000 crores in the last 25 years because more than 8000 hectares of land went dry by way of reduction in the original reservoir level of 152 ft.
As the Kerala government said that the dam is so weak that it cannot withstand storage level of more than 136 ft, an Experts Committee was formed to study the technical feasibility and ways to strengthen the ailing dam. After some modification, renovation and repair works were carried out; the Experts Committee inspected the dam and has certified that the dam can withstand a reservoir level of 142 ft initially. But, the Kerala government is not ready to buy the argument and insists that the reservoir level should not be increased at any cost.
The Centre for Earth Science Studies in Kerala says that the dam cannot withstand an earthquake of the magnitude of 6 or more on the Richter scale if the epicentre is near the dam. The institute also assessed that tremor of such a magnitude is not too far as the region has been experiencing several tremors on lesser degrees for quite sometime now, i.e., in the last two decades. The chances of occurrence of such tremors are also high due to the presence of lineaments and fault zones in the region.
The Mullaiperiyar controversy has opened up newer and newer issues for discussion. Strangely, the dam is located in the lands of Kerala while the maintenance of dam and the operation of sluice gate are undertaken by the Tamil Nadu government. The land was taken on lease by Tamil Nadu for 999 years in 1886 through an agreement between the then Maharaja of State of Travancore and the Madras Presidency. The project was conceived in 1895. Again, a new agreement was signed around 1970 when the old one was about to expire. The lease amount was increased from Rs.5/ to Rs.30 per acre and the Tamil Nadu government was allowed to produce electricity at a price. The whole problem started only in 1979 when the region faced mild tremors. Now, there are also debates on annexing dam areas bordering the state to Tamil Nadu. The State Reorganisation Commission had also suggested including Devikulam and Peermedu areas (dam areas) in the state. Tamil Nadu is concerned because the new amended law empowers Kerala Dam Safety Authority even to decommission dams, if found unsafe. Such an eventuality will affect more than 80000 acres of land that is under irrigation and will be a body blow to the state of Tamil Nadu.
It has also opened debates on water policies of both governments, diverting west-flowing rivers (from Kerala to Arabian Sea) towards east (Tamil Nadu) so as to avoid wastage of water, the rationale of allowing privatization and commercialization of water in this water starved era, policies that makes people to pay for every drop of water they use while encouraging multinationals to go scot-free in exploiting all our water resources (like Coca-Cola company at Tirunelveli and Bechtel at Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu), scientific approach to water conservation and watershed management, etc. Electricity generation and distribution policies are also being debated anew.
Tamil Nadu is heading for a water crisis. Irrigation systems are being handed over to various multinational agencies including World Bank and companies from European countries. The people are being forced to pay for it. Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD), a government agency, has been turned into a nodal agency for brokering deals with multinationals and for spearheading privatization and commercialization of water. The government is shirking off its responsibility on water issues and TWAD being restructured to become a self-sustainable, profit-based organization is only an indication.
In this backdrop, the issue involved is the livelihood of millions of people on both sides. Court verdicts and emergency legislations may not solve the real crisis. Water going waste is of no concern for Kerala and the same being used by Tamil Nadu also should not be a problem for them. Increasing agricultural productivity and saving livelihood of lakhs of people in Tamil Nadu, particularly in those dry and rain shadow districts in the region, is very important. Likewise, the safety and security of lakhs of people of Kerala are also equally important.
Conflicting views on the stress and strength analysis and technical feasibility of increasing reservoir level of the dam should be thrashed out first. Instead of depending on courts and legislations, negotiations and talks should be the main modus operandi to settle the dispute. Taking over of irrigation subject by the Central Government may not be a real solution in a multi-national, multi-ethnic society. Rather, the central government should play the role of an efficient and effective facilitator to find an amicable solution to the dispute. There is a need for evolving an effective inter-state water dispute redressal mechanism. Any attempt, on both sides, to incite passions of regional chauvinism should be condemned in unequivocal terms. But, unfortunately political parties in both states are inclined mainly to incite passions rather than finding an amicable and workable solution to the dispute. The ruling party in Kerala is behaving more as a regionalist party than a communist party. DMK and other parties in Tamil Nadu are also eyeing for an opportunity to flare up feelings of regional chauvinism in order to revive their own declining influences among masses. Arriving at a mutually acceptable, mutually beneficial solution should be the point of departure for any framework for solution.
Alternatives should also be given serious thought. Constructing a new dam can also be considered if it is established that Mullaiperiyar dam cannot withstand the pressure of increasing the reservoir level. Adopting an integrated approach of river diversions, utilization of all possible water ways, innovative water management policies, putting kanmoys (tanks and lakes) and rivers (Vaigai) to a coordinated use, etc., can also be considered. There is also an opinion expressed by Kambam Basin Farmers’ Association that water can be effectively put to use through an integrated use of Vaigai river system and its kanmoys (tanks) where water can be stored after it is released from Mullaiperiyar dam and constructing a small dam near Varusanadu, if necessary, to feed Vaigai river. This proposal, if actually feasible, is potent enough to make other proposals of increasing reservoir level of Mullaiperiyar dam and constructing a new dam redundant.

-- V Shankar with inputs from C. Mathivanan