The Mullaperiyar Dam and
By M.V. Kamath
The Kerala-based 116-year old Mullaperiyar Dam has in recent weeks been causing more trouble than expected with both Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments in mindless conflict. It has come to a stage when contention between the two states on the dam issue has led to clashes between the people of the two states with violence against Keralites living in Tamil Nadu and Tamilians living in Kerala demanding immediate attention. The dam is located in Kerala but oddly enough it is controlled, managed and operated by Tamil Nadu under a lease agreement of 1886 between the then British and the erstwhile state of Travancore and, according to the original agreement the British got the right over “all the waters” of the Mullaperiyar and its catchment for diversion to then five districts of Madras Presidency (now of Tamil Nadu) for 999 years!
The waters of the Periyar river stored in a reservoir within Kerala territory have come to be used exclusively by some 70 lakh people in present-day Tamil Nadu’s five districts, Theni, Dindigul, Sivaganga, Madurai and Ramanathapuram which have been transformed into “breath-taking green valleys”. But then, what’s the problem? The Kerala government’s arguments are as follows: (a) The dam is 116 years old and is showing signs of the ravages of time; (b) The dam is located in a seismically sensitive zone and in recent times there have been a series of tremors – 26 since July 2011 alone – with epicentres close to the dam that have sent a chill to villages downstream; (c) Kerala does not require the permission of Tamil Nadu for building a new dam. So the proposal is to build a new dam.
Tamil Nadu demurs. According to the Chennai government, (a) the dam, as it is, is in perfectly good condition; (b) that a new dam planned about 400 meters downstream with a larger storage capacity would create a heavy financial burden; (c) the fresh storage area will impinge on a substantial additional portion of the Periyar Tiger Reserve and would cause; (d) additional environmental damage in meeting Tamil Nadu’s water requirements. More importantly, as MDMK general secretary Vaiko pointed out, if the current dam is demolished, five districts in south Tamil Nadu would be turned into a desert.
Kerala, according to him, must drop the idea of decommissioning and demolishing the Mullaperiyar dam and should also drop the idea of constructing a dam in Idikki on the pretext of generating power. To press this argument further, some 80,000 people from 20 Tamil Nadu villages took out a protest march and P Chidambaram, by firmly putting his foot in the mouth made matters worse by saying that the plan for a new dam was being put forth because elections were due shortly in Kerala. That he felt compelled to withdraw his remark is beside the point.
Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa has been equally silly. In a full page advertisement in mainstream newspapers she said “it is unfortunate that a fear psychosis among the people of Kerala should be built up”. She forgot that in the matter of the Kudankulam Nuclear Plant in which the Union Government has sunk Rs 14,000 crores she herself has been instigating fears among the people in the surrounding areas. What is good for the goose is apparently not good for the gander. It is only fair to say that in a half page ad in leading papers, the Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy made the point that the Kerala Legislative Assembly in a resolution on 9 December has “unanimously resolved that Tamil Nadu will continue to receive the same quantity of water from the new dam it receives today”.
Noted Chandy: A new dam is the only solution by which the supply of water of Tamil Nadu can be ensured and the safety concern of Kerala could be addressed. It is a solution where both sides win. It ensures water for Tamil Nadu and safety for Kerala”. It is difficult to understand Jayalalithaa’s angst and her charge that “bested interests” are behind the plan to demolish the Mullaperiyar dam. Worse, Jayalalithaa is turning a simple issue into a clash between the Tamilians and Malayalis and fears are already being expressed that Tamil Nadu may disrupt power supply to Kerala from Neyveli. That is blowing up the issue to ridiculous proportions.
According to the Forum For Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India, the present conflict can be resolved by, among other strategies (a) minimising water storage behind the dam to the minimum regulatory storage required; (b) re-designing the diversion of water and conveyance system and (c) strengthening the existing structure of the dam to ally the fears of people downstream. What is interesting is that former President APJ Kalam has got into the picture to make a dramatic suggestion that the security of the dam should be entrusted to the Army! Arguing that India cannot afford to fight a civil war over water, Kalam has suggested that a national water grid must be formed like the Power Grid and Indian Railways.
Similarly, according to him, all rivers msut be nationalised to ensure suitable distribution of waters. The take-over of rivers by the Army cannot prevent earth tremors. A study by the Geological Survey of India made in 2002-2004 had identified the Cumbum Valley in Tamil Nadu as “an active fault zone” and if one realizes that the Mullaperiyar dam is situated in the region immediately to the south of the Cumbum Valley, one can understand Kerala’s fears. Three of the earthquates this year were of 3.8M, 3.4 M and 3.4 M respectively and in the past there have been earthquakes above 6.0 on the Richter Scale. Kerala’s fears, in the event, are genuine. Tamil Nadu in the past has had to face problems as over the distribution of Kaveri river waters and had to adjust itself to reduced flows in the river because of upstream developments over the years. What all this suggests is that wisdom lies in Tamil Nadu and Kerala thrashing out their differences across the table and come to acceptable decisions. Encouraging clashes between people of the two states is not only uncivilized but is suicidal. One wise step is not to raise the water level beyond the current 136 ft. And, considering that the dam is situated in Kerala, shouldn’t it also have the right to be part of the Management? For Tamil Nadu to argue that the 1886 Agreement was validated by Kerala in 1970 may be legally valid but calls for reconsideration, in 2011-2012. The lives of Kerala people are as precious as the prosperity of Tamil Nadu farmers.