A dispute that refuses to die down

British built Mullaperiyar dam in 1895 to harness water

 A view of Mullaperiyar dam.The dam was conceived and built over a century ago with the sole intention of harnessing the waters going waste. The British had built many structures like dams and historic buildings keeping long-term interests in mind. But they would not have imagined that the dam, built in 1895, would kick up a major row some decades later and lead to a prolonged legal battle.

Now, the Mullaperiyar dam situated in the Periyar National Park and close to the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border is in the eye of a storm. Both riparian states have been indulging in a war of words over the construction of a new dam in  place of 116-year-old structure constructed across the Periyar River to irrigate large tracts of land.

The recent tremors in the hilly district of Idukki in Kerala were mild. It would have passed off as a non-event on most occasions. But it was taken very seriously as the controversy over a building a new dam is reaching a flash point with contending states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu raising their pitch over the contentious issue.

The quake suddenly woke up the government, political parties and public of Kerala to the grim reality of a possible catastrophe if a major quake damages the Mullaperiyar dam. Incidentally, the dam has been an issue of dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu ever since it was built.

The Kerala government has sought reducing the storage level of the dam which has a gross capacity of 15.6 TMC by16 ft to 120 ft and reaffirmed its demand to build a new dam at the site. Kerala has contended that the region has recorded 22 quakes /tremors this year.

State irrigation minister P J Joseph claims that studies conducted by scientists from IIT-Roorkee and Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) have pointed out that the Mullaperiyar dam is in a seismic zone and the quake of six or more on the Richter Scale can not be ruled out.

CESS scientist John Mathai is of the opinion that any quake of the magnitude of six on the Richter Scale could damage the dam located 4,000 ft above the sea level and put millions of people in the downstream area at a grave risk. If the dam bursts, flood waters released in its wake could submerge small towns before reaching the Idukki dam, the biggest in the state. The force of the water could breach the Idukki dam also and it could be catastrophic as 3.5 million people would be affected. Above all, the rare flora and fauna in the Periyar National Park and adjoining Periyar Tiger Reserve would be completely destroyed.

However, the Tamil Nadu government dismisses the arguments of Kerala with disdain.

Tamil Nadu, which already is fighting an inter-state water dispute with Karnataka over Cauvery waters, fears that its share of water would reduce and several thousands of its farmers would face crisis.

The idea to utilise waters of the Mullayar and Periyar flowing westwards of the Western Ghats through Kerala (erstwhile Travancore princely state) to provide water to farmers in the  Theni, Madurai, Ramanathapuram and Shivaganga areas of Tamil Nadu (then Madras Presidency) was envisaged by the British in the second half of 19th century. The British proposal was to build a dam at the confluence of the rivers in Travancore. The rivers flow through Kerala and the dam and its catchment areas in the state.

After negotiations for around a quarter of a century, Travancore and Madras Presidency signed an agreement in 1886 paving the way for the lease of 8,100 acres of land for the reservoir and dam. The annual tax due to Kerala from Tamil Nadu in return was a whopping Rs 40,000 (at that time) as per the agreement.

The first dam built was washed away in floods. The existing structure is the second dam built with surki (made by mixing calcium oxide with jaggery) and was commissioned in 1896. The British  calculated the life of the dam at 70 years—it has far exceeded the calculations.

Genesis of discord

The dam has been embroiled in controversies with both riparian states at loggerheads. After independence, Kerala argued that the agreement had become void.

Kerala’s complaint was that the agreement was totally against its interests. Several
attempts by the two states to renegotiate and sign a new agreement have failed. In the beginning, the Mullaperiyar water was used only for irrigation. But later Tamil Nadu started generating power through an informal agreement with Kerala.

Eventually, Kerala signed a new agreement with Tamil Nadu in 1970 which
renewed almost all the clauses in the previous agreement. The agreement raised the annual tax due to Kerala to Rs3 0 per acre. Kerala also gets an annual payment of Rs.8.75 lakh for the 140 MW power generated from the dam. However, the Kerala Assembly has so far not ratified the new agreement.

The dispute continued. But in 1979, minor leaks in the dam following tremors heightened the concerns among the authorities concerned and scientists.

Immediately, the study was ordered by the Kerala Government and the task was
assigned to the Central Water Commission. After a detailed study, the commission felt that the dam had become weak and the storage level should be reduced to 136 feet from 142 feet. After discussing the issue with Kerala, Tamil Nadu, which controls the dam, reduced the level and took up regular maintenance. When Tamil Nadu insisted on increasing the water level, Kerala did not oblige.

Litigations

The difference of opinion between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on raising the water level continued and cases were filed in the Kerala High Court and the Madras High Court during 1997-98. During the period, a transfer petition was filed before the Supreme Court seeking to transfer all cases in the issue to the apex court. Following this, the Supreme Court directed both states to hold discussions and settle the issue amicably. But Kerala and Tamil Nadu could not.

Subsequently, on the direction of the Supreme Court, a seven-member expert committee was formed by the Union Ministry of Water Resources to study the issue and by majority opinion the committee noted that after strengthening the dam, water level could be raised to 142 feet.

In 2006, the Supreme Court permitted raising of the water level to 142 ft, following which the Kerala Government promulgated a new “Dam Safety Act” to prevent incr­ea­sing the height of water level. Though Tamil Nadu challenged it on various grounds, the Supreme Court refused to stay the operation of the act. The court again, advised both the states to settle the issue amicably but nothing materialised.

On the directive of the Supreme Court, the Union Government constituted a five member empowered committee chaired by former Supreme Court Chief Justice A S Anand in 2010 to study all issues related to the Mullaperiyar Dam and submit a report. The committee is expected to submit its report shortly.

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