Mullaperiyar Dam Issue Essay Introduction

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Gist of the matter is just three points

  1. Tamilnadu operates the dam in Kerala. wants to increase water level in it.
  2. Kerala worries that dam will get destroyed anytime soon due to old age or earthquake. Hence enacted a law to decrease water level in it.
  3. Supreme court says Kerala law is wrong, Tamilnadu is right.

What is MullaperyarDam?

  • Type: a masonry gravity dam.
  • River: confluence of Periyar river and Mullayar river
  • place: Thekkady, Kerala. The dam site is in Kerala but is leased to TN
  • Provides irrigation to South Tamil Nadu (~2 lakh acres)
  • Periyar river originates from Ananamalai Hills and Joins sea near Ernakulam
  • TN has right to utilise and maintain the dam.

  • The British (Madras presidency) built Mullaperiyar dam with a lease agreement with Kingdom of Travancore for 999 years.
1970Governments of Kerala and Tamilnadu ratified this agreement.

Why controversy:

  • In mid-70s, Kerala became worried about leakage from the dam and wanted Tamilnadu to repair it.
  • Kerala govt. communicated with union.
  • Union government directed Tamilnadu state government to
    • Repair this dam.
    • Keep water level in the dam at 145 feet.
  • Now, Union believed there is no longer any danger to the structure.
  • 2006: SC allowed Tamilandu to raise water height to 152 feet after strengthening the dam. (Total height of the dam is 176 feet).
  • But Kerala passed a law the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006, to prevent the neighboring State (TN) from raising the water level beyond 136 feet.
  • Tamilnadu challenged Kerala’s dam height law in Supreme court.

Kerala’s standTamilnadu’s stand
  • if Mullaperiyar dam gets destroyed, it will also damage its Idduki dam down the course
  • Idduki is the largest source of hydroelectricity in Kerala
  • The broken Mullaperiyar dam can also damage Periyar National park and Periyar tiger reserve.
Without raising water level in this dam, we cannot sustain our agriculture and drinking water requirement.
this 119 year old dam poses danger to life and property nearly 4 million people downstreamWe’ve done adequate work to strengthen the dam structure.
There was a minor earthquake near dam site. Infact, we want to reduce water level further to 120 feet.Tremors were very minor. No danger to dam.
2010: Kerala demanded that entire dam be dismantled and we construct a new, stronger dam. (Kerala was ready to pay entire expense)Disagreed. For it’ll take lot time to setup new dam, what about the farm-irrigation in the meantime?

2010: Justice Anand Committee says dam is safe. Mullaperiyar dam poses no danger to idduki dam.
May 2014: Supreme Court order

  • Kerala dam Law of 2006 is unconstitutional and void.
  • Because Mullaperiyar is a dispute between two states. In such disputes, one state legislature cannot unilaterally enact law in its own favor.
  • Besides, in 2006 we had allowed Tamilandu to raise water height. By enacting g this law, Kerala is interfering with our judicial function.
  • Permitted Tamilnadu to increase water level upto 142 feet. (present ~136ft)

June 2014:

  • Union government decided to setup a Committee to supervise this water rising.
  • Kerala planning to file a review petition in SC.
  • Kerala assembly requested President of India to refer the matter to the Supreme Court under Article 143

Mock Questions

Q1. Consider following statements about Mullaperiyar dam

  1. it’s built on the Mullaperiyar river which originates from Annamallai hills
  2. At present, Tamilnadu owns and operates the dam
  3. Maharaja of Travancore had built this dam by taking a lease from Madras presidency.

The incorrect statements are

  1. only 1 and 2
  2. only 2 and 3
  3. only 1 and 3
  4. none of them

Q2. Which of the following is a plausible way to resolve Mullaperiyar dam controversy

  1. If Tamilnadu pays electricity tax dues to Kerala state government, for using the hydroelectricity of Mullaperiyar dam
  2. If Tamilnadu pays compensation to displaced Keralites living in the upstream, before increasing the height of this dam
  3. If Tamilnadu agrees to divert part of the water from this dam to Kerala farmers in Idduki and other downstream regions.
  4. None of them

Interview Question: What is the controversy surrounding Mullaperiyar dam? What is SC’s latest judgment on it? What is the permanent solution to this issue?

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Even though the mainstream national media has not given much attention to the Mullaperiyar issue, it is refusing to die. It is, in fact, exacerbating with the passing days and with increasing water level in the dam due to continuing rains in the catchment area.

The Genesis
Mullaperiyar is a story that is difficult to comprehend even for the people of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, let alone the ‘outsiders’!

It is a story of how a foreign power, then occupying the country, using their power, forced a native Kingdom to agree to give up its rights over a river and its water for 999 years, in exchange for a small amount to be paid as rent to the Kingdom. This agreement was inked in 1886.

Even after the occupying powers had left the country, the succeeding popular Government of Kerala agreed to honour the agreement that was obviously one sided – in favour of Tamil Nadu – and executed a fresh agreement in 1970, with substantially same provisions.

As a result of these agreements, the water from a dam that stood across a river flowing fully within Kerala was made available to the people of Tamil Nadu for their drinking and irrigations requirements (now this water is also used to generate electricity by Tamil Nadu). Not just that, the entire control over the dam was also given to Tamil Nadu authorities, so much so that there were instances when Kerala officials were refused to enter the dam premises even for safety inspection!

Why this seemingly unfair arrangement?
For someone, who is not aware of the geography of South India, this arrangement may seem really unfair for Kerala. But the truth is that, this was inevitable for the entire region. Since 1895, the water from the Mullaperiyar dam has been the lifeline for a large area of Tamil Nadu, with people depending on this project for drinking water, and for irrigation of over 3 lacs acres of land. This water has completely changed the landscape of an area that was prone to draught and famine until then. Denial of water would be disastrous for people and agriculture of these areas spread over 5 districts of Southern Tamil Nadu. Therefore, the arrangement is only fair in the larger interest of the region and the nation.

In 1979, there was an earthquake in the dam area that caused panic among people. On Kerala Govt’s request, Tamil Nadu agreed to reduce the water level to 136 feet from 142 feet, till completion of strengthening of the dam with reinforcement of concrete cover, etc.

Post completion of reinforcement work, Tamil Nadu wanted to increase the water level back to the original 142 feet. However, continuing tremors in the area caused concerns among people living downstream that this lime and surki dam of such vintage may not survive a major earthquake.

Petitions were filed for, and against, raising of water levels in the dam. These petitions before Kerala and Madras High Courts were subsequently transferred to the Supreme Court for decision. The Hon’ble Supreme Court took a strict legal view in these cases and permitted raising of water to the level, permitted under the agreement i.e 142 feet.

However, continuing tremors in the area and increasing leakage from the dam (even after all the reinforcement work) caused public outrage and concern among the people living downstream. The Government of Kerala was forced to pass a law (applicable to all the dams in the State), and thereby stop the efforts of Tamil Nadu to increase the water level to 142 feet and eventually to the maximum capacity of 152 feet.

This Act of Kerala was challenged before the Supreme Court. As observed by the Supreme Court, “It may be noticed that apart from the legal and constitutional issues, inter alia, the real grievance that concerns the State of Tamil Nadu is of not being able to increase reservoir level of Mullai Periyar Dam to 142 feet. The concern of the State of Kerala, on the other hand, appears to be relating to the safety of the Dam. While the State of Tamil Nadu had submitted that in the present suit they seek invalidation of the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006 that seeks to override the judgment of this Court in the previous case, the State of Kerala had submitted, amongst other things, that there are genuine concerns as to the safety of Mullai Periyar Dam, and that they have also offered to build a New Dam at their cost which will ensure that there is no fall in the water drawals of the State of Tamil Nadu, and that their law is valid. (emphasis added)”

The Supreme Court went on to order the appointment of an Empowered Committee that was mandated to give its report on certain questions within a period of six months. However, the Committee which was appointed on 30th April, 2010 is yet to complete its proceedings and submit its report. Once the Committee submits its report, the Supreme Court will further hear the case, including constitutionality of the Kerala Act. Going by our current standards, even the Supreme Court may not be able to say when a final Order can be expected on this matter.

The Grievance of Downstream People
Meanwhile, Idukki district of Kerala, where the dam is situated, has experienced as many as 22 mild and moderate earthquakes since March, 2011.  The latest  of these quakes being of 3.1 and 3.2 intensity in November alone. Adding to that, the rains have caused the water level to cross the 136 feet mark. Together these factors are causing sleepless nights to the poor people living on the banks of the river. The local people have been agitating continuously, seeking protection from the dangers of the dam, for six years now. The intensity of  the agitation has picked up with the recent earthquakes.

The Mullaperiyar dam was constructed with lime and surki, almost 110 years back. Studies have shown that up to 30 tons of surki is being lost from the dam every year. Despite the reinforcement works carried out for providing concrete cover, the frequent leaks and loss of surki continues to endanger the safety of the dam, causing fear in the minds of people. They are not willing to listen to the ‘dam is strong and safe’ story peddled by Tamil Nadu anymore.

The situation has reached a stage where strict interpretation of legal rights under an agreement will not resolve the issue. Even a layman can say that a dam which was originally projected for a life of 50 years cannot remain safe after 110 years. Cosmetic reinforcements will not make it any more acceptable to the people who are living in fear. 35 lakh people are living in the affected area and will face danger in case anything happens to the dam.

The Government of Kerala is pushed to the wall. It cannot go against the genuine fear of such a large population. However, till now, its reactions have been very positive. It has adopted the policy of ‘Water for TN and Safety for Kerala’ and has even offered to construct the new dam at its own cost and continue to supply water to Tamil Nadu.

The Response of Tamil Nadu seems of be that of total denial. They refuse to accept that there is any danger to the old dam. They refuse to accept the fact of earthquakes and that the concerns of the people are genuine. They say it is all mere propaganda to promote the release of a commercial movie. Tamil Nadu has a history of water disputes with all its neighbours. In spite of Kerala’s assurances, this history seems to be weighing on its mind. No politician/party in Tamil Nadu wants to be seen as agreeing to a compromise on a ‘water dispute’.

Way Forward
A solution through mutual negotiations seems to be remote as neither party can afford to be seen compromising on their people’s interest. So, the only solution is for the Supreme Court to speed up the proceedings and also to take interim measures, such as lowering the water level.

If there is even an iota of doubt, the benefit of doubt should be in favour of safety, as the contractual rights of Tamil Nadu are far inferior to the constitutional right to life of the people of Kerala.

Remember Supreme Court’s verdict in Endosulfan? Even in the absence of conclusive proof against Endosulfan, it went with the primacy of human life, and banned Endosulfan throughout the country, pending conclusive study on its effects. Also, look at the response of the Tamil Nadu government itself towards the agitation against Koodankulam Nuclear power plant, based on the fear of what might happen if a Tsunami was to hit Tamil Nadu coasts.

If something happens to the dam, it will not only make the people of Kerala suffer, but will also eliminate any further chance of water being given to the people of Tamil Nadu.

Kerala cannot be expected to remain a mute spectator to the genuine danger to its people. Tamil Nadu cannot afford to lose the right to get water from Mullaperiyar as that would be disastrous to its 5 districts. So the solution is only to ensure a new dam, with adequate protection against any earthquakes, while retaining the right of Tamil Nadu to get continuous supply of water – in other words, Water for Tamil Nadu and Safety for Kerala.

Kerala has already said that it is ready bear the cost of new dam. However, Tamil Nadu may want to be a part of it to ensure its continued control over it. These are matters that can be resolved through a court order or negotiation, once the basic principle is accepted by all parties.

Let the brotherhood between people remain unaffected, even though there are enough forces working to damage that, for their parochial benefits.

(Image Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Tags:Kerala, Mull Periyar, Tamil Nadu
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