Mullaperiyar : The Real Fire Pot

Shambu Jayachandran

Shambu Jayachandran is an Indian writer and activist who writes columns and articles on contemporary social issues. Follow him at facebook.com/shambuahead

It has been quite some time that the MullaPeriyar Dam issue has continued to remain the pot of fire between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and a never ending series of conflicts between the two states which ultimately made to the Supreme Court bench.For Kerala, it is not just an issue of sharing water with the State of Tamil Nadu, but a life threatening issue as the dam has already outlived its natural lifespan and construction of a new dam was absolutely a necessity. The MullaPeriyar Dam is in Idduki district located in the upper reaches of River Periyar, and the British architect Colonel John Pennycuick who had designed this dam had predicted a lifespan of only 50 years for the dam. The Keralites unfortunately have remained divided on the issue, while the Kerala Government and majority of Keralites have sought a quick resolution on the MullaPeriyar issue on grounds of safety of the dam. They fail to see any hope due to the apathy of a large section of the population of Kerala,the government as well as the people of Tamil Nadu who remain strangely apathetic about the impending doom that awaits the 5 districts of Kerala comprising a population of over 3 million.

The MullaPeriyar dam lies in a seismic zone, prone to earthquakes of above 6 in the Richter scale, and the YouTube images of MullaPeriyar clearly expose the series of dangerous cracks that have appeared in the walls of this controversial dam. The Tamil people are afraid that this is a ploy of the Keralites of not disbursing water supply to Tamil Nadu, as the existence of this state immensely depends on this. The government of Tamil Nadu is of the opinion that Kerala Government is generating an unnecessary fear psychosis amongst the people. The heated rows related to the MullaPeriyar issue is ever on the increase, and efforts by ministers and politicianshave remained fruitless due to the violence ripping through the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Moreover, unconfirmed new reports have spilled out information of violence in Tamil Nadu and in the borders of the two states, and factories and properties owned by Keralites have been destroyed. The Police are having a hard time restoring law and order in both the states and the border towns. The Supreme Court had asked both Kerala and Tamil Nadu to maintain restraint on their statements so that sensitiveness on the issue is restrained andsanityprevails.

But to resolve the ‘issue’, why the MullaPeriyar dam has become a burning‘issue’between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu,and the importance of the geographical location of this controversial dam must be understood and considered. This masonry gravity dam built on the Periyar River on the Cardamom Hills of the Western Ghats in Thekkady,in the Idukki district of Kerala is 881 m,i.e., 2,890 ft. above sea level. Historically, the dam was constructed between 1887 and 1895 with the purpose of diverting water eastwards to the Madras Presidency area, which is the present state of Tamil Nadu with a height of 53.6m which is 176 ft. from ground foundation and a length of 365.7m which is 1200 ft. The Periyar National Park is also located around the reservoir of the dam in Thekkady. Although the dam is primarily located in Kerala on the Periyar River, the operations and maintenance is handled by the state of Tamil Nadu. The controversy lies concerning the catchment area where of the total 5398 km2 of catchment area of the river Periyar, 114 km2lies in Tamil Nadu, though the catchment area of the MullaPeriyar dam itself lies exclusively in Kerala.

Every year 70 TMC of water is released to Tamil Nadu by Kerala for the purpose of irrigation and generation of hydroelectricity. Initially Tamil Nadu had the right to use water from River Periyar lying on the upper fringes of Kerala only for irrigation. Later on the state demanded administrative control over the Dam as it needed water for generation of hydroelectricity also. Now the amount of water pressure that the reservoir is required to maintain for enabling sufficient water flow to Tamil Nadu towards generation of hydroelectricity is beyond the capacity of this aging dam. The dam had already outlived its life span of 50 years, and a new dam needs to be constructed in order to decommission the old one, if Kerala had to live by the demands made by Tamil Nadu pertaining to raising of water level in the reservoir. Tamil Nadu is demanding that water level in the dam be raised to 142 ft., but the reservoir would not be able to stand this water pressure as the dam has been built with lime and mortar using primitive technology. Moreover, Tamil Nadu maintains discriminatory practices with Kerala as far as paying for water is concerned.

Tamil Nadu pays Andhra Pradesh Rs.3 Crore for 1 TMC of water, whereas it pays a mere amount of Rs.40, 000 for 70 TMC of water to Kerala. This means that the Government of Kerala is being deprived of a revenue of almost 21 Crore in lieu of water supply from Tamil Nadu, which could be put to good use for the purpose of development in Kerala- a reason good enough for the Keralites to flare up as it mars the pace of development in the state. The Tamil Nadu Government is apprehensive that, if Kerala is allowed to choose any of the three proposed sites for construction of the new dam, Tamil Nadu would be bound to pay the rate per TMC of water that it pays to Andhra Pradesh, as the new dam would definitely call for maintenance, enabling Kerala to have a better advantage over administrative access to the new dam built after decommissioning of the old MullaPeriyar. Possibilities are that this would create a dent in the state treasury of Tamil Nadu, and raise probing questions on the exposed, as well as the ‘hidden’ accumulated wealth of the politicians and Ministers in Tamil Nadu.

The dam had already outlived its lifespan by 27 years in the year 1979, and the condition of the dam is very serious now compared to what it was in 1979.

Unfortunately Tamil Nadu is forcibly resisting any effort to work towards Dam Safety by the renewed agreement of 1979. The earthquake measuring 2.1 on the Richter scale on Aug 18, 2006 was recorded with its epicentre barely 17 kilometres from the MullaPeriyarDam, leading to the conclusion that the MullaPeriyar dam is located in a seismic zone, and is not strong enough for tremors anymore.

The Revenue Minister of Kerala Mr. Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan has also commented on this burning issue to rid Tamil Nadu of its apprehension over the construction and operation of a new Dam, the Keralites are also willing to accept a third party intervention like the Supreme Court or the Prime Minister, but a new dam must be built. The Revenue Minister’s stand on letting millions of people live freely out of panic and their endeavour to continue with the friendly relationship with Tamil Nadu by amicably resolving this issue seems quite warm and reasonable. The MullaPeriyar dam under 62A of The Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006 was considered endangered on account of its age and structural deficiency to cater to the present water requirements of the two states. The act empowers the Kerala Dam Safety Authority to supervise safety of dams in the State and sec 62(e) empowers the Authority to direct the custodian of a dam- “to suspend the functioning of any dam, to decommission any dam or restrict the functioning of any dam if public safety or threat to human life or property, so require”.

Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had requested for central mediation between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on the MullaPeriyar issue, while the then opposition leader i.e., the present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu J. Jayalalithaa had objected to the TN Government move saying this would place Kerala in an advantageous position. As mentioned by N. K. Premachandran to the state Assembly, the State should have the right to construct, own, operate and maintain the new dam, while giving water to Tamil Nadu on the basis of a specific agreement.

What would happen if the MullaPeriyar dam collapses under the tremor of another massive earthquake high on the Richter scale?It would cause a disaster which is 180 times terrifying than that of Hiroshima.

1. The complete internet connectivity of India to the rest of the world would completely be destroyed and the e-government platform and all business operations would come to a dead stop.
2. The refineries at Cochin providing services to most of South India would be swept away.
3. There would be no TV, Internet, Mobile towers in Kerala if the Idukki hydroelectric power plant is washed away and Kerala would plunge back to a dark age.
4. The vast bio diversity in Periyar National Park would be washed out along with 3 million inhabitants, and Kerala would get geographically divided into two parts.
5. The world would lose the Port City of Cochin , and the entire South India would once again become dependent on Colombo for Mother ships with Cargo to arrive, adding to the cost of all the states.
6. Tamil Nadu would be deprived of water be it for drinking or irrigation, the entire purpose of constructing the dam being defeated.
7. The water current of the Periyar River would wash away enormous numbers of Industries, Factories, IT Parks, Hospitals, Ports, Cochin City, Temples, Mosques, Churches etc to the Arabian Ocean on its course.

The MullaPeriyar issue presently lies at the mercy of the five judge constitution bench Supreme Court headed by Justice DK Jain with the following issues:

1. Tamil Nadu’s demand for deployment of CISF (Central Industrial Security Force as a measure for avoiding “vandalism and damage to the dam”.
2. Tamil Nadu’s demand from Supreme Court for “restraining the Kerala Government and the politicians from spreading panic amongst the people concerning the safety of the dam as long as the issue is pending before the apex court”.
3. Kerala’s demand before the Supreme Court for “reducing the water level from 136 feet to 120 feet so that tremors don’t cause damage to the disputed dam”.
4. Kerala’s demand of razing and reconstructing this 116 years old dam which is on the verge of collapse in order to save the lives of over three million people in the five districts of Kerala namely – Idukki, Kottayam, Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Pathanamthitta.

Amidst all efforts of “amicable settlement” of the MullaPeriyar issue let us all hope and pray that the dam has enough life and stamina to sustain these human follies. Hence we earnestly request you to intervene in this issue and save Kerala and the entire South India.Let us all just cross our fingers and hope that Mother Nature does not bring out her wrath to take up a decisive role in resolving the Mullaperiyar Issue through an earthquake measuring high on the Richter Scale, at the cost of millions of human life.