Around 60 years have been passed, but still, the Tamil Nadu-controlled Mullaperiyar Dam continues to be the contention between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. At one end there is the question of the threat which the dam poses owing to its age, weak structure ecological and seismological vulnerability to the lives of people, and economic loss, and on the other side, there is a need to sustain the lives of the people whose livelihood and welfare depends on the dam. The Mullaperiyar dam as warned by geologists and ecologists is a time tickling bomb waiting to explode and wreak havoc around it thus becoming a major economic threat to the state of Kerela. Time and Again the argument is raised to decommission the dam which is caught between interstate political disputes but all efforts are landing in vain.
The Mullaperiyar dam situated on the Periyar river traces its history back to 1886 when a 999 lease agreement was signed between Vishaakam Thirunla Rama Verma – Maharaja of Travancore (Present-day Kerala) and the British Secretary of State of Madras Constituency for giving nearly 8000 acres of land situated 155 feet above the Periyar river and another 100 acres of land given to Madras Constituency. In 1959 the Tamil Nadu Government started using the dam waters for power generation and later a hydel power project was commissioned.
Safety concerns started arising in the year 1961 by Kerala after heavy floods gave way in the region. Although the dam is situated in Kerala, Tamil Nadu continues to drive water from the dam for its drought-prone areas of Theni, Madurai, Dindigul, Sivagangai, and Ramanathapuram districts under the lease agreement.
The contention of the dispute is not the water sharing agreement but the environmental and livelihood risk the dam poses. For how long can we rejuvenate the dam and push the destruction coming in our way despite knowing that the dam has overly surpassed its operational years and the destruction it posses which in the worst-case scenario will be beyond our control in case the dam collapses? The restoration of lives and economic loss then probably will be much higher than decommissioning the dam and building a new dam.
A TIMELINE OF THE VARIOUS DEVELOPMENTS IN THE MULLAPERIYAR DAM CRISIS
The consensuses among the public and scientists over the seismic vulnerability have strained Kerala-Tamil Nadu’s relations since the year 2000. The dam is built with lime surkhi mortar and bricks which has no provision of withstanding in case an earthquake of magnitude of above six is struck in the future. The dam is getting weaker and has developed cracks and leakages in it.
The Tamil Nadu government insisted to raise the water level to 142 feet pointing to outcrop failures, the demand which was greatly acknowledged by a three-member division bench in 2006 provided after completion of proposed strengthening measures, provision of other additional vents, and other implementation measures.
The Kerala Government is opposed to the verdict of the Supreme Court enacted the ‘Dam Crisis Act’ against raising the storage level above 136 feet. The Act though not objected to by the Supreme Court but was opposed by the Tamil Nadu Government on various grounds. The Supreme Court said the act was not unconstitutional. It asks the States to amicably solve the matter.
On 18 February 2010, the Supreme Court constituted a five-member empowered committee to study all the issues of Mullaperiyarr Dam and report it within six months. Tamil Nadu contended that it is not interested in adjudicating the dispute with Kerala before the committee but its plea was rejected by the Court. In 2012, in the report submitted the dam is reported to be hydrologically, seismologically, and structurally safe and it’s viable to raise the water level to 142 feet.
The Kerala Irrigation and Water conservation (Amendment) Act 2006 enacted by Kerala Government empowered it to take safety measures against endangered dams in the state, listed in the second schedule of Section 62-A the Mullaperiyar Dam being included under the list. The list contains the details of the dam which are endangered owing to their age, degeneration, or structural or any other impediments. The Act also empowers the Kerala Dam Safety Authority to restrict, decommission or suspend any dam which poses a threat to human life and safety. The Ministry of Environment and Forests of the Government of India also granted clearance to Kerala for conducting any new dam downstream survey. However, this act and clearance doesn’t go well with Tamil Nadu Government which objected to it in the Supreme Court but its plea got rejected.
In 2014, in its final judgment, the Supreme Court has formulated certain criteria for the future construction of a new dam downstream and the Mullaperiyar dam crisis to be solved amicably before the empowered committee.
WHERE IS THE KERELA GOVERNMENT FAILING?
Despite the safety arguments raised by the government, it has not been able to convince the Supreme Court on its plea of decommissioning of the dam and the hazard it possesses. Various reasons constitute for this such as:
- The Government to date has not conducted any proper scientific study back with up various advanced equipment.
- Various studies conducted have no uniform inputs because of which the results vary from study to study.
- No device was installed to prove that the dam is structurally weak.
- The Government contends that the area is seismologically weak has it ever installed seismographs to study the possibility of earthquakes in that area?
- There are also scanty of earthquakes reported in south India thus the possibility that the dam can collapse because of earthquakes, the happening of it seems unlikely or even negligible.
WHAT DOES THE UNITED NATIONS SURVEY SAY?
According to the United Nations, the Mullaperiyar Dam has outlived its life. The report titled “’An Emerging Global Risk” by the UN University Institute for Water, Environment and Health warn about the likely failure of the dam and the threat being posed to the environment and the 3.5 million people living in the Idukki region.
The dam was being built in a landslide area in 1895. In 2011 after an earthquake of magnitude 3.2 on the Richter scale the water level rose to 136 feet, which is much larger than its capacity. The report further emphasized that it was being built with old technology and leakages, seismic disturbances, and floods were also observed.
The study state that the average life of a dam is around 50 years. India is one of the three major countries having a significant number of large dams. India has around 209 dams which are already more than 100 years old. The study, as an illustration, cited the Machchu II dam failure in Gujarat state, 20 years after it was commissioned collapsed because it got filled up four times its capacity, resulting in killing around 15000 people and destruction of the low lying industrial town.
IMAGINE THE WORST CASE: WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF THE DAM COLLAPSES?
35 Lakh people are likely going to affect if the dam collapses. The collapse is likely going to wash away a stretch of about 25 km between Mullaperiyar and Idukki dam affecting around 0.1 million people. If the water under high pressure from the dam overflows the Idukki dam which is situated near it, the havoc it will wreak will be beyond human imagination and control. Millions of Settlements will be destroyed, the economic loss will cost billions, and the recovery and storage of economic settlements will take a long time. The districts of Ernakulum, Alapuzha, and Pathanamthitta will be destroyed along the lower regions.
Given the heavy to very heavy rains, Kerala receives, there is always a fear of dam overflowing, the Kerala Government requests the Tamil Nadu Government to open the shutter to flow extra water towards its regions and store it. However the dispute didn’t end there, The Kerala Government has asked Tamil Nadu to not open the shutters at night as its sudden outburst poses a danger to the Idukki reservoir. The Supreme Court has suggested that the water limit should be 139.5 by November 10. The Tamil Nadu Government accuses the Kerala Government of playing games as it doesn’t permit to raise the water level at 142 feet as directed by the Supreme Court during the 2012 judgment.
Notwithstanding the warning posed by the UN regarding the vulnerability of the dam is a lackadaisical attitude of the Tamil Nadu Government to the threat it poses. The Tamil Nadu Government by not cooperating is merely fulfilling its political interests rather than social interest. There is a need for the commissioning of a new dam The maintenance of the dam today maybe only 25000 thousand but if it collapses its restoration will go in Crores or Billions. Forgoing your interest and seeing the well-being of the Idukki residents is the need of the hour.
Author’s Name: Himanshi Garg (University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh)
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