Verdict on Mullaperiyar

Published : Mar 24, 2006 00:00 IST

IT was a bitter pill that the Supreme Court prescribed for Kerala on February 27 by ordering it to allow Tamil Nadu to raise the maximum storage level of the 111-year-old Mullaperiyar dam from 136 feet to 142 feet. In effect, the court sanctioned the diversion of more water to Tamil Nadu from the Mullaperiyar, a river that originates and ends in Kerala, but had been, by a quirk of history, hogged by Tamil Nadu ever since its remarkable trans-basin diversion (through the construction of a masonry dam, a tunnel and a canal cut through the watershed) by the British rulers of India in 1895.

Surely, if vast stretches of the Theni, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts of the arid rain-shadow region of Tamil Nadu look as green and fertile as the rain-fed districts across the Western Ghats border in Kerala, the credit goes to the effective utilisation of the waters from the dam by the farmers there, on the strength of a lease deed that the British forced the then princely state of Travancore (now part of Kerala) to sign in 1886.

Until Independence, the lease agreement gave the British the right to divert "all the waters" of the Mullaperiyar and its catchment to British territory (the Madras Presidency, now Tamil Nadu) for 999 years. Tamil Nadu continued to use the waters of the Mullaperiyar after Independence for extending irrigation facilities and, from 1959 onwards, also for power generation, on the basis of informal agreements between the governments of the two States.

In May 1970, the two States signed a formal agreement to renew almost completely the 1886 lease agreement. Surprisingly, no concern was expressed in Kerala that Tamil Nadu was given legal rights once again without a proper assessment of future requirements of the Periyar waters within Kerala itself. When Kerala began to experience extended spells of acute water scarcity and power shortages from the early 1980s and found that its newly-built hydro-electric project at Idukki, 50 km downstream, did not get enough water from the Mullaperiyar to work at full capacity, the State began to realise as its "blunder."

By 1979, when leaks were detected in the masonry dam, there was a virtual scare in Kerala about a dam burst affecting several districts downstream. The question of the safety of the dam became another dominant factor in the dispute over Mullaperiyar. A Central Water Commission inquiry team suggested that the water level be lowered to 136 feet (from 142.20 ft at that time) in order to facilitate work on strengthening the dam, which would be carried out in three stages. After the completion of the work, the water level could be raised to the full reservoir level (FRL) of 152 ft.

Kerala found the safety issue to be its only tool against Tamil Nadu. It argued that the measures to strengthen the dam only made it safe at 136 ft and that "on no account" should the level be raised any further.

In 2000, when Kerala began questioning the very legality of the original lease deed, the Tamil Nadu government announced that it would approach the Supreme Court for a solution ("Over to the Supreme Court",' Frontline, Novermber 28, 2000). The petitions to the Supreme Court provided an opportunity for the Central government to intervene in the dispute, as the apex court had asked it initially to seek a consensus solution.

Kerala had since been complaining that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, then in control at the Centre, found in the cCourt's direction an opportunity to intervene in a manner that favoured Tamil Nadu (which was then ruled by an NDA-constituent, the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam) by constituting the technical committee "in such a manner as to ensure that only the Kerala representative would support the Kerala government's arguments." The report of the committee submitted to the court in February 2001, which favoured Tamil Nadu's demand for raising the reservoir level, became the basis of the court's recent decision.

While there was no overt jubilation in Tamil Nadu over the court's decision, political parties in Kerala displayed a rare unity in condemning it. An all-party meeting in Kochi decided to convene an unprecedented two-day exclusive session of the Kerala Assembly on March 14 to amend a 2003 State law on dam safety to counter effectively Tamil Nadu's efforts to draw more water from the Mullaperiyar.

"Kerala is not against giving water to Tamil Nadu. But the State cannot overlook the safety of its people," Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said.

The dam that once transformed the lives of farmers in Tamil Nadu in a region once known for recurring droughts, famines and mass migrations (to Sri Lanka) will now have to face the heat of yet another volatile election campaign before leaders on both sides seek a temporary truce once again.

R. Krishnakumar
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