Any dam has a life'

Print edition : December 30, 2011

Ramaswamy R. Iyer: The lease is patently absurd. - K.V. SRINIVASAN

Interview with Ramaswamy R. Iyer, former Secretary, Union Ministry of Water Resources.

THE controversy over the Mullaperiyar dam has acquired emotional overtones, with both Kerala and Tamil Nadu adopting intractable positions on the future of the dam. Is there a middle ground? In this interview, Ramaswamy R. Iyer, a well-known expert on inter-State water disputes, offers a sensible way out of the imbroglio.

As Secretary in the Union Ministry of Water Resources, Ramaswamy R. Iyer was the initiator and principal draftsman of India's first National Water Policy in 1987. After his retirement from government service, he was Research Professor at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, from 1990 to 1999, where he worked on water-related issues, particularly on cooperation in river water sharing by India, Nepal and Bangladesh. He continues in the CPR in an honorary capacity. He was a member of two high-level committees set up by the Government of India to review the environmental and displacement/rehabilitation aspects of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project (1993-95) and the Tehri Hydroelectric Project (1996-97).

You have been saying that the 19th century agreement on Mullaperiyar was not fair to Kerala. Can you explain?

I am saying that there has been a very strong sense of unfairness and grievance in Kerala and that this must be understood. That strong feeling of grievance exists even now. That is at the root of the present crisis. It is not so much about safety, water and so on. It is essentially that Kerala feels that it has been unfairly treated. This is very similar to Nepal's feeling about the Kosi and Gandak agreements with India.

Of course, one might say that it was an example of inter-State cooperation. It was indeed a remarkable instance of inter-State cooperation. It must be noted that unlike the Cauvery case, where both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are riparian States, Tamil Nadu is not a riparian in the Mullaperiyar case.

Even now, Kerala is not saying that it will stop giving water to Tamil Nadu. Kerala is not against the project per se. It only feels that the terms are unfair. What it is now saying is that it will rebuild the dam and continue to give water. So long as the old dam exists, it is covered by the old treaty. If it builds a new dam, that will not be covered by the old treaty. That is perhaps one reason why Kerala wants to build a new dam, because a new agreement will have to be negotiated.

Was there an option for Kerala to review the 19th century agreement earlier?

It was almost an agreement in perpetuity. Kerala cannot unilaterally abrogate it. Kerala did get the lease rent revised in 1970. It was a fairly good revision, but did not go far enough. Kerala could perhaps have secured a more comprehensive revision.

What is not clear to me is why, in 1886, Travancore signed an agreement that seemed so unfair, why in 1970 Kerala did not insist on a more drastic revision, and why Kerala signed the Parambikulam Aliyar agreement, which also it is now not very happy about.

In Mullaperiyar, when the agreement was reached, the project was intended to benefit water-short districts in the then Madras Presidency. Did the people concerned ever consider what other possibilities existed to meet their water requirements? I don't think any options were considered.

At that time, the new engineering had come in, and thinking was essentially in terms of building dams, diverting rivers, and so on. That kind of thinking has been continuing for the past 100 years and more.

The present argument is about safety. Tamil Nadu may say that the dam is safe, but Kerala doesn't feel safe, and people downstream of the dam live in constant fear of what might happen if there is a dam-burst. It may be an exaggerated fear, but it is real. Their point is that if the damage does occur, Kerala is going to bear the brunt, not Tamil Nadu.

Technical committees might say the dam is safe, but it is 116 years old. Any dam has a life. Usually people say a dam has a life of 100 years. If so, this dam is nearing the end of its useful life. Maybe you can do some engineering work here and there, and strengthen it a bit, and we can give it a slightly longer lease of life. Maybe five years or 10 years more. My point is: what happens at the end of that period? After all, it cannot last for ever. Nothing man-made lasts for ever. Therefore, we must prepare ourselves to phase it out gradually. I am not saying, shut it down tomorrow. Whether Tamil Nadu has riparian rights or not, it has been using these waters for 100 years. That supply cannot be stopped suddenly. I am only saying: Prepare yourselves for a gradual phasing out of this supply.

The full water level is 142 feet. For safety reasons, Kerala does not want to go beyond 136 feet. Is it not possible for Tamil Nadu to manage with the existing flow of water? Is it making optimum use of the available water?

Kerala wants the water level to be brought down to 120 feet.

Perhaps this is part of an argument. Perhaps this can be negotiated. Each State is taking an extreme position.

Is continuance with the status quo the right solution?

JUSTICE A.S.ANAND, Chairman of the Empowered Committee, at the dam site in December 2010.-H.VIBHU

In the first place, this project should never have been built. It is a horrendous intervention in nature. Nobody ever did an environmental impact assessment in those days as it was not the practice then. Nobody considered what harm would be done by the intervention. Today, such a project would not be approved. If it is a new project coming for environmental clearance, it will not get it. It will be a case of Silent Valley. It will be rejected. But it exists. We cannot rewrite history. However, now that the dam is 116 years old, we can start thinking of phasing it out. That means giving people time to get adjusted to this idea and seek alternative sources of economic activity, and perhaps a different pattern of development that does not require so much water. It might well be a more modest but sustainable kind of development.

Are there any precedents for this of people being told to look for alternative livelihoods?

In the United States, dams that have outlived their utility are being decommissioned, and this does involve adjustments on the part of the erstwhile beneficiaries. We have not reached that stage yet in most cases. In Australia, in a part of the Snowy river, natural flows are being restored. And the farmers have agreed to it. There was a tremendous movement for restoring the natural flows of the river at the cost of existing users.

A whole way of life has sprung up in Tamil Nadu as a result of the Mullaperiyar waters. We cannot disrupt that. At the present moment, the least you can do is not to ask for more water, but manage with the available water. If you are efficient in your water use, then I am sure your way of life need not be disrupted even with the availability at 136 feet. If the idea is to reduce the level to 120 feet, then one has to see what the consequences would be. That is something which has to be examined and negotiated.

So my answer is, don't take risks even if you feel that the dam is quite safe. Whatever the expert committee might certify [about safety], you cannot change the feelings of the people. People do feel frightened. The governments might be playing politics, but people do feel a sense of real fear. The earthquakes registered in the Mullaperiyar area might not be serious. But the point is that people feel frightened. We must recognise that fear. After all, Kerala provided water to Tamil Nadu, and the latter must be considerate towards the former.

Accept the fact that the dam is not going to be permanent. Explore alternative means of supporting the livelihoods of people who will be affected by the phasing out of the dam.

Look at Cauvery. Originally, out of the 670 thousand million cubic (tmc) feet of water estimated at that time, 480 was being used by Tamil Nadu. But that couldn't last for ever. Eventually, when Karnataka started using more water, the water availability to Tamil Nadu declined. And today, even the Tamil Nadu farmers do not expect the old historic flows to be maintained. They are willing to accept that it will be reduced. But they want a reasonable flow and an assurance that it will be maintained. They know they have to adjust to that change. Similarly, people in the Vaigai areas should prepare themselves for changes and consider alternative possibilities.

Do you mean to say that no new dam should be built?

We committed a folly 100 years ago. That is history. Don't repeat that folly now.

Why do you say that the dam is not advisable?

A river is a natural system. It is an ecological system. Aquatic life depends on it. Nobody considered these aspects in 1886. Today it is impossible to tell what harm was done to the environment or to wildlife. Let us not repeat that mistake. Let the water flow in its natural course. Don't twist, turn or bend rivers as if they are pipelines.

Kerala is suggesting the construction of a new dam, from which it would provide water to Tamil Nadu. Is it practical?

I would say: don't build the new dam. It follows, therefore, that this dam must continue for some time. It can only be phased out over a period of time. Meanwhile, whatever the Supreme Court-appointed Empowered Committee suggests by way of strengthening must be done. Maybe it will operate for 10 more years. But prepare for the eventual end.

What I am suggesting is nothing novel. Whether it is Mullaperiyar or Bhakra-Nangal or Mettur, no structure is permanent. Assuming that 100 years is a reasonable lifespan for a dam, you must then start preparing for its phasing out.

Despite the knowledge that no dam could be useful beyond 100 years, why should historical agreements like this (leasing out for 999 years) be legally valid?

The lease is patently absurd. Whole kingdoms and civilisations would have changed in 999 years.

Kerala is willing to give water to Tamil Nadu but is only concerned about safety

No, they [Kerala] are very angry about the agreements on Mullaperiyar and Parambikulam Aliyar. They feel that both are extremely unfair to Kerala. At the bottom, it is not just safety. It is the feeling of exploitation and unfairness.

The Central Water Commission (CWC) has certified that the dam is safe and the Supreme Court in its 2006 judgment has permitted Tamil Nadu to raise the water level to 142 feet, based on the CWC's findings.

The CWC engineers might look at it from purely the engineering point of view and say that the structure is safe. They might tell you that they can keep it alive indefinitely by restructuring and repairs. Theoretically, one might argue that anything can be kept going for ever. Just go on repairing and re-building. But is it the right thing to do?

On Mullaperiyar, Tamil Nadu might say they are ready to spend to make it continue.

It is not just a question of cost. In this case, a west-flowing river has been partly turned around, to flow eastwards. This kind of engineering is bad in principle. We must learn to live with nature, not twist and turn nature around. If you don't see the force of that argument, I have nothing left to say.

Whatever we do will of course have some impact on the environment, but by and large, we must learn to live in harmony with nature. Otherwise, we must face the consequences. What is the debate on global warming and climate change? We went far beyond what nature would allow us. We raided nature far beyond its capacity to sustain and regenerate itself.

In a small way, Mullaperiyar is an example. We cannot avoid interference with nature, but we can minimise it. Mullaperiyar is a major intervention, a change in the direction of the river, which we don't see in all projects.

Can the Supreme Court render justice in this case?

Is dam safety a matter for the judiciary? They should have said it is not their subject. It is not a question of law. For instance, the Supreme Court's judgment in the Narmada case in 2000 says positive things about dams. The court had no business to say those things. They are merely opinions, and cannot be judicial decisions.

Can Kerala reverse the Supreme Court order of February 2006 permitting Tamil Nadu to increase the water level by enacting a law? The court is currently hearing an appeal by Tamil Nadu challenging this law.

No, they can't [enact such a law] even if the Supreme Court says something wrong.

Do you mean to say that the Empowered Committee should have no role to play in this case?

If Kerala says it doesn't feel safe, the Supreme Court cannot say you shall feel safe. By constituting an Empowered Committee to consider this issue, the Supreme Court has virtually become an administrative body. Supposing this committee says that the dam is safe, and another expert committee appointed by the Kerala government says that it is not, can the Supreme Court give a ruling on which of these two committees is right?

You know what happened with Tehri when there was a question of earthquakes. The Government of India set up four expert committees successively to inquire into the safety aspect. All four of them gave divided reports. Can the Supreme Court say that it agrees with one opinion rather than another?

Let the precautionary principle apply. Let Tamil Nadu and Kerala set up a joint committee and reach a mutual agreement. This is essentially a matter for settlement by amicable agreement, not judicial determination.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor