Damned if you do, damned if you don’t


As politicians from Kerala and Tamil Nadu spar, people living near the Mullaperiyar dam are afraid that the 116-year-old colonial structure will wash their lives away. Rohini Mohan & Jeemon Jacob report

Residents of Idukki district protest for building a new dam
Out with the old Residents of Idukki district protest for building a new dam
Photo: Basith Hassan

IN VALLAKADAVU of Idukki district in Kerala, P Rajamani, 52, lives in fear. The Mullaperiyar dam looms just seven km away, and Rajamani believes it will not be too long before it bursts upon his village and his home. Through hunger strikes, hartals and protests, thousands have been declaring that the dam could collapse. That the dam, which stands on the Periyar river, is 116 years old, ridden with cracks and fissures, and that the four districts around it are prone to tremors and earthquakes. Added up, they have been sounding the alarm about a possible dam breach that could wash away the entire 28 km from Mullaperiyar to Idukki.

Tense Pitchamuthu’s house will be washed away if the dam breaches
Photo: Basith Hassan

Rajamani’s family has been long associated with the Mullaperiyar dam; his Tamilian grandfather moved to Idukki in the late 1800s to work on its construction. Supervised by the British Army Engineering Corps, his grandfather built it with limestone and surkhi, a combination of materials that was popular in the 19th century. It is the same limestone-surkhi structure that stands today, several feet shorter, slightly more concretised and buffed with a younger hydel power generating station and three ‘baby’ dams. Rajamani is not sure it will stand too long. “All our discussions are based only on one topic — dam disaster. We are experiencing real hell for the past one month,” says Rajamani.

In the past few weeks, the lurking fear has come to the fore in a flurry of politics. Protests are growing stronger, perhaps in reaction to the worrying tremors in July that reminded residents of the possible scale of damage, or perhaps in recognition of a political moment that offers a rare opportunity for overdue action. As the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the PMO are roped in to mediate, it is clear that this is a culmination of a century of interstate mistrust and several legal battles.

Today, the Kerala government demands that the dam be decommissioned. It wants it to be built anew, because the residents in its vicinity are not safe. But the Tamil Nadu government, which has legal rights over the dam, argues that this will rob its farmers in the neighbouring districts of water. And they suspect foul play. “Kerala is making emotional grounds to deny water to Tamil Nadu,” says Mahendran, an AIADMK leader in the dam’s Lower Camp in Tamil Nadu. “The moment they construct the new dam, the lease agreement will be null and void, which helps Kerala to take over control of the dam.”

Photo: Rajesh Rajendran

The tension is indeed rooted in the ‘lease agreement’ that Mahendran refers to. Signed by the Maharaja of Travancore in the 1800s, it allows a dam to be built in Kerala to divert the Periyar river in such a way that it irrigates dry districts of Tamil Nadu. In a delta where 41 rivers run westwards (Arabian Seawards) into Kerala and only three run east into Tamil Nadu (towards the Bay of Bengal), the Mullaperiyar dam turns the Periyar river eastwards, serving farmers in Madurai, Theni, Ramanathapuram and Sivaganga. The lease was meant to last 999 years, but expired after Independence. After several failed attempts, it was revalidated in 1970 by the states, stating that the dam will stand in Kerala, but the electricity generated, and water diverted belongs to Tamil Nadu. In exchange for all this, Tamil Nadu has been paying Kerala a mere Rs 10 lakh annually. Water activist Himanshu Thakkar calls it an essentially unequal agreement where the risk falls entirely on the benefactor.

PROTESTS WERE always voiced in Kerala about utilising the waters of what is geographically its own river. On the other hand, the issue inflames passions and political manoeuvring in Tamil Nadu. Over the years, the states have made no headway through talks. A meeting between the chief ministers of the two states held in Thiruvananthapuram on 5 April 2000 ended in deadlock. The late EK Nayanar and M Karunanidhi merely read out statements.

The problem acquired a new dimension in 1979, when leaks were detected in the Raj-era Mullaperiyar dam

The problem acquired a new dimension in 1979, when leaks were detected in the Periyar dam, causing concern in Kerala about its safety. The panic was heightened the same year by the bursting of the Morvi dam in Gujarat, which killed around 20,000 people. A CWC team studied the Mullaperiyar dam then. It “found no danger”, but, “as a matter of abundant precaution” recommended the lowering of the reservoir water level to 136 ft (from 142 ft then), until the dam was strengthened. For any work on the dam, however, Kerala would need Tamil Nadu’s nod. Despite requests and reminders from the CWC in 1979, the Tamil Nadu government dilly-dallied on queries about strengthening the dam.

The 116-year-old simmering issue has come to a boil today because of mounting pressures in the past decade.

By the mid-1990s, Tamil Nadu’s needs of irrigation, drinking water supply and power generation had grown exponentially. The gross cultivated area in the Periyar-Vaigai basin expanded by around 45,000 acres in 1995. This meant a leap in water required for irrigation, and a growing water scarcity in the four districts. In a few years, the Tamil Nadu government filed a petition asking court direction to raise the dam’s storage level to 152 ft, so that more water could be diverted.

Environment activists (the area near Idukki is a biodiversity hotspot) and the Kerala government explained their security concerns, while a Centre-appointed committee submitted that these were baseless. The Supreme Court eventually directed Kerala to raise the dam to 142 ft.

There might be truth in Tamil Nadu’s allegation that Kerala’s politicians are using the safety issue to avoid raising the dam’s height. But it is also true that Tamil Nadu does not face the consequences of a breach. And the possibility of one is not as remote as it may seem. The dam has outlived its expected life span of 50 years. None of the attempts to monitor the dam’s safety and strengthening mechanisms — through the World Bank and the Parliamentary Standing Committee dam safety programme in the late ’90s, or through the CWC orders — have been completed.

“The only party supporting the Tamil Nadu government in raising the dam is the CWC, which has a terrible track record of ensuring dam safety,” says Thakkar. He quotes a CAG report, which showed how a shoddy safety programme on the 118-yearold Jaswant Sagar dam in Rajasthan spent lakhs on decorative purposes. In July 2007, this dam too breached.

‘Our demand for a new dam is not to save Malayalis alone,’ says Kerala Water Resources Minister PJ Joseph

The Mullaperiyar controversy, despite its moorings in inter-state bickering and rivalries, represents a nationwide issue. Our dams — reliable estimates say more than 500 of them — are too old. Built largely during the Raj, or around Independence, they are unsafe, and underproductive. Latha Anantha of Kerala-based River Research Centre says there have been sporadic instances of dam breaches, but each kills at least 10,000 people and wipes out wide stretches of farmland.

But India is yet to have clearly defined, legally binding accountability mechanism in case of dam failures. The dam Safety Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha in August 2010, but it is yet to be discussed. Unsurprisingly, several Tamil Nadu politicians opposed the Bill, claiming it would harm the state’s interests. This, despite the fact that the Bill has no clause for accountability and penalty in case of a dam failure, and does not compensate victims.

Kerala’s Water Resources Minister PJ Joseph, who has been on a fast during the demonstrations in Kerala, believes that it’s time to build a national consensus over the safety of dams. “Otherwise, we will be inviting a disaster at our doorstep,” he says. “It’s the responsibility of both the Centre and state governments to protect the lives of the people.”

“The situation in Mullaperiyar is volatile. I have briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Water Resources Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal about the gravity of the situation. I have appealed to all political leaders, including Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa, to understand the issue from a humanitarian point of view and help us resolve it. The entire state is worried about the dam. We have no choice but to construct a new dam to avoid a manmade disaster,” says Joseph.

Regional violence is now taking over in the border districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but Joseph points out that “around 60 percent” of the population in Idukki are Tamils. “Our demand for a new dam is not to save Malayalis alone. Linguistic origin or colour of your skin does not count when a disaster is waiting to happen.”

Rohini Mohan is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.

Jeemon Jacob is Chief of Bureau, South with Tehelka.


Q&A Himanshu Thakkar, Water Activist

‘Politics is fuelling animosity on the ground’

Himanshu Thakkar is coordinator of the South Asia Network on dams, Rivers & People, edits a magazine dams, Rivers & People and has been working on waterrelated issues for more than two decades. In a candid chat with Baba Umar, Thakkar explains why Kerala has every right to built a new dam on the Mullaperiyar.

Himanshu Thakkar
Himanshu Thakkar, Water Activist

Excerpts From An Interview

Is there a way to solve the Mullaperiyar issue?
Sooner or later, a decision will have to be taken about decommissioning the Mullaperiyar dam. Water is a state subject and all states are free to take up any water project, build dams or decommission them. The dam is in Kerala and if it breaches, it will affect 75,000 people in the downstream area of Idduki. If the Idduki dam is also breached, the number will cross 3.5 million people. It is the constitutional duty of Kerala to ensure the safety of its people by decommissioning the dam.

Decommissioning will also mean the end of the lease agreement signed between Madras Presidency and the state of Travancore in 1886.
The safety of the people should be the top priority. No one can constitutionally stop the Kerala government from protecting its people. Look at any state; no one is ready to give water to another state even if it is a co-basin state. In this case, Tamil Nadu doesn’t share the basin. The entire catchment is in Kerala. So constitutionally and hydrologically, the water belongs to Kerala. It’s Kerala’s magnanimity that it’s sharing water with Tamil Nadu without questioning the lease agreement of 1886 that Travancore was pressured to sign.

Decommissioning and building a new dam would require both states to sign a new agreement. Wouldn’t it harm Tamil Nadu’s interests, which is paying a mere Rs 10 lakh for taxes on the leased 8,000 acres, price of water and surcharge on the electricity?
If Tamil Nadu agrees, it will require a new agreement. What needs to be done is decommission the dam, rebuild it at the same place and meanwhile erect an alternative diversion structure that would continue to feed water to villages in Tamil Nadu.

Do we have a history of decommissioning of dams? 
Yes, we have many instances. For example, a dam on the Yamuna in Delhi was decommissioned and rebuilt. In Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Punjab, dams were decommissioned and reconstructed.

What is the role of the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Water Resource Ministry? 
Frankly, both are lobbying for big dams. They fear if they start decommissioning the dam, similar demands will follow. Despite case studies done by IIT-Roorkee, IIT-Delhi and other agencies warning of risks posed by the 116-year-old Mullaperiyar dam, neither CWC nor the ministry are bothered.

Are you questioning CWC’s credibility?
Its poor track record speaks for itself. In early 90’s, the World Bank started the dam Safety Project under CWC’s supervision in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu. In its 2000 report, the bank said that the CWC was not pro-active in dam safety measures. Tamil Nadu was criticised for its poor management of the Mullaperiyar dam and was chucked out of the project. Similarly, the 118-year-old Jaswant Sagar dam in Rajasthan, which collapsed in July 2007, was under CWC’s supervision. Unfortunately, CWC members, who are part of the recently SC-nominated team on the current issue, are part of the same lobby that is pushing for big dams.

Without a dam safety Act, things can’t be smooth.
CWC should be blamed for it as well. Recently, the Parliament Standing Committee blasted CWC for taking 25 years to draft a dam safety Bill. When the Bill was tabled, the Committee ridiculed the Commission for producing a ‘toothless’ Bill that doesn’t mention any penalty for violation of the Act and compensation to victims during disasters. We have 128 dams that are more than 100 years old. Another 476 dams have crossed the 50-year mark. Besides, ages of 202 dams are not known.

Tamil Nadu has taken a tough stance. It wants CISF personnel to be deployed at the dam site. 
Dirty politics is pitting the people of Kerala against their compatriots in Tamil Nadu, who are otherwise very close to each other. This dispute shouldn’t be allowed to impact people-to-people relations. But politics is fuelling animosity on the ground.

Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa citing the example of Grand Anicut dam on the Cauvery has said that ‘the 1,900-year-old dam is still safe in Tamil Nadu’ and doubting Mullaperiyar’s saftety is ‘sheer ignorance’. 
How can Jayalalithaa compare a 1,900-year-old dam with the 116-year-old structure? Unlike the Mullaperiyar dam, the water from Grand Anicut dam ends up in a delta. If the dam is breached, I don’t think anyone will die. If the Mullaperiyar dam—which is made of lime and surkhi—is breached, it will hit almost 3.5 million people. dams posing threat should be decommissioned.

Are you against building of big dams? 
No, I am not. But when you build a big dam, it is like a ticking time bomb. If you don’t maintain or operate it properly, it can cause massive destruction in downstream areas. A dam that doesn’t follow the World Commission on dams guidelines is a big problem. Unfortunately, not a single dam in India follows these guidelines.

Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.

(Tamil Nadu spells the dam with an ‘i’, as ‘Mullaiperiyar’, while Kerala uses ‘Mullaperiyar’. This article uses the Ministry of Water Resources spelling of the dam.)



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