‘Mullaperiyar is a water bomb waiting to explode’

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The 116-year-old Mullaperiyar dam spells a risk to 3.5 million lives in Kerala if high-intensity tremors were to strike the region. Unless the Centre takes concrete measures to improve the situation, disaster is waiting to happen. Talking to  Jeemon Jacob, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief  Ramesh Chennithala assesses the impending catastrophe

MPs from Kerala want a new structure to replace the 116-year-old Mullaperiyar Dam
Photo: SK Mohan

Why is the Mullaperiyar dam a threat to Kerala?
After heavy rainfall, the water level has risen above the 136 ft mark. The dam was built 116 years ago and may collapse if high-intensity tremors rock the region. Residents of Idukki, Kottayam, Alappuzha and Ernakulam districts are living in fear. The dam is leaking in many places and tremors have weakened it. No government can afford to sit idle when a water bomb is waiting to explode.

Ramesh Chennithala
Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief Ramesh Chennithala
Photo: T Mohan Das

What is the Congress party’s stand on the issue?
Not only the Congress, all political parties in Kerala are united on this issue. We want to build a new dam. We have made it clear that Kerala would provide water to Tamil Nadu from Mullaperiyar. We have no intention of blocking water. We just want to protect the lives and property of our people. This is our appeal to Tamil Nadu: Please allow us to build a new dam to save our people.

How can Kerala build a new dam without getting a nod from the Union environment ministry?
We have already made a submission before the ministry. I have personally spoken to Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan and briefed her about the volatile situation. I have requested all Union ministers from Kerala to make constant efforts to find an amicable settlement. But, the Centre can’t sit idle forever. I hope that it has taken note of the ground realities and would issue the clearance at the earliest. We are not requesting any favours but a constitutional obligation to save our people. When it comes to death, only survival matters.

Why is the Congress-led UPA government shying away from intervening in the issue?
The UPA government has limitations in intervening as the case was pending before the Supreme Court. The apex court had appointed an expert panel but it’s yet to submit its final report. So any intervention in the matter would have invited the wrath of the judiciary.

Is the Congress afraid of taking sides because of fears that it could weaken the party in Tamil Nadu?
The Mullaperiyar issue concerns 3.5 million people of Kerala. In such a situation, the Congress is least bothered about politics. If 3.5 million people die after the dam collapses, what will be the future of any party in Kerala?

Do you foresee any confrontation between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over the dam issue?
I don’t think so. The people of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have common roots and share common concerns. We have been living in harmony and peace for many centuries. We are constructing a dam not to trouble the people of Tamil Nadu. In fact, a large number of Tamil people are living in Idukki district. So linguistic differences don’t count on this issue.

If negotiations with Tamil Nadu fail, what will Kerala do?
Kerala could lower the water storage level to 120 ft. We may take it as an extreme step because we don’t have too many options before us. We will always look for means to protect our people’s lives. I visited Mullaperiyar just three days ago. The entire region is living in fear.

Do you have any alternative solutions?
I have already written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and leaders of all political parties seeking their help. We want an amicable settlement. I hope that Tamil Nadu will understand the gravity of the situation and help us resolve the issue. We have discussed alternative strategies but I can’t disclose them now.

Jeemon Jacob is Bureau Chief, South, with Tehelka.
jeemonj@gmail.com

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