Mullaperiyar Dam: A Standing Legacy Of Never-Ending Water Wars In India

Posted on July 1, 2014 in Specials

By Arati Nair:

The aftermath of the general elections has reiterated the skewed set-up prevalent in segments of socio-economic interest in India, brought forth through the pyrotechnics of the newly elected power-centres. The stagnation in agriculture, particularly the failure to device a holistic solution to the crying irrigational needs, is on the forefront. The dearth of political and administrative wherewithal, coupled with the noose of red-tapeism should have long driven the obsolete irrigation techniques into oblivion. Thankfully, a stable river system and an infallible monsoonal climate have prevented the complete decimation of agriculture in India.

mullaperiyar dam

It is in this context that the burning issue of river-water sharing gains pertinence. Of the scores of rivers, tributaries and distributaries in the country, many are caught in the imbroglio of disputes between neighbouring states. As per the current data of the Ministry of Water Resources, there are 44 medium rivers in India of which nine are inter-state. Thus, conflicting interests are bound to give rise to issues that may even warrant the need for separate tribunals to address the same. The latest in the series has been the scarcely discussed problem of the 119-year old dam, Mullaperiyar. A bone of contention between the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Mullaperiyar is yet again in news, though overlooked in the national mainstream media. The recent Supreme Court directive to raise the water level in the dam to 142 feet has put to rest a long drawn legal battle. However, the implications of the verdict for both sides will further fan the flames of bitterness.

The Mullaperiyar dam was constructed on the Periyar river between 1887 and 1895 by the British government on the Cardamom Hills in Thekkady, Kerala. On 29 October 1886, a lease contract for 999 years was made between the British Secretary of State for India for Periyar Irrigation Works and the then Maharaja of Travancore, Visakham Thirunal Rama Varma. Post independence, though all treaties in the name of the colonial government and princely states have been nullified, the agreement regarding Mullaperiyar Dam is still mostly valid, save for few changes incorporating the needs of the present day for both parties. The catchment area of the dam is entirely situated in Kerala, but the dam itself is maintained by the Tamil Nadu state. It was initially constructed to redirect the flow of Periyar towards the Madras presidency, a crucial administrative centre of the British. The legacy of more than a century thus continues even after the collapse of the colonial empire.

The dam provides water for irrigation, drinking and even power generation to almost four prime districts of Tamil Nadu, including Madurai, covering almost three lac acres. It has manifested into the pulse that drives the economy of the mostly agrarian society in the southern parts of the state, chiefly because of the increase in demand for water in newly irrigated regions. Statistics put forth by the Tamil Nadu government claim that loss of almost a whopping 40,000 crore rupees was incurred by the state due to crop failure on lowering the water level in the dam to 136 feet in 1978-79. The loopholes and unfairness of a primordial arrangement have been overlooked in the face of an existential crisis for the region. Raising the level of water in the dam to 142 feet might help overcome crop failure in the drought-prone region and marginally solve the problems of water scarcity at large in Tamil Nadu.

In contrast to this, the picture on the other side is not quite rosy. Increasing the level of water will lead to submergence of large tracts of agricultural lands in Kerala in the event of dam collapse. Idukki, the downstream district where the dam is located will drown along with the Thekkady wildlife reserve. The increased frequency of earthquakes in the region and washing away of surki (construction material used in the dam) leading to leaks have further exacerbated the problem. Local people have continuously agitated against the lackadaisical attitude of the government towards their safety. They have now turned a deaf ear to the hollow claims of security propagated by Tamil Nadu to safeguard its own interests. Kerala has even offered to construct a new dam after decommissioning the existing one and bear the entire expense – a desperate measure to ensure safety of its own people. The adamant refusal by Tamil Nadu is not only unreasonable, but also a stand that could worsen ties between the neighbours.

The failure of the Kerala government to highlight its plight before the Supreme Court is also one of the major factors that has paved way for the present situation. A mutual compromise is the need of the hour. Neither can one overlook the pertinent livelihood needs nor defer the demands for personal safety raised by the other. Additionally, policies and measures to reduce the dependence of Tamil Nadu on the resources of another state to drive its economy need to be devised. Equally significant will be the steps undertaken by Kerala to continue to provide water to a neighbour, considering the role of lifeline that Mullaperiyar continues to play for Tamil Nadu.  A dam constructed for fifty years cannot be expected to prevail for over a century in the event of heavy rainfall, erosion and earthquakes, putting the lives of millions at risk.

A timely intervention by the centre to resolve the issue outside the courtroom, taking into confidence both the states embroiled in the controversy, and expert guidance for construction of a new dam that caters to both their requirements could go a long way in warranting the people-friendly policies pushed to the back-burner for a long while. The credit for averting, if not resolving at least one major crisis, can restore the diminishing faith in the minds of the people.