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Mullaperiyar: Lives or livelihoods?
By Sudhirendar Sharma

Nearly hundred large dams in the country are over a century old. Controversy over Mullaperiyar dam provides an opportunity to evolve legal and institutional mechanism to ensure the safety of people and all such structures.


While drawing one of the longest leases in recent memory, the Maharaja of Travancore and his counterpart in the erstwhile Madras Presidency would have never imagined that inking a 999-year lease on building a diversion structure for sharing waters would lay the foundation of the bitterest conflict between two states which will inherit that heritage. The Mullaperiyar dam, the 116-year-old structure, is in the eye of the worst inter-state feud between Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Kerala is concerned about safety of the dam, Tamil Nadu about the waters that flow downstream; Kerala is worried about its people should the dam burst, Tamil Nadu about continued irrigation to its farmers’ field; and, Kerala insists on lowering water level in the dam whereas Tamil Nadu is persistent with the current level. With Tamil Nadu disposing what Kerala proposes, contours of a plausible ‘water war’ have seemingly been drawn?

With political fever running high, both the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister would find it tough to resolve the conflict. Neither can a judicial determination allay fears about an age-old dam nor can a political statement ease the storm. Since series of tremors have recently rocked the area, the fear of a possible dam burst could be anything but real. Under such situation, safety cannot be a political pill that downstream communities could be made to swallow.

As both sides have taken well-entrenched positions, no expert can resolve the dispute in the absence of enlightened political leadership. If the dam is at the epicentre of the political feud, anything less than its decommissioning may not suffice as a long term solution. Leadership of both states must eschew differences to see logic in dam decommissioning, as solution to a problem cannot be found by upholding the condition that led to the problem in the first place.

Leadership of both states must eschew differences to see logic in dam decommissioning, as solution to a problem cannot be found by upholding the condition that led to the problem in the first place.

To make a beginning, both the States must first abrogate ‘the 1885 agreement’ that neither holds any legal binding in the present context nor has stood in good test to serve their respective interests. By proposing to lower water level in the existing dam, from a maximum of 142 feet to a much safer level at 120 feet, as an immediate step towards reducing the risk of a possible dam collapse Kerala has simultaneously moved a step towards dam decommissioning as well.

For Tamil Nadu, which controls and maintains the dam located in the Kerala territory, any fresh proposal amounts to violation of the existing conditions in the treaty. In reality, by agreeing to such proposal Tamil Nadu stands to lose control over the dam and forfeit its rights over roughly 8,000 hectares of land the then Travancore king had acceded to Madras Presidency for constructing the dam. For Tamil Nadu, these are stakes worth fighting over!

No wonder, therefore, that the Tamil Nadu government insists that the Mullaperiyar dam is safe, and that the water level must be maintained as per the agreement. Neither does it accept Kerala government’s assurance of maintaining present level of flows even after lowering the water level in the dam nor does it agree to create a new dam downstream of the existing structure. Tamil Nadu persists with Hobson’s choice, ‘it will agree to anything provided the Mullaperiyar dam exists’.

On all accounts, Tamil Nadu’s protracted position is on a weak footing. It is opposed to fresh proposals because once it accepts these, it will cease to have a ‘riparian’ status that it had continued to enjoy ever since the west-flowing Mullayar and Periyar rivers, dammed at Mullaperiyar, were diverted by daring piece of engineering to irrigate eastern face of the Western Ghats, through Vaigai, a rain-fed river which is the lifeline of southern Tamil Nadu.

The Mullaperiyar dam offers a challenging opportunity for the country to get into the act of dam decommissioning, by perhaps setting up a Dam Decommissioning Commission.

Controversy has dogged the masonry dam several times since its completion in 1895. Many in Kerala believe that Mullaperiyar water has been forcibly diverted to Tamil Nadu. This grievance has repeatedly been aired, making Tamil Nadu suspicious of Kerala’s genuine concern about dam safety. In a politically vitiated environment, mistrust has percolated down to last person in both states. As politicians ride populist rhetoric, it has turned out to be a law and order problem.

When the Mullaperiyar dam was built, provisions of environment impact assessment (EIA) were not in vogue. In retrospect, however, it can be safely concluded that it would have failed the ecological test on account of submerging and diverting a river from its natural course. On social account, but for an ‘agreement’ between two ‘regimes’, it has remained a bone of contention between people ever since the lease deed was enforced upon them by the colonial rulers.

With the dam having outlived its social and environmental relevance, decommissioning of the structure alone can allay its safety fears. Unlike countries like the USA that has decommissioned several dams, India has only been commissioning dams since independence. The Mullaperiyar dam offers a challenging opportunity for the country to get into the act of dam decommissioning, by perhaps setting up a Dam Decommissioning Commission.

With as many as 100 large dams in the country that are over one hundred years old, there is an urgent need to evolve legal and institutional mechanism to ensure the safety of people and the structures. Political procrastination will not only stress the structure but create undesired anxiety among people living downstream!

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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