Mullaperiyar: The Problem and the Solution!

Dec 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: Affairs

Mulla Periyar DamEven though the mainstream national media has not given much attention to the Mullaperiyar issue, it is refusing to die. It is, in fact, exacerbating with the passing days and with increasing water level in the dam due to continuing rains in the catchment area.

The Genesis
Mullaperiyar is a story that is difficult to comprehend even for the people of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, let alone the ‘outsiders’!

It is a story of how a foreign power, then occupying the country, using their power, forced a native Kingdom to agree to give up its rights over a river and its water for 999 years, in exchange for a small amount to be paid as rent to the Kingdom. This agreement was inked in 1886.

Even after the occupying powers had left the country, the succeeding popular Government of Kerala agreed to honour the agreement that was obviously one sided – in favour of Tamil Nadu – and executed a fresh agreement in 1970, with substantially same provisions.

As a result of these agreements, the water from a dam that stood across a river flowing fully within Kerala was made available to the people of Tamil Nadu for their drinking and irrigations requirements (now this water is also used to generate electricity by Tamil Nadu). Not just that, the entire control over the dam was also given to Tamil Nadu authorities, so much so that there were instances when Kerala officials were refused to enter the dam premises even for safety inspection!

Why this seemingly unfair arrangement?
For someone, who is not aware of the geography of South India, this arrangement may seem really unfair for Kerala. But the truth is that, this was inevitable for the entire region. Since 1895, the water from the Mullaperiyar dam has been the lifeline for a large area of Tamil Nadu, with people depending on this project for drinking water, and for irrigation of over 3 lacs acres of land. This water has completely changed the landscape of an area that was prone to draught and famine until then. Denial of water would be disastrous for people and agriculture of these areas spread over 5 districts of Southern Tamil Nadu. Therefore, the arrangement is only fair in the larger interest of the region and the nation.

In 1979, there was an earthquake in the dam area that caused panic among people. On Kerala Govt’s request, Tamil Nadu agreed to reduce the water level to 136 feet from 142 feet, till completion of strengthening of the dam with reinforcement of concrete cover, etc.

Post completion of reinforcement work, Tamil Nadu wanted to increase the water level back to the original 142 feet. However, continuing tremors in the area caused concerns among people living downstream that this lime and surki dam of such vintage may not survive a major earthquake.

Petitions were filed for, and against, raising of water levels in the dam. These petitions before Kerala and Madras High Courts were subsequently transferred to the Supreme Court for decision. The Hon’ble Supreme Court took a strict legal view in these cases and permitted raising of water to the level, permitted under the agreement i.e 142 feet.

However, continuing tremors in the area and increasing leakage from the dam (even after all the reinforcement work) caused public outrage and concern among the people living downstream. The Government of Kerala was forced to pass a law (applicable to all the dams in the State), and thereby stop the efforts of Tamil Nadu to increase the water level to 142 feet and eventually to the maximum capacity of 152 feet.

This Act of Kerala was challenged before the Supreme Court. As observed by the Supreme Court, “It may be noticed that apart from the legal and constitutional issues, inter alia, the real grievance that concerns the State of Tamil Nadu is of not being able to increase reservoir level of Mullai Periyar Dam to 142 feet. The concern of the State of Kerala, on the other hand, appears to be relating to the safety of the Dam. While the State of Tamil Nadu had submitted that in the present suit they seek invalidation of the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006 that seeks to override the judgment of this Court in the previous case, the State of Kerala had submitted, amongst other things, that there are genuine concerns as to the safety of Mullai Periyar Dam, and that they have also offered to build a New Dam at their cost which will ensure that there is no fall in the water drawals of the State of Tamil Nadu, and that their law is valid. (emphasis added)”

The Supreme Court went on to order the appointment of an Empowered Committee that was mandated to give its report on certain questions within a period of six months. However, the Committee which was appointed on 30th April, 2010 is yet to complete its proceedings and submit its report. Once the Committee submits its report, the Supreme Court will further hear the case, including constitutionality of the Kerala Act. Going by our current standards, even the Supreme Court may not be able to say when a final Order can be expected on this matter.

The Grievance of Downstream People
Meanwhile, Idukki district of Kerala, where the dam is situated, has experienced as many as 22 mild and moderate earthquakes since March, 2011.  The latest  of these quakes being of 3.1 and 3.2 intensity in November alone. Adding to that, the rains have caused the water level to cross the 136 feet mark. Together these factors are causing sleepless nights to the poor people living on the banks of the river. The local people have been agitating continuously, seeking protection from the dangers of the dam, for six years now. The intensity of  the agitation has picked up with the recent earthquakes.

The Mullaperiyar dam was constructed with lime and surki, almost 110 years back. Studies have shown that up to 30 tons of surki is being lost from the dam every year. Despite the reinforcement works carried out for providing concrete cover, the frequent leaks and loss of surki continues to endanger the safety of the dam, causing fear in the minds of people. They are not willing to listen to the ‘dam is strong and safe’ story peddled by Tamil Nadu anymore.

The situation has reached a stage where strict interpretation of legal rights under an agreement will not resolve the issue. Even a layman can say that a dam which was originally projected for a life of 50 years cannot remain safe after 110 years. Cosmetic reinforcements will not make it any more acceptable to the people who are living in fear. 35 lakh people are living in the affected area and will face danger in case anything happens to the dam.

The Government of Kerala is pushed to the wall. It cannot go against the genuine fear of such a large population. However, till now, its reactions have been very positive. It has adopted the policy of ‘Water for TN and Safety for Kerala’ and has even offered to construct the new dam at its own cost and continue to supply water to Tamil Nadu.

The Response of Tamil Nadu seems of be that of total denial. They refuse to accept that there is any danger to the old dam. They refuse to accept the fact of earthquakes and that the concerns of the people are genuine. They say it is all mere propaganda to promote the release of a commercial movie. Tamil Nadu has a history of water disputes with all its neighbours. In spite of Kerala’s assurances, this history seems to be weighing on its mind. No politician/party in Tamil Nadu wants to be seen as agreeing to a compromise on a ‘water dispute’.

Way Forward
A solution through mutual negotiations seems to be remote as neither party can afford to be seen compromising on their people’s interest. So, the only solution is for the Supreme Court to speed up the proceedings and also to take interim measures, such as lowering the water level.

If there is even an iota of doubt, the benefit of doubt should be in favour of safety, as the contractual rights of Tamil Nadu are far inferior to the constitutional right to life of the people of Kerala.

Remember Supreme Court’s verdict in Endosulfan? Even in the absence of conclusive proof against Endosulfan, it went with the primacy of human life, and banned Endosulfan throughout the country, pending conclusive study on its effects. Also, look at the response of the Tamil Nadu government itself towards the agitation against Koodankulam Nuclear power plant, based on the fear of what might happen if a Tsunami was to hit Tamil Nadu coasts.

If something happens to the dam, it will not only make the people of Kerala suffer, but will also eliminate any further chance of water being given to the people of Tamil Nadu.

Kerala cannot be expected to remain a mute spectator to the genuine danger to its people. Tamil Nadu cannot afford to lose the right to get water from Mullaperiyar as that would be disastrous to its 5 districts. So the solution is only to ensure a new dam, with adequate protection against any earthquakes, while retaining the right of Tamil Nadu to get continuous supply of water – in other words, Water for Tamil Nadu and Safety for Kerala.

Kerala has already said that it is ready bear the cost of new dam. However, Tamil Nadu may want to be a part of it to ensure its continued control over it. These are matters that can be resolved through a court order or negotiation, once the basic principle is accepted by all parties.

Let the brotherhood between people remain unaffected, even though there are enough forces working to damage that, for their parochial benefits.

(Image Courtesy: Wikipedia)

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Jayasankar is a Lawyer by education and is currently working as a Director in one of the Corporate Finance advisory companies, heading the Legal and Compliance functions. A product of Indian Air Force, he has done his LLB from the Panjab University, Chandigarh, Masters in Business Law from NLSIU, Bangalore and Masters in Business Administration (HR) from IGNOU. He is an avid reader and a keen observer of current affairs and politics. He blogs at Thoughts and tweets @jay_ambadi.

Jayasankar has written 5 articles on The MAG. View all articles by

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  1. The dam is in a good position. There is no leakage. The kerala governement adamantly keeping the issue big and make their people to take terrorism in their hands. Previous government has not raised any issues in this regard like now.

    The tamilnadu government came to know before itself about the film “dam 999” and the film will make big issue towards all kerala people. So they banned the movie in tamilnadu to release in theatres.

    The kerala government shuts their mouth until the film being released. Then they started their rumours based on the useless movie.

    The kerala people not having sixth sense and attacking tamil people who are in the origin of kerala. This is a worst case of that people against unity of the nation.There are lot of kerala people staying in Tamilnadu. They would mind it. We are keeping silence due to Unity.

    Already a report handed over in the kerala court by its one of the officials about the strongness of the dam. But the adamant government makes it political issue. They wanted to stop the source of tamilnadu.

    In tamilnadu, the people are not against Koodankulam project. Some viruses like the above Author makes the living people around the koodankulam to sit against the project. Tamilnadu people agrred to start the project.
    The illeteracy people only sitting against it. So kindly dont make rumours like this and wont spoil the nations growth based on hearings.

    Dont make any comments on the issue until the court decided. Anyway kerala people never obeying the Supreme courts order. Already it made an comment about the strongness of the dam and advised the people about the safetyness of the dam. Tamilnadu government agreed the order and reduced the water level. Thats what thier mistake. Again kerala asking the source of tamilnadu. This time they cant hit the target.

    We are using buildings built by british goverment which aged more than 200 years but why dont our heart not accepting this dam.

    Dont keep believing the politicians word and stop spoiling the unity between the state. The supreme court will decide about the strongness of the dam.

  2. Hope you will say the same if you were living in Koch (Kerala).

  3. Parthy, is talking about unity and in the background threatening keralites. What a true INDIAN.
    N yea, he is comparing 200 year old buildings to a dam. What a common sense.

  4. when we can sympathize with people fearing a N-Plant that has not even started functioning , can we not empathize with Brothers living in the shadow of an ageing Dam. Human and Economic development is a must and every citizen’s right. But so is Right to Life. God Forbid, if the worst fears come true …can the TN conscience bear it. For ages ,TN people have displayed magnanimity beyond requirement . They have embraced every religion, caste, creed, practices.
    Vandalism against innocents is to be condemned . As it is these Tamilians are living in your midst and sharing the same fears about the Dam , to attack them …is a cowards work. KL boasts of high literacy this what literacy achieved ?
    If Kerala fears only the Dam then let the new Dam be constructed but TN control it just like this one. Why should Kerala object to it? All this while there are no complaints about water sharing, even now in TN control KL is getting the water it needs …so let the new Dam be built at TN-Central Govt expense in KL but on same operational terms . If there are voices made about State’s Pride being insulted then we can be assured that there is some other sinister motive which common people have no knowledge about. If Kerala intends not to deny TN of even a drop of water then win their confidence by retaining Dam controls with TN.
    As you are all aware in days to come with Mother Nature unleashing her fury for all our past sins, we can expect to see the new dam full or ‘fully’ empty…so let a decision be taken at earliest. I Pray for well being of all souls and for Divine Guidance to our leaders to pick a equitable solution.

  5. What I can not understand is why TN is objecting to KL building a new dam. The new dam is only a safety net for KL people. If the current dam stays as is forever (as believed by TN) there is no issue. If, God forbid, the worst happen, at least KL people will be safe with the safety of a new dam. So TN attitude looks like “if we lose water, let KL lose its people’; and that is really sad and cruel! JL please think twice about your attitude.

  6. It is time Kerala controls the dam and do reconstruction of it with modern construction materials and share water with TN at market rate.

  7. A new dam controlled by Kerala would be the way fwd. If it is retained with TN. Then same issue will happen after 50 years. An agreement to provide water to TN is all that is needed. why TN want to control of DAM.
    TN is right to MP Dam is not their natural right. It is the right received from an agreement. TN should be greatefull to Kerala for providing water and come to a dialog to resolve the issue.

  8. Dear Jaishankar,

    You are talking about a interstate river which originates from Tamilnadu and flow entirely thru’ Kerala. If Kerala 100% owns it, then do TN own all the roads and rail lines to Kerala that is entirely in Tamilnadu vice versa by all states. Then where will we be as INDIA and UNITY.

    Supreme court has ordered some thing and Kerala nullifies it by passing a resolution in their state assembly. What non-sense is this?. If every state does this, what for we need Supreme court and Central Govt.

    When the states were formed based on language, Devikulam, Idukki, Munnar (where 95% are Tamils) were given to Kerala. Should TN start agitating for the same now. If every agreement made is broken by Kerala, should every one take the cue and move against Keralites every where.

    I think everybody should take matters in their hand. Kerala should break the Mullaiperiyar Dam and Tamilnadu should cut all roads and rail lines to Kerala. Keralites should live and die in Kerala only and not be PARASITES in every Indian state and many foreign countries.

    IT IS A VERY GOOD DOOMSDAY PREDICTION 2012. Atleast, better than any other theory

  9. Please don’t get confused ABOUT Mulla periar issue is like an inter state Cauveri dispute or Sindhu water dispute. Mulla periyar DAM geographically located in IDUKKI district in KERALA state and the DAM constructed by British people in 1887. In fact 42 rivers flowing west and 3 river flows east in kerala state, God blessed keralites with plenty of water resources (We don’t need drain water to Arabian sea when our brothers in TN are dying on thirst). In fact Keralites need Tamilians to do agriculture and bring the vegetable to kerala so that we can eat. That is the another main reason for silence from Kerala Govt.

    Issue raised by Vaico, politician from TN when kerala Goverment asked to reduce the water level because of the safety measures. Jayalalitha has to support on this ARGUMENT other wise Tamilians will go against her, end of the day poor tamilians started attacking on keralites without any other reason.

    The main Villain is ignorance of Tamilians, most of them are illiterate and simply eating what the foolish politicians are vomiting through the media, one of foolish leader said Keralites will do terrorism on this issue! Another funny part is some of educated Tamilians are able to know the reason about the issue (everything is available in internet) have to keep their mouth shut because of the violent nature of co-tamilian.

    As a keralite, personally I’m not supporting to build a new DAM, If tamilians need more water or we need to start any hydro electric project, then I personally support to build a new DAM with higher capacity, or else let it be like that only. Also personally I’m against KOODAMKULAM power plant which will not suit to our culture. We are not technically sound as Japanese and they are still suffering from nuclear power plant safety failure.


  10. I think Tamil Nadu is a doomed state….. more precisely tamilians…… have you heard of any violence against keralites or kannadiga living in TN. But it is not so for tamilians living in other states even within INDIA…..

    But we will die for celebrities like MGR (Keralite), Rajini (Kannadiga) and many more…… Thats TAMIL NADU….
    Try to obey atleast Supreme Court 🙁

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