(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 7 December 2011, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/the-mullaperiyar-dam-controversy/341058.html)
NOTE: This is not opinion. It's a round-up of the Mullaperiyar issue.
NOTE: This is not opinion. It's a round-up of the Mullaperiyar issue.
Why is a dam that’s more than a hundred years old the most important story in the newspaper these days? Well, to put it in a few words, two states are fighting over whether it should exist or not.
The Mullaperiyar dam was constructed in 1895, on the Periyar River, to divert water to the Madras Presidency, which is now Tamil Nadu.
The Government of British India had entered into a lease agreement with the Maharaja of Travancore in 1886, which gave control of the dam to the Secretary of State of India. After Independence and the reorganisation of states, control of the dam and the Periyar Thekkady reservoir – which are located in Kerala – was given to Tamil Nadu.
Over the decades, the issue became a disputed one, with the Kerala government wanting to build another dam downstream instead, and Tamil Nadu saying the dam is safe. The matter is pending before a Division Bench of the Supreme Court.
The Construction of the Dam
The dam was built in order to bolster the water supply to Madurai, the irrigation needs of which could not be met by the small Vaigai River. The location was considered in 1808, but that attempt was abandoned because the excavation needed would be more than 100 feet deep. The proposal was considered several times, until it was finally approved by Major John Pennycuick of Madras Engineers in 1882, and construction began in 1887.
Mullaperiyar Dam was constructed using limestone and surkhi, which is a mixture of burnt brick powder, calcium oxide and sugar. It consists of a main dam, a spillway on its left and “baby dam” to the right. This dam was considered a remarkable feat of engineering, as it required tremendous skill to divert the large river to build the lower parts of the dam, and the workers had to fight everything from floods to malaria.
Water from the Periyar Thekkady reservoir, created by construction of the dam, could be diverted to Madras Presidency. Later, the waters were not used only for irrigation but also for generation of hydro-electricity through the Periyar Power Station in Lower Periyar in Tamil Nadu.
On 29 October 1886, a lease for 999 years was signed between Maharaja of Travancore, Vishakham Thirunal and Secretary of State for India for Periyar irrigation works. This gave the Secretary the right, power and liberty to carry out all construction required for irrigation works, and also granted exclusive use of this to the Madras Presidency.
Travancore would give 8000 acres of land for the reservoir and another 100 acres to construct the dam, at an annual tax of Rs 5 per acre. The lease agreement expired after Independence, and attempts to renew it were made unsuccessfully in 1958, 1960 and 1969.
Finally, in 1970, Kerala agreed to renew the agreement at an annual tax of Rs 30 per acre, with charge for electricity being Rs 12 per kilowatt per hour.
What is the Debate About Now?
In 1979, after an earthquake caused leaks and cracks in the dam, the Kerala Government raised safety concerns. The Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvananthapuram said the dam couldn’t withstand an earthquake above magnitude 6 on the Richter scale. Tamil Nadu then lowered the storage level from 142 feet to the current 136 feet so that Kerala could carry out repairs.
However, the water level was not raised even after repairs. Tamil Nadu complained that farmers in drought-prone areas were suffering. Kerala denied this. When the matter went to the Supreme Court, a Bench allowed the storage level to be restored to 142 feet, in 2006.
But the Kerala Government passed a new Dam Safety Act against increasing the storage level of the dam. This was challenged by Tamil Nadu in the Supreme Court. The apex court served notice to the Kerala government, but did not issue an interim stay on the Act. It then advised the states to sort out the issue amicably, and ruled that the Act was not unconstitutional.
Kerala then said it doesn’t object to giving water to its neighbour, but only has safety concerns. In 2006, the state passed the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, fixing 136 feet as the maximum level of water, and empowering the authorities to suspend the functioning of a dam or decommission it, if it posed a threat to human life and property.
In September 2009, the Union Ministry of Environment gave environmental clearance to Kerala to conduct survey for a new dam. Tamil Nadu asked for a stay order against this, but that was rejected. Later, the State Assembly would discuss a proposal for the state to retain right of construction, ownership, operation and maintenance of the new dam, while giving water to Tamil Nadu on the basis of a new agreement.
On 18 February 2010, the Supreme Court constituted a five-member committee headed by former Chief Justice of India A S Anand, to prepare a report on all the issues involved in the Mullaperiyar dispute within 6 months. But Tamil Nadu’s ruling party at the time, the DMK, said the Centre should mediate between the two states instead, and the Opposition AIADMK disagreed.
When Tamil Nadu finally told the Supreme Court that it did not want to sort out the dispute in front of the empowered committee, the apex court rejected the request. The committee was formed in April, and has had extensions since. It is now expected to submit its report to the Supreme Court in January 2012.
The Dispute This Year
In December 2010, the committee conducted a spot inspection of the dam, and also heard the views of the two states and the Centre on the issues related to the dam. Several bodies were formed to conduct tests regarding the dam’s safety.
On August 31, 2011, Kerala’s application to present additional evidence to the panel was rejected. Kerala also asked for permission to speak to the Committee and an opportunity to study the reports presented to it. Tamil Nadu opposed this, saying it was an attempt to delay the submission of the committee’s report.
Since then, the problem has been exacerbated by the controversy over the release of a film, Dam 999, which is set in China, and based on the Banqiao dam disaster of 1975 in which 250,000 people died. But the movie was made by filmmaker Sohan Roy, who is from Kerala. Political parties in Tamil Nadu called for, and succeeded in imposing, a ban on the screening of the film in Tamil Nadu.
Advocate General KP Dandapani also caused a furore when he told the Kerala High Court that the water level at the dam was not related to its safety.
On December 3-4, there were reports of violent activities reported at the Mullaperiyar dam site. There were also reports of members of the Kerala unit of the BJP youth wing attempting to vandalise the baby dam with hammer and iron rods. But Kerala police stopped them before they could do any damage. The group was arrested and later released.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has called it an “orchestrated campaign of fear-mongering carried on by the Kerala government” and asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to deploy Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) at the site immediately. In the same letter, she said dams much older than Mullaiperiyar were functional, and cited the example of the Kallanai built by Karikaala Cholan, more than 1900 years ago, as well as the Godavari Anicut and Krishna barrage, which date between 1845 and 1855.
On Monday, the committee held a meeting to examine the reports it has received from the agencies it constituted to analyse safety of the Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala, and decided to make a site visit in the near future.
In Kumily on the border between the two states, protesters clashed in the afternoon, and shops and vehicles owned by Keralites were attacked on the border. Police were rushed to the spot.
By night, Kerala Police issued orders banning any gathering of more than five people for three days in and around the border checkpost.
October 29, 1886
Maharaja of Travancore and Secretary of State for India sign a lease agreement of 999 years for Periyar irrigation works.
Mullaperiyar Dam constructed across the Periyar River with full reservoir level of 152 feet.
After several failed attempts, an agreement is signed renewing the lease.
Water level gets reduced to 136 feet for repairs following damage by an earthquake.
Memorandum on the Rehabilitation of Mullaperiyar Dam is forwarded to Tamil Nadu. The safety measures are implemented, but the water level is not raised, and a legal battle begins.
High Courts in Kerala and Tamil Nadu transfer several petitions in the case to the Supreme Court.
May 19, 2000
Supreme Court directs Union Minister of Water Resources to convene an interstate meeting.
Expert panel with representatives from both states is instituted to study the safety of the dam.
Experts say the water level can be raised from 136 to 142 feet as the safety measures have been taken.
February 27, 2006
Supreme Court allows Government of Tamil Nadu to raise the water level of Mullaperiyar dam from 136 to 142 feet.
March 18, 2006
Kerala Government passes the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, calling the dam endangered and prohibiting raising of the water level.
November 29, 2006
A meeting of the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in New Delhi ends in a deadlock.
Central Water Commission suggests a nine member Committee headed by a Chief Engineer from CWC with representatives from both states to monitor the seepage of Mullaperiyar Dam. Kerala and Tamil Nadu refuse.
July 31, 2009
Kerala says a new dam is the only solution for the issue.
February 18, 2010
Supreme Court orders the Central Government to constitute a Committee to hear the opinions of different sides on the issues and submit a report within six months.
April 30, 2010
The Committee is finally constituted and allowed to function after several roadblocks. It receives several extensions.
December 3-4 , 2011
Violence breaks out at the dam site. An angry Jayalalithaa sends a letter to the PM.
December 5, 2011
The Empowered Committee meets; after incidents of violence on the border, Kerala Police ban gatherings of more than 5 people for 3 days.
TESTS CONDUCTED AT THE DAM SITE
Scanning the upstream phase of the main dam below water level using remote-operated vehicle, and digital camera by the Central Soil and Materials Research Station (CSMRS), Delhi
Taking photos of upstream phase of the dam above water level
Study by Geological Survey of India
Cable anchor stress test
Survey to study contours of the Periyar lake bed by the Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS), Pune
Non-destructive sonic test by the Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS), Pune
Samples of lime concrete cubes
Lime bleach assessment from main dam
Core sample from main dam
Isotope test to check whether the dam is porous
Examining the status of the instruments embedded in the backing concrete of the main dam
Seepage study by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC)
Flood study by the Central Water Commission (CWC)