The Mullaperiyar imbroglio

The debate over loss of agrarian productivity in Tamil Nadu versus quality of life in downstream Kerala is complicated.
ER Gopinath Chennai

Yet another inter-state discord has been added to the vexed confrontations over river water disputes. It is hoped that the Mullaperiyar dispute between Tamil Nadu and Kerala will not lend itself to election pyrotechnics because the storage in the Mullaperiyar dam will impact itself only when the south west monsoons commence in the southern peninsula in the second half of May.

The issue which has been simmering for the past few years hit the headlines on February 27, when the Supreme Court directed Kerala to raise the height of the dam on the Periyar river, diverting the waters to Tamil Nadu, to 142 feet from the present 136 feet. The direction was a sequel to the petition filed by Janata Party chief Subramanian Swamy and the Tamil Nadu government in 1998. The appellants had sought court direction to Kerala to raise the height of the dam to 152 feet. Kerala had argued against the increase in the height of the dam on grounds of security of people living downriver. In September 2001 a “Mullaperiyar Environmental Protection Forum” had appealed to the court against the proposal to raise the height of the dam beyond 136 feet. But the three-judge bench had noted that such security fears were baseless, as found by a committee set up by the central government.

The Kerala political parties buried differences and passed a unanimous resolution in a hastily summoned meeting of the state assembly on March 15, passed a bill amending the State Irrigation and Water Conservation Act 2003 with the main objective to retain water level in Mullaperiyar dam at 136 feet in the wake of a Supreme Court order allowing Tamil Nadu to raise the level to 142 feet. The resolution will have to get clearance from the centre to become effective. If the legislation becomes law in Kerala, Jayalalithaa’s Tamil Nadu government is prepared to challenge it in the Supreme Court. Saifuddin Soz, Union Minister for Water Resources, has said that for the present the central government cannot intervene to get Kerala to obey the Supreme Court direction.

Dr Swamy has said that it is now for the Tamil Nadu government which has legal rights over the dam in Kerala territory to raise its height as per court order. The issue is getting politicised fast. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has criticised the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which heads the United Progressive Alliance backed Democratic Progressive Alliance in Tamil Nadu, for remaining silent on the Mullaperiyar issue. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) clashed with the DMK in Parliament on March 18 over the issue.

The whole problem has its roots in the past. The dam was conceived of as far back as in 1895 on the Periyar river to divert part of its waters eastwards into the rain shadow affected districts of the neighbouring Madras province, mainly the present Madurai and Ramnad districts. Kerala has some 44 rivers originating in the Western Ghats besides getting the benefit of the monsoons. Except for three of them, the rest flow westwards into the Arabian Sea. Periyar is probably the third largest. At that time the Maharaja of Travancore agreed to lease the dam site for 999 years to the then Madras government. The Army Engineering Corps constructed the dam in Idukky to district divert part of the Periyar waters to Tamil Nadu. The first dam was washed away in the rainy season. The British Army Engineering corps took up the work as a personal assignment, raised funds for the purpose and completed the dam. This arrangement, with the Tamil Nadu staff manning the sluice gates and other works continued till the 1980s. Tamil Nadu by an unwritten agreement sold rice to Kerala. The arrangements continued even till after independence and helped control floods in Kerala. In 1960 a hydel project was established downriver at Idukky on the assumption that the waters would be available during the monsoons.

There was heavy colonisation of the areas down river in Kerala with land hungry people populating the area with a vengeance. Trees were cut down. Schools, colleges, hospitals and habitations sprang up all over the place. Micro-climatic changes followed, with rainfall falling. As time passed the Idukky dam failed to fill up. Power generation fell. The diversion at Mullaperiyar was blamed for all these happenings. Kerala wanted the storage level to be brought down to 132 feet. The then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran readily agreed to the plea. When in the 1980s the level was brought down, Tamil Nadu suffered. Some 8,000 hectares in Tamil Nadu’s rain shadow districts suffered.

Pressure mounted on Tamil Nadu to raise the storage level again to 152. Kerela countered it with hectic campaigning at the centre and placating influential persons in Tamil Nadu. It has been reported that a study by the Centre for Earth Science Studies in Kerala had found that the dam will not be able to withstand an earthquake of the magnitude of six on the Richter scale at higher water levels if the epicentre of the earthquake is near the dam. Several earthquakes of lesser magnitudes have occurred in the state during the past two decades and scientists have predicted the possibility of earthquakes of magnitude six occurring in the state. The chances of an earthquake occurring in the vicinity of the dam too are high because of the presence of major lineaments and fault zones in the region.

Central government studies however held that this contention was unfounded and that with repairs the dam height could be raised. Then came the argument about threat to the wildlife population in the area. A study on the impact of raising of water level in the Mullaperiyar reservoir of the Periyar Tiger Reserve was carried out at the instance of the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state in 2001. The team included scientists from the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), the Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), Centre for Water Resource Development and Management (CWRDM) and the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON). The report has suggested that all kind of wild fauna including wild boar, gaur, sambar, otters, elephants and birds that nest in the reservoir will
be adversely affected if the dam height is raised.

Incidentally, the States Reorganisation Commission had suggested the Devikulam and Peermedu in the dam area should be merged with Tamil Nadu. A proposal to this effect is reported to have been consigned to the waste paper basket by Kamaraj.

One estimate of the crop losses to Tamil Nadu, because of the reduction in the height of the dam, between 1980 and 2005 is a whopping Rs. 40,000 crores. In the process the farmers of the erstwhile rain shadow areas in Tamil Nadu who had started a thrice yearly cropping pattern had to go back to the bi-annual cropping.

What will happen now? Will Kerala fall in line with the Supreme Court direction? The issue is expected to hot up only by the time the monsoons set over Kerala in early June. One major problem that Kerala will face will be the heavy colonisation of the down river area which emerged after the reduction in the height of the Mullaperiyar dam. Vast colonised areas could be submerged. For Tamil Nadu, it will be a problem similar to the Cauvery dispute with Karnataka.