Column: Dont damn the Mullaperiyar

Written by Sushila Ravindranath | Sushila Ravindranath | Updated: Dec 7 2011, 08:59am hrs
Thanks to the Mullaperiyar dam controversy, Tamil Nadus major political parties are speaking in one voice for a change. They banned the screening of the film Dam 999, directed by Sohan Roy and produced in Hollywood, which shows the collapse of a dam in Kerala. Although the director denied it was a political film, the number 999 made Tamil Nadu politicians see red. They found it a motivated title, an apparent reference to the 999-year rights held by Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar dam. Disaster movies are about spectacles and these are images we carry with us. Each time there is an incident, we remember what we saw on the screen. In reality, these horrors do not occur with any great regularity. More people die of road accidents than air crashes. Yet, we fear plane crashes more, although we continue to fly. But our decisions are not based on facts. Emotions take over. So much so that the banning of the film (which reviewers say is tedious) was not criticised by even those who support freedom of expression.

The Mullaperiyar dam crisis is an emotive issue for both Tamil Nadu and Kerala. One fears the death of millions (numbers vastly exaggerated) by the crashing of a 116-year-old dam due to earthquakes. The other fears deprivation of water and livelihood in five districts. The Mullaperiyar dam was constructed by the British during 1887-1895 across the Periyar River in the then Travancore state (now Kerala). The dam, with a full reservoir level of 152 feet, provides for the diversion of water from the reservoir through a tunnel to the Vaigai basin in Tamil Nadu for irrigation. The Travancore state and the Madras presidency signed a 999-year lease, according to which the dam was to be operated by the Tamil Nadu government. The Periyar power station in Tamil Nadu produces hydroelectric power from these waters and distributes that electricity in the state.

Agreements signed during the British rule became invalid after Independence. However, in 1970, the Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments signed a formal agreement to renew the 1886 treaty. The Idukki Hydroelectric project, located 30-km downstream, was completed subsequently, in 1976, by the Kerala government. Over the years, the areas downstream of the Mullaperiyar dam have become heavily inhabited in Kerala. Tamil Nadus requirement for irrigation water has also increased. But safety considerations started haunting the Kerala psyche. A couple of dam collapses in the 1970s also increased the fear psychosis in Kerala. The collapse of the Banqiao dam in China in 1975 that resulted in 1,71,000 deaths and rendered 11 million people homeless is one of the worst disasters in the history of dams. Closer home, the Morvi dam collapse in Gujarat in 1979 due to excessive rain and flooding caused the death of almost 10,000 people.

After the Morvi dam failure, safety concerns of the ageing Mullaperiyar dams leaks and cracks became major issues in Kerala. A state agency, the Centre for Earth Science Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, had reported that the structure would not withstand an earthquake of magnitude 6 on the Richter scale. The dam was also inspected by the chairman, Central Water Commission (CWC). On the orders of the CWC, the Tamil Nadu government lowered the storage level to 136 feet (from 142.2 feet) to carry out safety repairs and strengthen the dam. In 1979, construction of a new dam was proposed. After several judgements and repairs, the storage level has been restored.

The current crisis has been triggered by the 26 tremors that have shaken the area since July this year. There has been so much fear-mongering on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border that Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa has written to the PM asking for CISF to be deployed there, fearing sabotage. Jayalalithaa said that the government of Tamil Nadu has already taken safety measures to keep the dam in as good a condition as a new dam. She is not likely to budge from her position. There is now a fear that Tamil Nadu will lose out if a new dam is built and the old lease renegotiated. Kerala CM Oommen Chandy says Kerala will not deny Tamil Nadu water: Water for Tamil Nadu and safety for Kerala. There have been claims and counter-claims flying from each side for more than three decades now. These have given opportunities for both state governments to grand stand. In trying to protect their people and in acts of brinkmanship, any attempts at reasonable and equitable solutions have been lost.

In reality, these two states depend on each other. Kerala depends on Tamil Nadu for its vegetable and meat supplies. Thousands of migrant workers cross the border everyday from Tamil Nadu to Kerala. They work in plantations and in the growing service sector in the state. Blockades and violence will affect the economies of both states. But a quick solution does not appear likely any time in the near future.

Both states are important for the UPA government. With an eye on the 2014 parliamentary elections, how can the Centre support one against the other