Dam-ing Mullaperiyar

Written by M Sarita Varma | Updated: Dec 22 2011, 08:46am hrs
Firefighting is not as simple as steering clear of verbal pyrotechnics, Union home minister P Chidambaram has realised much to his chagrin.

On Saturday, in a much-telecast speech, Chidambaram told his Tamil peers that all the uproar over the Mullaperiyar dams possible collapse was due to an upcoming bypoll in Kerala and the mele would end once the polling was over. He further promised the crowds in his home-turf that the Supreme Courts final verdict on Mullaperiyar would favour Tamil Nadu.

The reference is tell-tale of the ministers efforts to influence the apex court, says Keralas irrigation minister PJ Joseph, whose party Kerala Congress is irked by the Congresss leisurely stance over dam safety.

Even Ramesh Chennithala, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief, pointed out that Chidambaram behaved like a Tamil Nadu home minister rather than home minister of India. Chidambaram dropped a brick of grave consequences when even the PM had appealed to leaders in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu to use restraint.

The Congress is yet to show eagerness in covering up for the home minister. Home minister should have added power to Dr Singhs appeasement effort, rather than weaken it, says Chidambarams Cabinet colleague Vayalar Ravi. Predictably, the Left MPs from Kerala are taking the offensive to Parliament. Whats new is that the Congress MP from Idukky (where Mullaperiyar is situated), PT Thomas, too joined the protest against his party senior, with a sit-in near Parliament.

For decades, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have refused to meet eye to eye over the dam, built under an 1886 accord between the then Maharaja of Travancore and the erstwhile British Raj. The dam, made of the now-extinct technology of surki (clay mortar and limestone mix) instead of cement concrete, is in Kerala. The waters serve Tamil Nadu. The dam is controlled by Tamil Nadu via a 999-year lease. After the recent seismic tremors, Kerala had been warned that the dam cannot weather incessant rains. If the dam breaks, there is danger to the regions flora, fauna, property and as many as 36 lakh people living there. While Kerala sought to bring down the water level, Tamil Nadu demanded that the level be increased so that irrigation isnt affected.

The spat for the 116-year-old dam has taken a new turn in the form of an ad war of sorts between the two states. But Kerala, which placed adverts in Chennai and Kerala editions of national and Tamil dailies, is silent about its case for the dam. Instead, there is an appeal to the people of the two neighbouring states to refrain from emotional acts that affect peace. Earlier, the Supreme Court had rapped the Tamil Nadu government for pleading the dam case in full page ads in the print media.

We assure water for Tamil Nadu, but need safety for people and property too, Kerala CM Oommen Chandy reiterated on Monday. At the same time, we have no option but to go for a new dam.

Much before the actual erosion of the dam, economic erosion has been creeping in. There is an incalculably large trade interface between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which survives on sheer goodwill. The mutual trust has been bruised, says Kerala-born Raju Sadasivan, who fled from Dindigul in Tamil Nadu after his modest eatery business was ransacked by Tamil dam activists.

For the first time in history, KSRTC stopped services to Shenkotta through Kollam district, after two buses were stoned at the Tamil Nadu border. The shooting of Malayalam films in Tamil Nadu was halted and the crews told to leave immediately. About R1,000 crore worth vegetables and eggs are said to be traded every day. But with borders turning unsafe, the flow has nearly stopped. Although there has been some amount of restraint from the Kerala side in the last fortnight, there is an air of tension ruling the borders. Kerala is noting a pronounced slowdown in pilgrim inflow at the Sabarimala shrine. Its a worrying sign.

sarita.varma@expressindia.com