Southern stalemate

Written by M Sarita Varma | Updated: Dec 4 2011, 08:14am hrs
Mullaperiyar dam's founding engineer John Pennycuick has achieved cult status of sorts in Tamil Nadu for making barren lands fertile, and it wouldn't be surprising if temples are set up in his memory. The Tamil Nadu PWD office in Madurai is named after Pennycuick, and Madurai residents remember how hordes of villagers from numerous districts flocked to see the great grandson of the engineer, when he visited the state in 2001.

Meanwhile, emotions are running high in Kerala over the dam issue, so much so that it has even united all political parties, who are out on the streets supporting a spectrum of of protests like fasts, sit-ins, human wall formations and candlelight rallies. The flare up has included burning effigies of Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa.

These extreme sentiments perhaps best capture the stalemate over the dam, with both states refusing to yield an inch. This deadlock has been on since 1979, when safety concerns regarding the 116-year-old dam raised their head for the first time following a few minor earthquakes in the region surrounding the dam. Since then, both states have been at loggerheads with each other on the issue, with Kerala demanding construction of a new dam and Tamil Nadu refusing it. The dam, though located in Kerala, yields east-flowing irrigation water to Tamil Nadu by an 1895 accord, which runs to an extraordinary tenure of 999 years.

The diverted water from this dam is used for irrigation in Sivaganga, Theni, Madurai and Ramanathapuram districts. The Periyar power station in Tamil Nadu produces hydro-electric power from these waters and distributes that electricity in Tamil Nadu.

The 26 tremors that have shaken the area since July this year have precipitated fears in at least five districts on the Kerala side downstream, as experts hint that the overaged Mullaperiyar dam is on the verge of bursting, leading to one of the world's worst man-made disasters. The catchment areas and river basin downstream includes five major districts of KeralaIdukki, Ernakulum, Kottayam, Alapuzha and Pathanamthittahaving a population of 3.6 million. Last week, Kerala also signed an MoU with IIT-Roorkee for a post-tremor impact study. This is to be completed within two months. Earlier, reports of scientists from IIT-Roorkee and IIT-Delhi had categorically stated that "the dam would not survive an earthquake or flood conditions".

"No dam lasts forever, There are ample examples of dams that were decommissioned. Take the old Victoria Dam in Australia and the Boyds Corner Dam in the US for instance," says NK Premachandran, former irrigation minister of Kerala. Kerala has proposed constructing a new dam, even vowing to raise the outlay of R630 crore on its own. It has even offered to give Tamil Nadu its current water entitlement, with Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy repeatedly voicing his motto: Water for Tamil Nadu and safety for Kerala.

But Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa is unmoved. In fact, in a letter to the Prime Minister, Jayalalithaa accused the Kerala government of whipping up fear in the dam vicinity. What's more, the Tamil Nadu government wants to peg up the dams storage capacity by raising its height from 136 ft to 142 ft to cater to the state's increasing irrigation needs.

In a letter to the PM, Jayalalithaa had argued that the government of Tamil Nadu had already taken safety measures to keep the dam in as good a condition as a new dam. Tamil Nadu maintains the dam and is said to have spent about R1 crore for its renovation. Kerala also has a camp office in the area for observation, though the water valves can be opened only towards the Tamil Nadu side. In 1930s, Tamil Nadu engineers bored 80 holes in the dam and injected 40 tonnes of cement to plug seepage. Again in 1933, grouting was used to strengthen the dam. In 1960, 502 tonnes of cement solution was injected.

"Both states should find an amicable solution at the earliest. It should not be allowed to grow into an ethnic war, says Tamil filmmaker Leela Manimekhala, whose recent film Chenkadal portrayed the battle for ethnic identities. Incidentally, Tamil Nadu has banned a film, Dam 999, made by Malayali filmmaker Sohan Roy on the subject on the dam.

With inputs from Sajan Kumar