River-water disputes have long been part of India's history.
Within the country, we have Punjab and Haryana in a stalemate over the Yamuna-Sutlej Link Canal, while Tamil Nadu seems to be always at loggerheads with Kerala on its west, Andhra to its north and Karnataka with whom it shares its north-western border over the Periyar, Krishna and Cauvery waters respectively.
Considered a rain shadow region, Tamil Nadu lies on the eastern side of the Western Ghats. One cannot hence blame this rain-scarce state for adopting a belligerent stance when it comes to sharing of waters with its immediate neighbours, as the very livelihood of its agrarian-dependent populace is at stake here.
The centuries-old Mullaperiyar dam located in Idukki in Kerala on the Periyar river is one of the earliest trans-basin projects to be commissioned in India by the British in 1895 in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, that was part of the then Madras Presidency.
The Periyar Project diverts water from the river’s upper reaches in Kerala into the eastern plains of the Vaigai river basin in Tamil Nadu for irrigation.
An inter-state river has its catchment area in more than one state. The Periyar river has a catchment area of 5398 square kilometres, of which 114 sq kms lie in Tamil Nadu. The catchment area of the Mullaperiyar dam however lies entirely in Kerala.
The dam is also the first concrete ‘surkhi’ (a combination of limestone and burnt brick powder) of its kind constructed as a V-shaped gorge in the Western Ghats over the Periyar.
Initiated in the latter half of the 19th century as a measure to rehabilitate the famine-affected, drought-prone districts of Madurai and Ramanathapuram, a 999-year lease agreement was signed by Vishaakam Thirunal Rama Varma -Maharaja of Travancore- and the British Secretary of State for India on 29 October 1886.
The controversial clause which handed Tamil Nadu the right to use its waters and maintain the dam would very well have not have been included, had the king been aware that the proposed dam was well within his territory.
In hindsight, it was this ignorance of territorial jurisdiction that later helped Tamil Nadu.
The British argument was that since the waters of the Periyar were of no use to Travancore, as the surrounding areas were uninhabited jungle-infested zones, it made better sense to divert them to water-scarce agricultural lands of adjacent Madras.
Vishaakam Thirunal Rama Varma (Pic: Commons Wikimedia)
The dam which is ‘owned, operated and maintained’ by Tamil Nadu was built between 1887 and 1895 by British engineer John Pennycuick. It is 176 feet high and is 365.7 metres long and can sustain water to a height of 142 feet.
Apart from the nearly 8000 acres of land situated 155 feet above the Periyar, around 100 acres of land too were given on lease to the then Madras Presidency. The said deed permitted water to be diverted from about 648 square kilometres of the river-basin that lay above the dam to the then Madras State.
As per the contract, Kerala was entitled to receive a lease amount of Rs 40000 per annum which was to be deduced from the tribute payable by the Travancore state to its colonial masters.
It was in 1959 that Tamil Nadu started to generate power using the dam-waters without prior consent from Kerala. Later, a hydel-power project was commissioned in 1965 with four units of 35 megawatts each.
The original contract was then amended in 1970 to ratify the Periyar hydro-electric project with effect from 1954, while the provision of extension of the deed to yet another 999 years was done away with. The lease amount was raised to Rs.30/- per acre from the previous Rs.5/-, with provision for review after every 30 years.
Kerala also got exclusive fishing rights in addition to the revenue generated by the promotion of wildlife tourism under the aegis of the Periyar National Park located in the reservoir area. This was apart from the annual lease rent coupled with royalty vis-à-vis power generation paid by Tamil Nadu.
Signs of Discord
Questions about the safety aspect of the dam began to be raised after the 1961 floods in the absence of a scouring-sluice that would help in draining the reservoir empty –if needed.
- In 1998, Tamil Nadu wants to raise the height of the water level but Kerala opposes.
- In 2006, Supreme Court allows Tamil Nadu to raise the water level from 136 to 142 feet.
- 3-member supervisory committee appointed by Centre and Supreme Court for periodic inspection of dam and overseeing of requisite repair works, if any.
- In response, Kerala constitutes the Dam Safety Authority through law to prevent the same.
- In 2010, AS Anand Committee set up by Supreme Court to look into the issue, based on Tamil Nadu’s suit questioning the controversial Kerala law.
- In 2012, Supreme Court rejects Kerala plea to bring ‘on record’ new data’ (obtained through its own committee of experts from IIT Delhi and IIT Roorkee) to counter expert committees report citing the dam structure as safe.
- In 2014, Supreme Court squashes Kerala law and allows water level to be raised to 142 feet with a provision upto 152 feet after requisite strengthening measures. Water level touches 142 feet for the first time in 35 years in November 2014.
Kerala’s major concern revolves round the safety of its inhabitants who live downstream. The districts of Idukki, Kottayam, Ernakulam and Alappuzha would simply be washed away, in case of a dam-burst. The persistent leaks, mortar-leaching on the dam surface, occasional seismic upheavals and a high probability of flash floods have not helped in assuaging its increasing worry over a man-made disaster in the making.
In the backdrop of the recent floods in Chennai, Srinagar and Uttarakhand, Kerala has invoked the ‘precautionary principle’ to further justify its persistent calls for a new dam, besides wanting a review of the hydrological safety of the old one by a panel of national and international experts.
Tamil Nadu however fears the loss of all its existing rights on the Periyar waters, if ever a new dam is built and which would have to be constructed below the existing dam. This would naturally bring down the storage capacity of the new dam and make it very difficult for Tamil Nadu to access water in times of need.
Environmentalists too have expressed their grave doubts regarding decommissioning of the old dam and the subsequent negative impact of constructional activities in the area on the fragile ecosystem of the area.
The agricultural sector in Kerala has seen a gradual shift from production of food to cash crops and is now heavily dependent on its neighbouring states especially Tamil Nadu for its daily fresh produce, which in turn makes Tamil Nadu view Kerala as a profitable market for its agricultural products.
In the light of the Mullaperiyar squabble, there were calls by Tamil political parties for a road blockage which would see Kerala witness extreme price hikes in essential commodities. Such petty reasoning would not in any way help break the existing deadlock over Mullaperiyar.
Construction of several environment-friendly small dams with the consent of both parties seems to be the only viable solution to the issue.