Originally Published 2011-12-26 00:00:00 Published on Dec 26, 2011
Instead of dealing with the Mullaperiyar dam controversy as a geo-political conflict, it should be tackled as an institutional, legal and administrative failure in the region. Equitable distribution of the benefits of the shared resource is not an impossible task to achieve.
Mullaperiyar Dam: Political and Technical Undercurrents

A serious incompatibility between proper democratic, legal and administrative mechanisms to deal with the shared water resources within the country has become more evident with the raging river water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Kerala over the Mullaperiyar dam issue. Replicating and multiplying at an alarming rate, the river water conflicts underline the larger narrative of the discourse on water distress situation in the country.

The most prominent and well-known water disputes between Indian states are seen in: Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka; Tamil Nadu and Kerala; Punjab and Haryana; Punjab and Rajasthan; Uttar Pradesh and Delhi; Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The common themes amongst these unending wrangles between the States are more than just allocation dynamics. The hydro politics, the cosmetic construction of resource scarcity and asymmetric externalities have paved the way for these disputes.

Once considered as one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering ever performed by man, Mullaperiyar dam is aggressively making headlines now. A raging dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu involves a series of issue which may find common grounds with the other likely inter-State river water disputes in the country. So, it becomes imperative to extract the central feature of the issue sieving through the technical, social and political intentions imbibed in this conflict.

Mullaperiyar dam is a masonry gravity dam on the Periyar River in the cardamom hills of Western Ghats in the Idukki district of Kerala. With an active storage capacity of 242,509 acre-ft, the dam is used for irrigation of 2,08,000 acres of agricultural land benefitting more than 10 lakh farmers in Tamil Nadu and hydropower generation of 175 MW. Also, about 60 lakh people depend on Mullaperiyar dam for meeting their drinking water supply. Hence, Tamil Nadu’s vulnerability for this water resource is understandable.

Constructed in 1887, Mullaperiyar dam is owned by Kerala and controlled and operated by Tamil Nadu on a lease. This colonial development was intended to give the British the rights over ’all the water’ of the Mullayar and Periyar rivers and its catchment basin. It was after independence, in 1947, that the lease agreement came under scrutiny. There were many failed attempts to renew the agreement between the period of 1958-1969. Finally in 1970, the lease was revamped. Nevertheless, the validity period of the lease is under dispute till date. Consequently, Kerala has had a long standing sense of grievance over the 1886 agreement between the Madras Presidency (under the British Rule) and the princely state of Tranvancore, now in Kerala. The current issue may be partially derived from this historically sensitive idea of sharing the natural resource with inadequate compensation. It won’t be completely wrong to argue this as one of the driving factors of the conflict.

Besides the historical perspective on the dam, which may well be an inducer, safety of the dam invariably features the central part in the current conflict. Mullaperiyar dam built in 1887 is now 114 years old and of course is showing signs of ageing. The Central Water Commission and the Centre for Earth Sciences Study had reported leaks and cracks in the dam. The report also suggested that the storage level of the dam should be reduced from 142 ft to 136 ft and the dam structures should be strengthened. The suggested measures were implemented by Tamil Nadu but their effectiveness has been questioned by the government of Kerala. It was also realised that Mullaperiyar dam is in a seismically active zone and can’t sustain earthquake of >6 magnitude on Ritcher’s scale. There is no doubt that the 19th century construction technique is archaic and the dam safety might not be up-to the mark. On technical and social grounds, it is apparent that the Kerala Government is being precautious and sensitive to the safety concerns of its people who might get severely affected but the proposal of a new dam points towards concealing deeper intentions. The plan of the new dam in terms of its height, storage and location will inherently disrupt the water flow to the Mullaperiyar dam. Also, the Idukki dam (Kerala), with 7 times in storage capacity, would receive more water as compared to now, if the Mullaperiyar dam is deconstructed. It can be conveniently argued now that Kerala’s arguments have more to do with claiming its water resources back from Tamil Nadu this way or that. This alternative view point gives it a whole new dimension and may well be held responsible for impeding the peace negotiation process in the region.

The issue has blown out of proportion with political dramatisation, involvement of the centre and ineffective implementation of the Supreme Court judgements. Some argue that the matter was spurted due to the upcoming by-poll elections in Kerala and that ’dam safety’ makes a significant mark in the election manifesto. Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, has been politically motivated based on the argument of adverse economic impact due to the suggested modifications in the dam (esp. storage level). Supreme Court interventions and the ’empowered committee’ till now has failed in resolving the issue. Mass protests, fasting, strikes and agitation have been observed on both sides of the border. Agriculture, industries and local economic activities are bearing the brunt of the ongoing dispute.

Despite its history, century-old dam construction and an ongoing economic renaissance in the region, the issue is more concentrated towards the political differences. Instead of dealing with Mullaperiyar as a geo-political conflict, it should be tackled as an institutional, legal and administrative failure in the region. Equitable distribution of the benefits of the shared resource is not an impossible task to achieve. Mutual commitment to maintain the transboundary flows with defined ’rules, rights and protections’ - religiously followed -- would lead to not only an improved hydro-politics of the region but would also enhance the water use efficiency of the resource. Also, as seen in the Mullaperiyar issue, journals, articles and news briefs have accentuated the superficial debate and restrained the facts of the matter. Attention given to the political propaganda should be constrained by the media, given their power to influence the emotions and actions of the people affected. A well informed and responsible journalistic intervention has the capability to unleash not only the ground reality but also to facilitate the peaceful decision making process.

(Sonali Mittra is a Research Assistant at Centre for Resource Management, Observer Research Foundation)

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