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During the freedom struggle against the British, there was a deep sense of oneness among the people. Creation of administratively autonomous states based on language after Independence has become a structural hurdle against national pride.  It has led to miscommunication among the people driven by sentiments.

It has also led to a lack of pride in belonging to a diversified civilizational nation with a culture of its own and family value systems. Economic development was pursued based on imported ideas and policies at the cost of environmental, social, and cultural norms. As a result, regional disputes have become festering sores. The Mullaperiyar Dam issue is one such issue that has been persisting since the 1960s showing deeply flawed thinking in Tamil Nadu as well as Kerala.

 In a different context, development economist Yamini Aiyar recently stated that “our shared histories, cultures and geographic interconnectedness are a source of great strength and power. But without careful nurturing, these very interconnections and shared histories are a tool for a deep, divisive, and violent politics that is increasingly gaining domestic legitimacy within … across the region. Such a politics will leave each individual nation more vulnerable and at far greater risk of re-living the traumatic violence of its past. A strong, peaceful, connected … is at the heart of protecting national interest within the region.” This is true of the Mullaperiyar dam issue between Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as the Cauvery water issue between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and the Krishna water issue between Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

In 1979, because of the controversy that had erupted, storage level was reduced from a full capacity of 152 ft to 136 ft.

However, as one report rightly stated, “the equation between the two States is far more complex than those of Tamil Nadu with Karnataka. With Kerala,Tamil Nadu has issues on several river waters, such as Parambikulam-Aliyar, Siruvani of the Bhavani sub-basin, Neyyar, and the proposal for linking the Pamba and Achankovil rivers of Kerala with Vaippar of Tamil Nadu. But, in the case of Karnataka, Cauvery is the only river to be considered.”

The main dispute is the appropriateness of the dam’s water level. The safety aspects of Mullaperiyar dam trace back to the 1960s when mysterious stories erupted in a national daily after a Kerala flood raising concerns over the safety of the dam. It has been four decades now but safety concerns are yet to be proved scientifically or advanced from the basic features which were cited as main reasons initially.

The main dispute is the appropriateness of the dam’s water level.

Since the dam commissioning in 1895, almost everything went smoothly for nearly eight decades. In 1979, because of the controversy that had erupted, storage level was reduced from a full capacity of 152 ft to 136 ft. But this did not tamp down fears in Kerala. It is possible there are other factors at work behind the demand for the safety of the dam.

Judicial intervention has provided a concrete roadmap for the states. The Supreme Court gave two separate judgments, in 2006 and 2014, and directed that water level can be raised to 152 ft. It also directed the formation of a committee for oversight. So, the system is in place as it should be in a rule-based practicing democracy.

Educated, but ill-informed people in academia, a section of the media and film actors are among those who are working against giving the other state its constitutional due, Scientists and experts have gone into the intricacies of dam safety. Courts gave specific mandates for the experts and their opinion formed the basis for judicial intervention. But these have been completely ignored by some media outlets that have launched a campaign against the dam.

International forces, academic and non-academic, are working against the interests of both states, thus jeopardizing national interest. Their warnings on dam safety are based on vague estimations and predictions. One such report is “Ageing water infrastructure: An emerging global risk” by United Nations University’s Canada-based Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Instead of producing country-specific working papers and making raw data available in the public domain, the report seeks to make a generic conclusion including on Mullaiperiyar issue that the media in Kerala has recently highlighted as a cause for concern.

Poor communication between water management authorities of both states and mismanaging critical situations covering dam water storage, release, maintenance and so on has contributed to the problem. Part of the current controversy is due to the unusual rains and devastating floods in Kerala. Misjudging of the rains and the possibilities of flooding has contributed to the problem. The Mullaperiyar dam comes in handy to divert people’s attention.

Poor communication between water management authorities of both states and mismanaging critical situations covering dam water storage, release, maintenance and so on has contributed to the problem.

Rejuvenating and restoring hundreds of water bodies like streams, odai, tanks, ponds and lakes, downstream of the dam is not being given enough attention in Tamil Nadu. These measures could boost groundwater and offset the requirement on the water from the dam. But these issues are not given adequate attention.

Tamil Nadu and Kerala have much in common and have a shared civilizational journey with many common cultural, family and social values. Both sides should introspect and avoid acrimony while protecting each state’s interests.

Unbiased scientific data on dam safety and water use should be the basis of solutions. At present, authorized studies commissioned by governments on dam hydrology, structural stability, and the problem of seismicity are not available in the public domain.

One way is for both states to abide by the rule curve set by the Supervisory Committee formed by the Supreme Court. Secondly, bigots on both sides should be quickly punished so distrust between the peoples is avoided.

We need to think beyond the present polarised positions because both positions are seriously flawed. The Mullaperiyar dam agreement was one of the first formal inter-state, inter-basin water sharing and transfer agreement in India. It is an important model, which if pursued with conviction, courage and political will, can be replicated across the country for resolving water disputes and water sharing to help farmers get water all through the year. 

The author is an Economist and Public Policy Expert


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