Today marks 125th anniversary of signing of agreement on Mullaperiyar dam
October 29 marks the 125th anniversary of the signing of an agreement on the Mullaperiyar dam between the erstwhile Madras and Travancore governments, but the matter still remains a bone of contention between their successor States, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
As part of the agreement, about 8,000 acres was leased by Travancore to Madras for execution of the Periyar project. In pursuance of the agreement, a water reservoir was constructed across the Periyar river during 1887-1895. It is known as the Mullaperiyar dam, comprising the main dam and a baby dam.
According to the History of the Periyar Project, a publication compiled by the Public Works Department's Executive Engineer A.T. Mackenzie (published first in 1898 and subsequently in 1963), the idea of diverting the Periyar into Madurai had existed for an unknown time, but “merely as an idea.” In 1850, work on a small dam and channel began only to be given up later due to fever among workers and demand for “excessive wages.”
Twelve years later, the project was revived by Major Ryves. Eventually, in May 1882, Major (later Colonel) J. Pennycuick was entrusted with the responsibility of carrying out the project. Pennycuick came to be regarded as the architect of the Periyar dam, which was made of lime and surki. Its total cost was estimated at Rs.84.71 lakh (towards capital expenditure), according to the publication. The full reservoir level of the dam is 152 ft with capacity of 10.56 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft). Nearly 70,000 hectares of the composite Madurai and Ramanathapuram districts form part of the irrigation network.
What is more significant is that the people of these districts still display their gratitude to Pennycuick who had toiled under extremely adverse conditions to build the dam. In at least a couple of sites in this belt, there are memorials for Pennycuick in the form of statue or bust. In a village near Chinnamanur, the birth anniversary of Pennycuick is celebrated every year. W. Stuart Sampson, great grandson of Pennycuick and a lawyer by profession, was overwhelmed by the reception given by farmers of the Cumbum valley during his visit in 2003.
After the dam construction was over, the dispute between the two States – Travancore and Madras – arose in about 40 years as to whether the principal deed entitled Madras to use the Periyar water for hydro power generation. Initially Tamil Nadu suffered a setback but the issue was resolved 30 years later. On May 29, 1970, Tamil Nadu and Kerala signed an agreement, under which Tamil Nadu was allowed to generate electricity from the project and it surrendered fishing rights in the leasehold land in favour of Kerala. But, within 10 years, another controversy erupted over the safety of the dam.
In November 1979, a tripartite meeting, chaired by K. C. Thomas, the then Chairman of the Central Water Commission, decided that the level should be lowered to 136 feet and Tamil Nadu should undertake strengthening measures. The matter took a new turn when the Supreme Court, in its order in February 2006, permitted Tamil Nadu to raise the water level from 136 ft. to 142 ft. and take up the remaining strengthening measures. This led to the next phase of the protracted dispute.
In March 2006, Kerala enacted the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, which prohibited the raising of water level beyond 136 ft. as the Mullaperiyar dam was placed under the Schedule of ‘Endangered Dams'. Subsequently, Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court, challenging the validity of the Act.
In February 2010, following the Court's directions, the Union government constituted an empowered committee, headed by former Chief Justice of India A.S. Anand, to hear the parties on all issues that would be raised before them and furnish a report to the Court. The committee's tenure has been extended up to February 2012.
Among the issues being discussed is the Kerala's proposal to go in for a new dam, a move strongly opposed by Tamil Nadu, which argues that the old structure, now retrofitted, is as good as a new dam.