At this point, when there is an overflow of emotions on the Mullaperiyar dam issue, the priority cannot be going into the merits of the arguments pressed by Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Suffice it to note that Kerala fears for the safety of the 116-year-old dam situated in Idukki district and wants a new dam to be built in its place. Tamil Nadu's stand is that the dam, which supplies water, mainly for irrigation purposes, to several of its districts, is perfectly safe and the fears are baseless. Both sides see vital interests — questions of life and death — at stake. The process of finding a sustainable solution is under way: in a matter of weeks, an empowered committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India will give its opinion on the safety questions after examining the reports of various experts. Meanwhile, there has been some ugly fallout — stray acts of violence reported from different locations — on both sides of the border. Chauvinistic forces have tried to exploit the situation but the major political leaders in both States have responded soberly and responsibly while reiterating their positions on the issue. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has called on political parties to desist from making inflammatory speeches on the issue, and on Keralites not to succumb to the machinations of “mischief-mongers.” Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has appealed for absolute restraint on the part of his State. Kerala's position was clear, he explained — water for Tamil Nadu, safety for its people — and the State government wanted to resolve the issue, keeping the good relations with Tamil Nadu intact.

The sobriety at the top needs to be followed up on the ground. Every effort must be made to deal firmly with the disruptive elements behind the violence. Equally important, people in both States need to be assured that this is an issue that can be resolved scientifically and amicably. The Mullaperiyar dispute is not about water-sharing, which would allow give and take at a political level. The resolution of the safety issues, and consequential questions, must necessarily come through the agency of technical expertise — and in this case along a legal track. But what political leadership at the top can do is to reach across the border and engage constructively to damp the overheated situation. As Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has pointed out, Kerala and Tamil Nadu can count on mutual trust, goodwill, and esteem, built up and nurtured over a long period. In creating an atmosphere conducive to finding and implementing a scientific, just, and sustainable solution to the Mullaperiyar issue, the media, writers, academics, cultural leaders, and other sections of the intelligentsia in both States have a vital role to play.

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