There can be no question of Tamil Nadu giving up its rights over Mullaiperiyar. Its waters are not exclusively Kerala's, but an inter-State resource governed by the principles of inter-State rivers.
In the latest intensification of the Mullaiperiyar controversy, I see the media discourse not only tilted in favour of Kerala but also seeking to paint Tamil Nadu in a bad light — as an adamant State not concerned about the safety of the people in the neighbouring State. The propaganda by Kerala, which was started way back in 1979 with an article in a Malayalam newspaper, has become so institutionalised now that I see independent experts and activists voicing opinions that fail to take into account Tamil Nadu's considered standpoint.
One of the reasons for the national media overlooking Tamil Nadu's views could be lack of ‘experts', ‘intellectuals', ‘activists', ‘policy-makers' and the like — those who normally contribute erudite articles to the edit and op-ed pages of English newspapers and also appear on television debates — to articulate the State's perspective. But the most important reason is that Mullaiperiyar per se is not an emotive or political issue in Tamil Nadu, which has been treating it as a rights issue that it can solve legally. After all, justice is on the side of the right.
That does not mean that Tamil Nadu has not been responsive to the ‘concerns' that were manufactured with the sole intention of nullifying the State's right over 8000 acres of land that Tamil Nadu holds inside Kerala by virtue of an agreement between the erstwhile Maharaja of Travancore and the British Government in India in 1886. Tamil Nadu has taken several steps over the past three decades to allay the fears of the people in Kerala despite knowing very well that politicians were causing panic by propagating falsehoods.
In this context, I found it amusing when Ramaswamy R. Iyer, in two articles, one in The Hindu and another in its sister publication Frontline, stated: “Let Tamil Nadu and Kerala set up a joint committee and reach a mutual agreement. This is essentially a matter for settlement by amicable agreement, not judicial determination.” When I read his statements that neither the view of the Central Water Commission nor the judgment of the Supreme Court was acceptable, I wondered what locus standi he had to make such a suggestion.
With due respect to his views, let me provide key irrefutable facts to reject his thesis. Mr. Iyer himself should be aware of the fact that several rounds of talks have been held between the two States during the past three decades and all of them failed. The talks were held at different levels. Chief Ministers of the States have discussed the issue; Irrigation Ministers have tried to sort out the differences; Chief Secretaries have attempted to arrive at a solution; and other officials have sat across the table several times, even in the presence of the Union Water Resources Ministry. Does Mr. Iyer think that a mutual agreement is possible even now?
But what is galling is Mr. Iyer's contention that it is not a matter for judicial determination. It is the right of every citizen of this country to seek legal recourse on contentious issues and his or her duty to abide by the ruling of the courts. The fact that the Kerala government has failed to abide by the directions of the Supreme Court of India is something no one is bringing to light in the media discourse.
One example relates to the strengthening of the Mullaiperiyar dam, which needs to be done in three phases — emergency, medium-term, and long-term, as advised by the Central Water Commission. Though the medium level strengthening has been completed, Kerala did not allow Tamil Nadu to raise the water level to 142 feet as per the Supreme Court's directive. But overcoming the obstacles that Kerala threw in the way of carrying out the work was more agonising. When Tamil Nadu wanted to use small explosives to break stones, Kerala objected saying that the noise would disturb wildlife. When Tamil Nadu tried to transport the gravel in lorries, they stopped the vehicles saying the sound would scare the animals. At last, we used donkeys to transport building material.
Now Kerala is refusing to give permission for strengthening the baby dam, which is part of the irrigation system in Mullaiperiyar, and the building of the parapet walls on the main dam, which is essential if Tamil Nadu is to complete the long-term strengthening process. If Kerala's concern is the dam's safety alone, why is it preventing us physically from carrying out the strengthening work? I hope the people of Kerala, if they are really fearful of the dam bursting, would ask this of their rulers. Once the long-term strengthening is done, Tamil Nadu would be legally entitled to store water up to 152 feet. It is pertinent here to record the fact that the Kerala government has steadfastly refused to give a power connection to the small PWD maintenance office located at the dam site.
Another issue raised by Mr. Iyer and some other ‘experts' is that the 1886 agreement is seen as ‘unfair' to Kerala. But has its government ever made an issue of it openly? In the various talks I have participated in, the alleged unfairness of the agreement never cropped up. The land clearly belongs to Tamil Nadu as the agreement of 1886 is legally sound.
There can be no question of Tamil Nadu giving up its rights over Mullaiperiyar. The latest slogan, ‘Water for Tamil Nadu, Safety for Kerala,' is just a deception. The proposal for a new dam downstream, which has caught the fancy of many well-meaning people with no real knowledge of ground realities, is only a ploy to deprive Tamil Nadu of water. The most important element that is missing in this narrative is that Mullaiperiyar waters are not exclusively Kerala's, but an inter-State resource governed by the principles of inter-State rivers.
Let me explain why. First, if a new dam is constructed away — that too, downstream — from the Mullaiperiyar, Tamil Nadu will not be able to draw water and supply it to the rain-shadow districts of Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivagangai, and Ramanathapuram. Secondly, environmental clearance could be an uphill task for the construction of a new structure now, given the latest laws, which might be used as a pretext by Kerala to throw up its hands after knocking off the present dam and thus achieving its goal of diverting the water to Idukki dam for power generation.
Kerala's politicians have never told their people for more than two decades that if the Mullaiperiyar is removed, then only about eight tmcft of water would flow into the Idukki dam, which can hold 73 tmcft water. When the people, who have never had an opportunity to see the dam in the thick reserve forest area, were enlightened that the Idukki dam, which is normally filled only up to half its capacity, would hold the water, the Kerala government machinery floated a theory that Idukki would not be able to withstand the sudden inflow. But even the Kerala Advocate General recently told the court that the water would easily collect in the three dams downstream, including Idukki.
Coming to the bogey of ‘tremors' becoming a common occurrence in the region, I wonder why Kerala is so cavalier about it, if its claims were true. Will not a strong earthquake pull down the Idukki dam, which is also in the same seismic region, and cause more devastation?
Another suggestion by Mr. Iyer that hurt me immensely is that Tamil Nadu should “minimise…[its] dependence on the waters of the Mullaiperiyar dam.” All those who want the dam to be decommissioned or its water level brought down to 120 feet should read the life history of Major John Pennycuick, the British humanist who was moved by the plight of the people after a series of famines that led to starvation deaths and large-scale migration from the rain-shadow region. The dam is an example of an educated man's compassion for the marginalised sections of society that eke out a living tilling the ground.
Let me conclude by stating another truth. Kerala politicians mounted the proverbial tiger on the Mullaiperiyar issue. They cannot dismount now. But we believe in justice and that explains why we never played any obstructionist role in bringing out the truth that the dam would stand firm for many more years to give livelihood to the people in Tamil Nadu.
(The author is a senior DMK leader and has been a Tamil Nadu Minister holding portfolios of the PWD and Water Resources and Law.)