Mullaperiyar row | Dam Safety Act can end disputes, says Supreme Court

2021 law provides for almost everything, other than how to settle political scores, says court

Updated - April 01, 2022 12:05 am IST

Published - March 31, 2022 08:02 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A view of Mullaperiyar Dam on Kerala-Tamil Nadu border at Kumily, near Idukki. File

A view of Mullaperiyar Dam on Kerala-Tamil Nadu border at Kumily, near Idukki. File | Photo Credit: Vibhu H.

The Supreme Court on Thursday found in the Dam Safety Act of 2021 a panacea to end the “perennial” legal battle between Tamil Nadu and Kerala over the Mullaperiyar dam.

A Bench led by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar said that the new law provided for almost everything, other than how to “settle political scores”, to resolve inter-State disputes over dams.

The Act comprehensively postulates for surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of dams to prevent disasters.

Formation of 2 bodies

Moreover, the Central statute, which came in to force in December last, mandates the setting up of two specialised bodies, National Committee on Dam Safety and National Dam Safety Authority (NDSA) to evolve policies, recommend regulations for dam safety standards and resolve disputes between the States.

Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been trading charges against each other over the safety, operation and maintenance of the Mullaperiyar dam. While Kerala claims the 126-year-old dam is unsafe, badly maintained and a threat to thousands of people living downstream, Tamil Nadu denies it. Kerala is pitching for a new dam in place of the existing one, while Tamil Nadu, which operates and maintains the reservoir, argues that the dam is well-preserved and so strong that the height water level could even be increased to 152 feet.

A few days ago, the Supreme Court was in search of an answer to the “perennial problem” between the two neighbours over the dam. It had mooted the idea of extending the powers of its own supervisory committee to take over charge of the safety and maintenance of the structure and its site.

However, on Thursday, Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati, who is appearing for both the supervisory committee and the Central Water Commission, showed the court an alternative in the 2021 law and the NDSA.

“So, the Mullaperiyar dispute may be the first one to be handled under this Act?” Justice Khanwilkar asked Ms. Bhati.

‘Should panel continue?’

The Bench even wondered whether the supervisory committee should now continue as the 2021 Act has made it redundant.

However, Kerala said the Centre was yet to appoint specialists to the NDSA.

“When will this authority [NDSA] become functional? This authority should be obliged to take care of all matters of safety of the dam... It will be the duty and responsibility of the authority to take care of the safety of the dam,” Justice Khanwilkar addressed Ms. Bhati.

The court asked Ms. Bhati to give a detailed note by Tuesday on the Act and the responsibilities of the NDSA.

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