Back to square one

The Mullaperiyar dam, which has been a cause of bickering between Tamil Nadu and Kerala for decades, is again in the limelight with two developments kicking up a storm. One is the circumstances under which the release of excess water through two spillway gates began on October 29 and the second is the Kerala government’s decision to retract the permission it had earlier granted to Tamil Nadu to fell 15 trees.


The 126-year-old Mullaperiyar dam, in the Idukki district of Kerala, is an outcome of the 1886 lease agreement between the then Travancore princely state and the British government. It diverts the west-flowing rivers to the east through a tunnel in order to irrigate about 58,650 hectares in the dry southern districts of Tamil Nadu, which owns, operates and maintains the dam.

Concerns over the safety of the dam were first raised in 1979, leading to the Centre’s intervention. In November that year, the dam’s water level was lowered to 136 feet from its full level of 152 ft. Since the mid-1990s, Tamil Nadu has been demanding the restoration of the water level on the ground that it had completed most of the strengthening work. The Supreme Court, in February 2006, allowed water to be stored up to 142 ft and asked Tamil Nadu to carry out the balance work. When Kerala enacted a law in March 2006 against raising the water level beyond 136 ft, the matter again went to the Supreme Court, which, in May 2014, reiterated its previous ruling and held the Kerala law unconstitutional. This time, the Court relied on a number of studies undertaken by different agencies such as the Central Water and Power Research Station and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.

Between July 2014 and March 2018, the Centre, in response to the Court’s orders, formed two committees: a Supervisory Committee for inspecting the dam periodically, keeping a close watch on its safety and recommending measures; and a sub-committee under the National Disaster Management Authority for monitoring the measures to ensure high level of preparedness to face any disaster in relation to the dam.

Recent developments

But the controversies did not die down. A month ago, during the torrential rains and landslides in Kerala, the safety of the dam again became a matter of concern. It was under these circumstances that the excess water was released from the dam through the spillway gates. The presence of Kerala Ministers Roshy Augustine and K. Rajan during the water release inauguration was viewed by the AIADMK and sections of farmers of the Vaigai basin as unacceptable.

Even as the AIADMK planned to hold demonstrations on November 9 and Water Resources Minister Durai Murugan fiercely refuted the AIADMK coordinator O. Panneerselvam’s criticism of the DMK regime’s approach came the news that Kerala’s chief wildlife warden Bennichan Thomas had given his nod for cutting 15 trees as a prerequisite to take up the remaining work. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin swiftly thanked his Kerala counterpart Pinarayi Vijayan for the clearance. But this was short-lived relief for Tamil Nadu as the Kerala government on November 7 decided to freeze the clearance. Kerala’s Forest Minister A.K. Saseendran later told the Assembly that the development had caught the government unawares. Mr. Thomas has since been placed under suspension.

On November 13, when the Supreme Court heard the case, Tamil Nadu, in its written reply to issues raised by Kerala, informed the Court of the developments. There is a talk in certain quarters that the Chief Ministers of the two States may meet soon. It remains to be seen whether the leaders will come up with any solution to the dispute over the water level in the dam.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 7:40:56 AM |

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