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വായന

28 November, 2011

Storm over dam in South

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A storm is brewing over a river water dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which has been simmering for decades, with political parties and the media playing up emotive aspects like risk of a dam burst and drying up of farmland.

In the eye of the storm is the Mullaperiyar dam, built in 1895 to divert the waters of the Periyar in the state of Travancore to irrigate parched lands in British-ruled Madras presidency. Kerala is worried as the collapse of the aged structure can endanger the lives of three million people in the state.

In 1886, under pressure from the British rulers, the Maharaja of Travancore leased 8,100 acres of land to them for 999 years. The lease agreement gave them British the right to construct irrigation works there and use the impounded waters for irrigation in the Madras presidency.

Since Travancore became part of Kerala, and the areas that benefit by the diversion of river waters are in Tamil Nadu, these states became successor parties to the agreement. Although the two states signed fresh agreements regarding use of the waters of the river after Independence, the colonial character of the lease remained unchanged: the dam located in Kerala remains under Tamil Nadu’s control.

The first dam built by British army engineers was washed away by flood waters within a year. They then built the present one, with a full reservoir level of 152 feet, using stones and surki, a mixture of sugar and calcium oxide. A reinforced concrete parapet was added later.

Concerns about the safety of the dam arose in 1979 when it developed cracks. At a meeting of Kerala and Tamil Nadu officials, convened by the Central Water Commission, it was decided to reduce the reservoir level to 136 feet immediately. Medium and long-term measures to strengthen the dam were also agreed upon.

In 1986 , the CWC proposed additional measures to strengthen the structure and said if Tamil Nadu raised the height of the concrete parapet by two feet the reservoir level could be raised again to 152 feet.

A series of mild tremors, of not more than three on the Richter scale, in the vicinity of the dam aggravated fears about its safety. Experts said a quake of magnitude 6 can bring down the structure. With Tamil Nadu pressing to raise the reservoir level and Kerala resisting it, there was no meeting ground.

In 2000, the Supreme Court, which took over a bunch of petitions filed in the high courts of the two states, asked the Centre to convene a meeting of Chief Ministers to resolve the dispute. The meeting failed to break the deadlock.

In 2006, the court allowed Tamil Nadu to raise the reservoir level to 142 feet and take up measures to strengthen the dam, after which, it said, the level could be raised to 152 feet. Kerala immediately enacted a law to place Mullaperiyar in the Schedule of Endangered Dams and prohibit raising of water level beyond 132 feet. It also announced plans to build a new dam to replace it. Tamil Nadu urged the court to strike down the law and stop Kerala from going ahead with plans to replace the existing dam.

An empowered committee, appointed by the Centre at the court’s instance, is now grappling with the problem. Meanwhile, with 26 tremors reported in four months, Kerala wants to construct the new dam early and scrap the present one.

Tamil Nadu politicians often take a jingoist position on the issue. At their instance, the state last week banned a movie, Dam 999, made by a UAE-based Keralite, Sohan Roy, under a Hollywood banner. They alleged the film, based on the collapse of the Banqiao dam in China in 1975, was made with Mullaperiyar in mind.

Lately some Kerala politicians, too, are adopting strident tones. This may be due partly to the influence of the increasingly sensationalist media and partly to the upcoming Assembly by-election at Piravom, close to the dam site, where the ruling United Democratic Front had scraped through earlier this year with a slender majority of 157 votes.

Actually there is no conflict of interest between the two states. Kerala relies upon Tamil Nadu for grains and vegetables. It is in its interest to ensure that Tamil Nadu farms get water. If the dam collapses, Tamil Nadu will go without water. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy puts it this way: “Safety for Kerala, water for Tamil Nadu.” The system’s failure to resolve the issue can only be attributed to the lack of sensitivity of those operating it. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 28, 2011.

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