The Mullaperiyar dam has been a bone of contention between Kerala and Tamil Nadu since 1970.


New Delhi: With the Central Water Commission (CWC) asking the Supreme Court to conduct a new safety inspection at the Mullaperiyar Dam, the contentious issue between Kerala and Tamil Nadu is all set to reopen its floodgates once again. The last safety check of the dam took place during 2010-12. If any safety issue is detected by a panel comprising technical experts after 10 years, the situation would be favourable for Kerala. Tamil Nadu on the other hand would hope that the expert team gives a clean chi on the safety of the dam. The Mullaperiyar dam has been a bone of contention between Kerala and Tamil Nadu since 1970 when some cracks appeared on the dam and hence will continue to be under the supervision of the committee set up by the Supreme Court in 2010.

The Mullaperiyar Dam situated in Kerala and managed by neighbouring Tamil Nadu has been a sensitive issue – socially and politically—in both the states. While in Kerala if there is sheer fear over the safety of the 126-year-old dam, in Tamil Nadu it is a question of quenching the thirst of millions and cultivating acres of arable land. But there is no denying the fact that ecological degradation may have taken its toll on the health of the dam too.

With the Rajya Sabha passing the Dam Safety Bill, 2019 last December, surveillance, maintenance and operation of all prominent dams in the country will come under the respective State Dam Safety Organisations, to be established under Section 14 of the proposed law. The Lok Sabha had adopted the bill in 2019. The Mullaperiyar dam is an exception in the sense that though the dam is located in Kerala, it is operated and maintained by Tamil Nadu. Five districts in Tamil Nadu – Theni, Madurai, Dindigul, Sivagangai and Ramanathapuram – are solely dependent on Mullaperiyar for drinking water and irrigation purposes, and also for the generation of power in Lower Periyar Power Station.

In 2014, the Supreme Court, while allowing Tamil Nadu to raise the water level to 142 feet, significantly quashed the Kerala Irrigation Water Conservation Act, 2006, that barred raising the water level in the dam above 136 feet on safety grounds.  Kerala had enacted this legislation in 2006 to circumvent the then Supreme Court order allowing Tamil Nadu to raise the water level to 142 feet. Under the 2006 legislation, Kerala had formed a Dam Safety Authority to prevent Tamil Nadu from raising the water level. It was against this Kerala action that Tamil Nadu again approached the apex court. Delivering the 2014 verdict, the top court observed that by enacting the law and fixing the storage height of the dam at 136 feet, Kerala had nullified the 2006 judgment and “usurped judicial power” and thus “interfered with judicial functioning”. The court also appointed a three-member committee with chairman of the Central Water Commission as the chairperson and representatives from Kerala and Tamil Nadu to “supervise and ensure that the water level in the dam was raised up to 142 feet”. Further, the court directed the committee to conduct periodic inspections of the dam, especially before the onset of the monsoon and during the rainy season, and take all precautionary measures necessary for the safety of the dam.

“State of Kerala is restrained by a decree of permanent injunction from applying and enforcing the impugned legislation or in any manner interfering with or obstructing the State of Tamil Nadu from increasing the water level to 142 ft and from carrying out the repair works. A 3 Member Supervisory Committee is constituted which shall supervise the restoration Full Reservoir Level (FRL) in the Mullaperiyar dam to the elevation of 142 ft and shall inspect the dam periodically, more particularly, immediately before the monsoon and during the monsoon and keep close watch on its safety and recommend measures which are necessary. Such measures shall be carried out by Tamil Nadu,” the court order read.

However, the floods that have been ravaging Kerala with regularity since 2018 have become a matter of deep concern. Coupled with this are unauthenticated and unsolicited “studies” on the safety of Mullaperiyar that surface on and off, especially in social media.

The latest one doing the rounds is a report brought out by a UN research affiliate called “United Nations University”. This study has raised an alarm about the dam’s location being in “seismically acute areas” that proves to be extremely detrimental for the people living nearby. The report stated that the ageing of large dams is a major matter of concern. The people living in Kerala’s Idukki district experienced several tremors in July 2011.

“One of the primary technical issues has been the safety of the people living in Kerala, downstream of the dam. The safety concerns are built on the fact that the dam has outlived its life and that it was built with old technology. Adding to these apprehensions of the resident population were the instances of leaks observed in the dam. If the dam collapses, it would wash away a stretch of about 25 km between Mullaperiyar and Idukki dams affecting about 0.1 million people,” the UN report said. Earlier in 2009, the Department of Earthquake Engineering of the Indian Institute of Technology Roorkie, too had concluded that the main Mullaperiyar dam and bay dam are likely to undergo damage in the event of an earthquake.

As recently as this November the Kerala government told the Supreme Court that “no amount of rejuvenation by any means can perpetuate the lifespan of the 126-year-old Mullaperiyar dam, built across the Periyar River, and that any failure could have a cascading effect on the Idukki Dam situated downstream, probably threatening the lives and properties of 50 lakh people”.

The Tamil Nadu government on its part has stood firm by its position that the 126-year-old Mullaperiyar dam is “hydrologically, structurally and seismically safe”. The state said there is a “social media campaign” triggered in Kerala against the dam.

.However, there is a need to allay the fears of the people living in downstream areas especially in the light of growing protests egged on by political parties in Kerala. Already, a Mullaperiyar Action Council had been formed in Kerala. But the safety of the Mullaperiyar dam has been a concern in Kerala all the more because both the United Democratic Front led by the Congress and the Left Democratic Front headed by the CPI-M have been conveniently using the issue to gain political mileage. The dam has also been used by both Congress and the CPI-M for political one-upmanship.