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Dam over troubled water

Politicians from Tamil Nadu and Kerala need to show statesmanship

Written by Gopu Mohan |
December 1, 2011 1:45:39 am

Mullaiperiyar or Mullaperiyar? Where one stands on the dam dispute between Tamil Nadu and Kerala can be easily revealed by how the name is spelt. Here,“i” makes all the difference: a letter of the alphabet and also a pronoun that is a damning indicator of subjectivity — an absolute lack of objectivity — on both sides.

Periyar and Mullaiyar are two rivers originating in the Western Ghats and joining at Thekkadi in Idukki district of Kerala. In the late 18th century,the kingdom of Ramanad was the first to consider bringing the river water from the western side of the Ghats to the eastern side. The western side had an abundance of water while the other was in desperate need of it — but it did not make economic sense then.

Then came the British,who had by then set up a presidency to administer the whole region. This made it easy for them to enter into an agreement with the Maharaja of Travancore to lease out 8,000 acres of land on October 29,1886. Under the agreement,the reservoir was to exist on the eastern side of the Ghats,in present-day Kerala,from where the water would be taken through a tunnel into the Vaigai river basin.

Though the project was taken up in earnest,the enthusiasm did not last long as it faced many hurdles,including the first structure being washed away in floods and the deaths of many people due to the extreme conditions. The authorities withdrew,but not Major John Pennycuick. He sold his wife’s jewels and pawned his estate to complete the work in 1896,bringing fame to himself and fortune to thousands in the districts of Theni,Madurai,

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Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram. The area came under largescale irrigation,multiplying agricultural productivity.

After Independence,particularly after the formation of Kerala in 1956,came the duality of us-and-them between the two states,following which questions were raised about the lease terms: the river and catchment area were primarily in Kerala,with Tamil Nadu making only a minuscule contribution. There were disputes earlier too,like the ones settled in 1941,but the issue assumed a different colour after the states’ reorganisation. In 1970,the two governments renewed the agreement without much change,barring some specifics like a hike in payment over lease of land and for generation of hydro-electric power.

The question of safety came much later,in 1979,after it was reported that the structure was leaking. A study conducted by a team of experts from the Central Water Commission led by its chairman K.C. Thomas found no danger to the dam,but suggested lowering the water level to 136 feet from over 142 ft then — the full capacity is 152 ft. This was to be maintained till the structure was strengthened.

But ever since,the water level has been linked to the safety of the structure on the Kerala side,while Tamil Nadu maintains safety is a bogey to prevent it from taking “all the waters” as promised under the original deed and the renewed agreement. According to the water experts in Tamil Nadu,the state can draw only 6.5 tmc ft (thousand million cubic feet) of water as opposed to 15 tmc ft if the water is stored to the full.

After the issue was deadlocked in courts,tribunals and committees over the years,Kerala changed tack recently to suggest constructing a new structure with the expense completely borne by it and promising to deliver the same amount of water to Tamil Nadu. Safety for Kerala and water for Tamil Nadu,goes the slogan. But this has not found favour across the border as Tamil Nadu argues the new structure is further downstream,making it impossible to send the water to the Vaigai basin. Also,ownership,operation and upkeep is a matter Tamil Nadu would not give up at any cost,something Kerala is unlikely to comply with as it did in 1970.

While Kerala argues that any accident would result in the deaths of thousands till the water reaches the Idukki dam,and hundreds of thousands if that dam is not able to withhold the floodwaters,this claim is viewed with suspicion by Tamil Nadu. Disagreement is the only point of agreement between the two at this moment.

If politicians are merely enacting the role expected of them,what is noteworthy is the role of the media on both sides. Objectivity has given way to parochialism,and the “other” is absolutely wrong. The dispute has reached where it has now because of media activism. If the argument is it will hasten resolution,so will it political violence.

As the two states argue and agitate,what has gone under the torrent is their mutual dependence. The southern districts of Tamil Nadu are completely dependent on the water from the reservoir for irrigation — crops the people of Kerala are banking on for daily consumption. The issue now requires an equal measure of magnanimity and statesmanship from leaders on both sides.

gopu.mohan@expressindia.com

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