The Mullaperiyar dam has been the bone of contention between Tamil Nadu and Kerala for a long time. Read here to know about the history of the 126 years old dam.
Why in news?
The Supreme Court’s direction recently to the supervisory committee for the Mullaperiyar dam on the issue of the maximum water level has revived the controversy surrounding the dam.
The order was issued while hearing a petition raising apprehensions about the supervision of water levels of the reservoir, especially during the rainy season and as Kerala has also been experiencing unusually heavy spells of rain.
During October 18-25 2021, the dam too received a substantial inflow. Despite the Court’s nod in 2014 to store water up to 142 ft, Tamil Nadu has been careful in drawing as much water as possible so that the level does not reach the permissible level ordinarily.
History of 126-year-old Mullaperiyar dam:
The Mullaperiyar Dam is on the River Periyar and its tributary, the Mullayar in the state of Kerala, hence the amalgamation Mulla-Periyar. It is located 881 m (2,890 ft) above mean sea level, on the Cardamom Hills of the Western Ghats in Thekkady, Idukki district of Kerala, India.
It was constructed between 1887 and 1895 by John Pennycuick when the British Government decided to divert the water eastward to service the farmers in the Madras presidency (present-day Tamil Nadu).
Pennycuik planned the river interlinking to bring barren and rain-starved areas under cultivation. The road from Cumbom to Kumily, now part of the Kollam-Theni national highway, was constructed for bullock carts to move equipment to the dam site.
The first ropeway was also constructed there, which was later shifted to Munnar.
An agreement between the Pandya kings who ruled Madurai and the erstwhile Travancore kingdom was signed for water sharing, which is now a bone of contention between Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The Madras presidency under the British rule looked for diverting the Periyar as the Kingdom of Madurai was facing an acute shortage of water with drought taking a toll on people and cattle. This was in addition to the loss suffered by the farm sector.
The ruler of Cochin State initially objected to the water-diversion scheme as it was feared that the dam would affect water flow and movement of goods and people through the Periyar to the Arabian sea.
On 29 October 1886, a lease indenture for 999 years was made between the Maharaja of Travancore and the British Secretary of State for India for Periyar Irrigation Works. The lease indenture granted full right, power, and liberty to the Secretary of State for India to construct make, and carry out on the leased land.
After independence and state reorganization, Kerala and Tamil Nadu were born and the Kerala state government announced that the earlier agreement which had been signed between British Raj and Travancore was invalid and needed to be renewed.
After several failed attempts to renew the agreement in 1958, 1960, and 1969, the agreement was renewed in 1970 when C Achutha Menon was Kerala’s, Chief Minister.
- According to the renewed agreement, the tax per acre was increased and for the electricity generated in Lower Camp using Mullaperiyar water, the charge was ₹12 per kW per hour.
- Tamil Nadu uses the water and the land, and the Tamil Nadu government has been paying to the Kerala government for the past 50 years tax per year for the whole land and extra as a surcharge for the total amount of electricity generated.
Mullaperiyar dam dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu
Kerala has pointed out the unfairness of the 1886 lease agreement and has challenged its validity. However, the danger posed by the 126-year-old dam to the safety of the people of Kerala in the event of a dam collapse has been the focus of disputes from 2009 onwards.
Kerala’s proposal for decommissioning the dam and constructing a new one has been challenged by Tamil Nadu.
Tamil Nadu has blamed Kerala for delaying the finalization of the rule curve for the dam.
- The rule curve in a dam decides the fluctuating storage levels in a reservoir. The gate opening schedule of a dam is based on the rule curve. It is part of the “core safety” mechanism in a dam.
- The rule curve level is fixed to avoid the emergency opening of dam shutters in case of a flood-like situation. It helps in controlling the water level in the dam during peak monsoon.
Kerala has made consistent efforts to obstruct Tamil Nadu from operating the dam as Tamil Nadu is not able to access data that is in Kerala’s terrain. There is no road built, the power supply has not been restored although Tamil Nadu has paid for it.
Kerala has accused Tamil Nadu of adopting an “obsolete” gate operation schedule dating back to 1939.
Supreme Court verdicts on Mullaperiyar dam
2006: SC by its decision by a three-member division bench, allowing for the storage level to be raised to 142 feet (43 m) pending completion of the proposed strengthening measures, provision of other additional vents, and implementation of other suggestions.
- Kerala did not object to giving water to Tamil Nadu. Their main cause of objection is the dam’s safety as it is as old as 110 years (in 2006). Increasing the level would add more pressure to be handled by the already leaking dam.
- Tamil Nadu wants the 2006 order of the Supreme court to be implemented to increase the water level to 142 feet (43 m).
- Kerala also enacted the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006 to ensure the safety of all ‘endangered’ dams in the State.
2010: The Supreme Court decided to constitute a five-member empowered committee under Justice A.S Anand to study all the issues of Mullaperiyar Dam and seek a report from it within six months.
- The committee notably said that the dam is “structurally, hydrologically safe”, and Tamil Nadu can raise the water level from 136 to 142 feet after carrying out repairs.
2014: Supreme Court of India declared the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006 as unconstitutional and allowed Tamil Nadu to raise water level from 136 ft to 142 ft and also formed a permanent Supervisory Committee to take care of the issues relating to the dam.
The safety of the dam again rose to public attention in 2021 after the flood situation in Kerala since 2018 and the destruction of the Rishiganga hydroelectric project & Tapovan dam in Uttarakhand following a glacier burst that killed nearly 200 people.
A UN report on threats possessed by ageing dams across the world stated that the Mullaperiyar dam situated in a seismically active area has major structural flaws and 5 million people are at risk if the 100+ years old dam were to fail.
Two petitions were filed in the Supreme Court alleging that the supervisory committee formed as per Supreme Court order in 2014 was not functioning properly for the past 6 years, responding to which the Supreme Court ordered Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu to come out with the rule curve immediately or face action.
- Tamil Nadu’s Chief Secretary shall be personally responsible and appropriate action will be taken on failure to give information on the rule curve for Mullaperiyar dam to the SC -appointed Supervisory Committee.
- SC also directed the Supervisory Committee to issue directions or take steps to address the three core safety issues and submit a compliance report in four weeks.
i) Monitoring and performance of the instrumentation of the dam.
ii) Finalizing the rule curve.
iii) Fixing the gate operating schedule
The dispute has exhausted the technical and judicial settlement options to solve the problem, and now a political solution is one of the plausible ways to go for an amicable solution is the need of the hour as many lives are also at stake in case of a catastrophe.