Walking through town yesterday I came across a small demonstration, outside what is known locally as ‘the bombed out church‘, about the Mullaperiyar Dam in India. According to the demonstrators, if this dam is allowed to fail, then 3.5 million people could be dead in less than 3 hours
The dam, built by the British in the late 19th century on the Periyar river, Kerala, diverts water to Tamil Nadu (at the time, Tamil Nadu was the Madras Presidency area). The dam is leased, operated and maintained by the Tamil Nadu state.
Although the dam has undergone several bouts of repair in its life-time, disasters such as the Morvi Dam failure of 1979 and an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale in 1988, have prompted the Kerala government to raise safety concerns about the dam.
However, it looks as though safety concerns are not the whole story here. Since it’s formation in 1956, the Kerala state government has consistently maintained that the 999 year lease for over 8000 acres of land, given to Tamil Nadu by the British, is invalid and has attempted several times to renew the agreement. In 1970 the agreement was renewed and since then, the Tamil Nadu government has paid an increased rate of tax on the land itself and the electricity generated by the dam. The validity of this new agreement is under dispute between Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Kerala has proposed the decommissioning of the Mullaperiyar Dam and the construction of new a one. Tamil Nadu argues that this would amount to losing 8000 acres of land to Kerala and the potential for failed crops due to restricted water supply should the existing dam be decommissioned. Kerala argues that the dam is unsafe and that Tamil Nadu’s increasing demands of the dam put the safety of those in the surrounding areas at jeopardy.
Perhaps the best summary of the issue at hand is one which is quoted in the Wikipedia article itself:
“For every argument raised by Tamil Nadu in support of its claims, there is counter-argument in Kerala that appears equally plausible. Yet, each time the controversy gets embroiled in extraneous issues, two things stand out: One is Kerala’s refusal to acknowledge the genuine need of the farmers in the otherwise drought-prone regions of Tamil Nadu for the waters of the Mullaperiyar; the other is Tamil Nadu’s refusal to see that it cannot rely on or continue to expect more and more from the resources of another State to satisfy its own requirements to the detriment of the other State. A solution perhaps lies in acknowledging the two truths, but neither government can afford the political repercussions of such a confession”
– Krishnakumar, R. (25 Nov 2000). “Over to the Supreme Court”. Frontline (The Hindu) 17 (24).
There are several documentaries and YouTube videos about this issue which I will be watching with interest. I would urge the demonstrators I saw yesterday to write to their officials and stress the need for an independent assessment of the dam’s safety, in order to solidify the findings of IIT Roorkee, which, in 2009, filed a report stating that the dam would not safely withstand an earthquake of magnitude 6.5.
As it stands, I find myself leaning towards the opinion that the only real long-term solution to the issue is to build a new dam. Interstate disputes cannot be allowed to jeopardise the lives of the people at risk from a failed dam. Hopefully, with enough pressure, the Kerala and Tamil Nadu states can come to a fair arrangement which benefits both sides and removes the shadow of fear over the people within the areas surrounding the dam.