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Mainstream, VOL L, No 6, January 28, 2012

A Dam in Danger and Damned Delay in Settling a Simple Dispute

Tuesday 31 January 2012, by N A Karim



The Mullaperiyar Dam in Kerala built on river Periyar 116 years ago using the then available construction materials and technology has become a matter of raucous controversy between the two contiguous States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. When the dam was built, its life was determined as 40 years. It was built at the initiative of the then composite Madras province for water for the five districts of the province administered by the paramount British Crown. The ruling house of Travancore had to yield under pressure 2000 acres of land for the dam and another 200 acres of land for buildings and other infrastructural facilities.

In addition to water for cultivation and drinking purposes, the Tamil Nadu Government began to also produce 140 MW electricity there. A ‘baby dam’ too was built by the Tamil Nadu Government to suit their convenience. Matters were going fairly smoothly though there had been occasional bickerings and disputes between the two States on various issues on this inter-State arrangement of sharings of water but they always mysteriously died down soon. The Tamil Nadu Government influenced the officers and politicians of Kerala and the status quo continued.
During the tenure of the last Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) nominee, N.K. Premachan-dran, was the Water Resources Minister. He took up the Mullaperiyar issue concerned by the age of the dam in which cracks were found and seepage of water was frequent. Unless the capacity of the dam is constantly maintained at 120 feet and a new dam is built soon, he thought, the overaged dam might burst if a tremor occurs. The area has also been found to be seismologically sensitive and prone to quakes.

As in the past, the Government of Tamil Nadu was this time also callously indifferent to reasonable suggestions for allaying Kerala’s fear of a possible burst of the weakened dam which would submerge the five districts of Idukki, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, Alapuzha and Erana-kulam and endanger the lives of three-and-a-half million people. In material terms, Tamil Nadu also stands to lose water in the five districts of Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Ramanathapuram and Sivaganga for irrigation and drinking. So an amicable solution to the problem of both the States is a tripartite agreement under the aegis of the Centre with Tamil Nadu’s right to water inscribed into it and building a new dam as early as possible with the environmental clearance of the Centre.

Inscrutably, the Jayalalitha Government and all political parties of Tamil Nadu are dead set against the idea of decommissioning the existing dam and building a new one whatever disaster might come. In its pig-headedness the Jayalalitha Government with the vociferous support of all parties in Tamil Nadu has banned the screening of the Bollywood movie of a Malayali director, Sohan Roy, Dam 999, in their theatres. The fear psychosis of the people of Kerala, dispropor-tionately whipped up mostly by the media, though real in essence, has created a war-like situation with protest demonstrations, meetings, fasts, sit-ins, burning of effigies of Chief Ministers and other prominent leaders on either side. The Capital Delhi is also now agog with similar activities by Members of Parliament and even Ministers.

IN spite of all these highly disturbing develop-ment the Prime Minister has been sitting pretty perhaps deeply absorbed in the thought of how his move to open the retail sector of the country to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) can be pushed down the unwilling throats of the people and Parliament. For him, these quarrels between the two States are mere flea-bites when compared to the second generation economic reforms ordered by the Brettenwood twins and World Trade Organisation (WTO). Even otherwise the Central Government has long lost its moral authority to adjudicate in matters of inter-State disputes by cynically trampling upon the spirit of federalism of the Constitution and making a mockery of it.

The Prime Minister and UPA Government at the Centre are mortally afraid of three self-willed strong women Chief Ministers—Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalitha. It is indeed a hen-pecked government at the Centre. Jayalalitha rejected immediately out of hand the Centre’s late idea of a meeting of the officer representatives of the two governments to sort out the Mullaperiyar issue to which Kerala readily agreed. The Centre’s reaction to this unhelpful attitude of Tamil Nadu is a shameless sense of helplessness. The Government of India had been prompt and to some extent successful in settling the issue of sharing of waters of Ganga between us and Bangladesh but not in this much smaller internal matter.

The daily hardening of the position of Tamil Nadu and the obstinacy with which Jayalalitha handles the problem, in which the very lives of more than three million Malayalis are involved, is indeed shocking. Meanwhile animosity and unrest are growing which result in law and order problems. All this is much ado about nothing when there is a solemn assurance on the part of the Government of Kerala that Tamil Nadu will be given the same quantity of water from the new dam envisaged to be built by Kerala not far away from the present aged and unsafe one. It is for the high-powered committee, appointed by the Apex Court, and the experts on whose opinion the committee shall rely in making the final award on the dispute. The issues involved in this present standoff between Kerala and Tamil Nadu are not of a really con-troversial character but of a common humani-tarian concern. Therefore, there will be general goodwill of all in settling the matter with water to Tamil Nadu and safety to the Kerala people, as Oommen Chandy, the Kerala Chief Minister, rightly and repeatedly proclaims as his position in the matter.

Dr N.A. Karim is a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor, University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram.

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