The Mullaperiyar dam on Periyar river has once again resurfaced as a source of dispute between the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The trigger this time: the floods in Kerala that left at least 373 dead and 54 lakh – a sixth of its population – directly affected.
The tension between the two states over the issue has persisted since the 1960s, with Kerala citing concerns regarding the dam’s safety and arguing for the reduction of the dam’s water levels. But with the water from the dam being diverted to five districts in Tamil Nadu and its importance in the state’s irrigation and power production practices, the state has consistently opposed this.
Although the dam is located in Kerala, it is operated by Tamil Nadu following an 1886 lease indenture for 999 years that was signed between the Maharaja of Travancore and the Secretary of State for India for the Periyar Irrigation works. Constructed between 1887 and 1895, the dam redirected the river to flow towards the Bay of Bengal, instead of the Arabian Sea and provide water to the arid rain region of Madurai in Madras Presidency.
The lease is also the source of the many litigation surrounding the dam. In 2006, the Kerala government had argued before the Supreme Court that the contract “was obtained…by holding threat of paramountcy over Maharaja of Travancore, who was his vassal” and had allowed the redirection of water into British Territory for a nominal fee. This, in spite, of Kerala being the only riparian state of the river.
After India’s independence, this contract was renegotiated in 1970 formally, wherein Kerala allowed Tamil Nadu to use the water for the reservoir in exchange of a revised rent, while also allowing it to generate power. But in the following decade, concerns were repeatedly raised regarding the safety of the Mullaperiyar dam and in 1979 Kerala wrote to its neighbours to immediately take steps to strengthen it. It also asked for the deputation of a Central Water Commission (CWC) team to inspect the dam and suggest strengthening measures. In 1980, the CWC team said that after the different strengthening measures were undertaken, the water level restored up to 145 feet.
But litigations continued and by the 2000, the Supreme Court directed the Ministry of Water Resources to set up by a committee to study the safety of the dam. This committee, in its report the next year, said that after implementing “strengthening measures”, “the water level can be raised from 136 feet to 142 feet without endangering safety of the dam” and that “further raising of water level to 152 feet would be considered after balance strengthening measures are implemented.”
In 2006, the Supreme Court permitted the government of Tamil Nadu to raise the water level at the dam to 142 feet.
Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act 2006
The Act prohibited the raising of the water level at the dam beyond 136 feet and placed the Mullaperiyar dam in its schedule of ‘Endangered Dam’. The Tamil Nadu government filed a suit in the apex court and argued that the Act was unconstitutional.
Subsequent meetings between the two state governments led to no consensus and in 2009, during an interstate meeting, the Kerala government informed the Centre and Tamil Nadu that it was considering the “construction of a new dam” at its own cost – while the Tamil Nadu government responded that there was no need for a new construction.
Although Kerala maintained that it didn't want to renege on its commitments, Tamil Nadu argued that the proposed new dam would render any existing water-sharing agreement moot. With the dam row leading to violent protests in both states by 2011, the dispute was no longer restricted to just the height of the water level.
The empowered committee, formed under former CJI A S Anand as per the apex court’s directions, suggested in 2010 that either a new dam be created or that the existing one be repaired and strengthened.
In May 2014, the apex court declared the Act unconstitutional and dismissed the review petitioned filed by the Kerala government and restrained it from interfering with the rights of Tamil Nadu from raising the water level in the dam from 136 feet to 142 feet.
The Present Controversy
In an affidavit to the Supreme Court earlier this week, the Kerala government submitted that its requests to “gradually release water” at least at 139 feet led to no “positive assurances” and the “sudden release” from the dam “forced (Kerala) to release more water from Idukki reservoir, downstream of Mullaperiyar, which is one of the causes of this deluge."
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy reacted, terming the allegation to be “baseless”. He said, “Kerala's accusations towards Tamil Nadu are false and baseless. If you say excess water was discharged from one dam then how did water reach all parts of Kerala? The excess discharge from 80 dams caused the flood in Kerala," he told the media.
The Kerala government has sought directions that the Supervisory Committee be headed by the Chairman of the Central Water Commission with Secretaries of both the states as members. It said that this panel be empowered to take decisions by a majority opinion regarding operations during flood or any similar crisis and sought the constitution of a Management committee to manage the day-to-day operations of the Mullaperiyar Dam.