In recent days, people in Idukki district and those near the Periyar river in Kerala have been living in a state of perpetual fear. Of course, this could be said of people across the state, which has been ravaged by the worst flood in nearly a century.
But the people living in the above-mentioned areas have reason to be more worried than the rest. Their fear stems from the Mullaperiyar dam, which is once again in the news after water levels reached the full reservoir level of 142 feet. The shutters of the dam have been raised in intervals — this is true of all the dams in Kerala — increasing the flow and intensity of the water to adjoining areas and farther.
The Much Controversial Dam
The Mullaperiyar dam has also been the centre of controversy for more than four decades due to the peculiarity of its origins. The dam, which was constructed between 1887 and 1895, is located in Kerala on the Periyar river, but is maintained and operated by Tamil Nadu.
On October 29, 1886, a lease indenture for 999 years was made between the Maharaja of Travancore, and the British secretary for India for Periyar Irrigation works. After the formation of Kerala, the state declared the agreement invalid.
But in 1970, Tamil Nadu managed to sign an agreement with Kerala. Under the terms of the agreement, Tamil Nadu uses the water and the land, and the state government has been paying Rs 2.5 lakh as tax to Kerala government for the past 50 years and Rs 7.5 lakh per year as surcharge for the total amount of electricity generated.
Nonetheless, the dam remains a bone of contention between the two neighbours. In the latest instance of fracas, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan wrote a letter to his Tamil Nadu counterpart Edappadi K Palaniswami alleging that the engineers of his state were not being cooperative and that the water levels should have been brought down much earlier.
Palaniswami replied that the dam is safe.
The Supreme Court is meanwhile hearing an urgent plea on the matter. The apex on Friday suggested that the Disaster Management sub-committee, National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) and the court-appointed committee should meet to explore the possibility of reducing the water-level in the Mullaperiyar Dam reservoir there to 139 feet.
The Flood Threats
With the flood and rain-related death toll in Kerala at nearly 170, release of water by Tamil Nadu from the dam without adequate warning would be devastating for a population already facing an exodus due to the floods.
Citing an order in 2014 by the Supreme Court that the water level in the dam can be increased from 136 feet to 142 feet, Tamil Nadu is reluctant to release the water. On the other hand, Kerala is in panic, painfully aware that once water crossed 142 feet, the volume released from Mullaperiyar would result in increased damage to property and loss of life.
For Tamil Nadu, the Mullaperiyar dam and the diverted Periyar waters act as a lifeline for Theni, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramnad districts, providing water for irrigation and drinking, and also for generation of power in lower Periyar Power Station.
Current, safety concerns of the dam relate to several issues. Since it was constructed using stone rubble masonry with lime mortar grouting following prevailing 19th-century construction techniques that have now become archaic, seepage and leaks from the dam have caused concern.
The Kerala government has been raising safety concerns of the Mullaperiyar dam and alleged leaks and cracks in the structure since 1979.
A study conducted by The Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), Thiruvananthapuram had reported that the structure would not withstand an earthquake above magnitude 6 on the richter scale.
The dam was also inspected Central Water Commission and Tamil Nadu government to lower the storage level from 152 feet to 142.2 feet then to 136 feet, conducted safety repairs and strengthened the dam.
In 2006, Kerala government declared the dam 'endangered' and proposed decommissioning of the dam. The Tamil Nadu government opposed the decision and said the dam is safe.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Tami Nadu and stopped Kerala's move to construct a new dam.As the confrontation between these two states rages, people in Idduki, Ernakulam and Thrissur districts are living anxious moments.