Kerala’s Mullaperiyar Dam Issue

Some of my readers may have heard of the current topic of discussion in my home state of Kerala. I’ve waited a few days to get opinions and details on this before I filled in my two cents (two paise?) on this – The Mullaperiar Dam controversy.

The 116 year old Mullaperiyar Dam is a dam over the Periyar river with a height of 155 feet and length 1200 feet located in Thekkady in Iddukki district. It was constructed in 1895 by the British Government, over the headwaters of the west-flowing Periyar River and its tributary Mullaiyar, to divert water eastwards to Madras Presidency area (the present-day Tamilnadu). Since 1970, Kerala has argued that the dam having outlived its life of 50 years is unsafe to maintain water at 46.3 metres—the full reservoir level—and it should be restricted to 41.45 metres. Over the years many studies have been conducted to look into making the water level safer. In 2010 Tamil Nadu once again rejected the idea of constructing the new dam over the Periyar River. Kerala though seemed sure that it has every reason to be successful in its demand for a new dam because in 1979 the proposal had been cleared for approval by the Centre. This, according to them was agreed upon by Tamil Nadu which they claim took a step back later. In March 2010, according to news sources , Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi  said that Tamil Nadu would never give up its rights over the Mullaperiyar dam  since that would  create problems for farmers in that  area.

The situation remains, ever more dire than before. The dam has cracks across it, caused by decay and the mild tremors that have rocked the district of Iddukki have only heightened the fears of the people and the administration. To make matters worse it’s been raining when the monsoon should have died down and that causes an increase in the water level. Protests began to rage in Kerala last Saturday over Mullaperiyar Dam issue after four mild tremors struck Idukki district and opinions were aired that recurring tremors were increasing the likelihood of a burst in the already weakened Surki concrete dam. It is said that the dam could break if hit by a tremor of 6.0-plus magnitude on the Richter. On Monday, water levels in Mullaperiyar rose to 136.4 feet, crossing the permissible limit of 136 ft fixed by the Supreme Court. Experts warned that a disaster cannot be ruled out in the dam, especially if there is a strong earthquake.

Idukki district, where the dam is located, witnessed a 12-hour hartal on Monday, with protesters blocking the Kollam-Theni highway that links Kerala to Tamil Nadu. Effigies of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and MDMK chief Vaiko, a vocal opponent of the Kerala plans with regard to the Mullaperiyar Dam, and copies of the lease agreement that gave Tamil Nadu the control over the dam for 999 years were burnt at several places in the district. Lawyers boycotted proceedings at the district court and burned Jayalalithaa’s effigy. Today it is a wide spread harthal all over the state. Perhaps in a first time in the state’s history, both the Kerala government, the opposition parties & the people of the state are united in the same opinion – in demanding the decommissioning of the Mullaperiyar Dam, which has become a huge threat to the lives of over 30 lakh people in four districts even as the water level in the reservoir climbed further up, escalating panic in the downstream areas.

On top of that an English language movie called Dam 999, directed by Kerala born CEO of Aries Group of Companies Sohan Roy, has just been released. UAE based Roy based the film on the award winning short documentary DAMs – The Lethal Water Bombs, the Banqiao dam disaster of 1975 that claimed the lives of 250,000 people in China and anticipated calamity for Mullaperiyar Dam. The movie faced a lot of issues before & during filming.Veteran Kerala actor was asked by the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists to step out from his role in the movie, which he did and a replacement actor. And just a day before the release of the movie, DMK party chief M. Karunanidhi urged the Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalitha to ban the movie considering “people’s safety”. A day before its scheduled release on 25 November, the film was banned by the State Government of Tamil Nadu on the grounds that the release would disturb the cordial relations between Tamil Nadu and Kerala!

Some politicians have started fasting in protest, all news channels are showcasing the story on the dam 24/7 and people are agitated and angry. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said in Kozhikode that the Government had convinced the Prime Minister about the validity of Kerala’s demands. “I did not go to Delhi because I am confident of getting a fair response from the Prime Minister. I am waiting for his call. But I will go to the capital if that is necessary,” he said. We await!

2 thoughts on “Kerala’s Mullaperiyar Dam Issue

  1. Yikes, that’s really scary. What is the Tamil Nadu objection to a new dam? Cost? Or would it impact commerce or their district in some other way? It seems a huge risk to be taking in any case.

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