Monday, December 28, 2009

Life beneath an aged dam

Gulf Today

Long-running agitations are part of Kerala's everyday experience. Some agitations succeed, some fail and some linger on with no end in sight.

Among the success stories are the closure of the Birlas' rayon factory at Mavoor, near Kozhikode, and Coca Cola's plant at Plachimada, near Palakkad, which had by polluted air and water and sown death and destruction. These stories remain sources of inspiration for small and vulnerable groups fighting polluting businesses.

On Friday, villagers living under the shadow of the aged Mullaperiyar dam in the Idukki district marked the third anniversary of their agitation demanding decommissioning of the dam. It was on Christmas Day 2006 that the Mullaperiyar Samara Samithi, led by Fr Joy Nirappel and CP Roy, launched the agitation.

The Mullaperiyar dam, commissioned in 1895, was built in pursuance of an agreement of 1886 between the British-ruled Madras Presidency and the princely state of Travancore, for diversion of an agreed quantity of water from the Periyar to irrigate arid regions in Madurai and adjoining districts.

The dam was constructed by Madras on land given on long lease by Travancore. As successor governments, Tamil Nadu now controls the dam and Kerala has ownership of the land.

The estimated life-span of the lime-and-mortar dam was only 50 years. Since 1970 Kerala has maintained that in view of the age of the dam it is unsafe to store water in the reservoir up to a height of 46.3 metres, as originally envisaged, and that the level should not exceed 41.45 metres. It is pointed out that a dam burst could endanger up to four million lives in Kerala.

In 1979, the Central Water Commission (CWC), after inspecting the dam, directed Tamil Nadu to lower the water level to 41.45 metres as a cautionary measure and take steps to strengthen the structure. Tamil Nadu accepted the directive.

In the 1990s, there was a spate of petitions in the Tamil Nadu and Kerala high courts on the Mullaperiyar issue. While Tamil Nadu petitioners asked for a higher water level, Kerala petitioners opposed it. In 1998 all the petitions were transferred to the Supreme Court.

At the court's instance, the Centre initiated talks with the Tamil Nadu and Kerala governments but no solution emerged.

In 2001, a committee headed by the CWC chairman proposed that after taking steps to strengthen the dam the reservoir level might be raised first to 43.28 metres and then to the originally envisaged 46.6 metres.

The Kerala government opposed the proposal. It pointed out that the suggestion was based on a stress analysis study which covered only the baby dam, and not the main dam.

However, in February 2006, the Supreme Court directed Tamil Nadu to carry out the strengthening measures suggested by the CWC and asked Kerala not to obstruct the work.

These developments caused considerable anxiety in Kerala, especially in the context of a 2003 study by the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, which warned that an earthquake could cause tensile cracks in the main dam.

People also entered the battleground. In Kerala, those living under the shadow of a possible catastrophe demanded that their safety to ensured. In Tamil Nadu, workers of the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam stopped trucks carrying goods to Kerala, which depends on outside sources for most of its requirements.

The Kerala government responded by enlarging the scope of a law it had enacted in 2003 to create an authority charged with the task of ensuring the safety of all dams in the state. It vested in the authority the power to advise the government to suspend the function of a dam or even decommission it.

The amending measure statutorily determined 41.45 metres as the safe height of the Mullaperiyar dam.

The state also commissioned a survey as the first step towards the construction of a new dam.

The Tamil Nadu government approached the Supreme Court once again. The court constituted a constitution bench to decide the matter. Hearing is set to begin early in 2010.

To the court, the issue is one of dispensing justice. To the state governments, it is a power game.

But to large sections of people in the two states -- to Keralites living under the shadow of the aged dam and to Tamils who depend upon Mullaperiyar waters for agriculture -- the issue is one of life and death, which needs to be resolved in a spirit of goodwill. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 28, 2009.

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