Kerala’s current agony stems from the fact that there is on its territory a dam which is under the control of the government of another state.
In 40 years the government of Kerala has not been able to convince the government of Tamil Nadu that the 116-year-old Mullaperiyar dam has outlived its life and that if it collapses the lives and livelihood of millions of people will be in jeopardy.
The Indian government has been in the picture all through. Tamil Nadu’s intransigence has frustrated its efforts to help resolve the issue through talks so far. Maybe it has also found Tamil Nadu’s argument that there is no threat to the dam more convincing than Kerala’s stand that it poses a threat.
For several years now, the Supreme Court too has been in the picture. Tamil Nadu has met with a measure of success in that forum. The apex court allowed TN to raise the water level of the reservoir, which had been lowered to 136 feet at Kerala’s request to reduce the risk of dam burst, after it had carried out some maintenance works proposed by the Central Water Commission. It also said TN could raise it further to the optimum level of 156 feet after taking further steps to strengthen the structure.
A series of earth tremors which rocked the Idukki district, where the dam is located, in the past few months has aggravated Kerala’s concerns about the safety of the dam. Responsible leaders and the media have played up the issue and spread fear. This has resulted in an emotional upsurge, which is very uncharacteristic of Kerala.
Whether the fear of dam burst is real, as the Kerala government insists, or it is artificially created, as the Tamil Nadu government maintains, there are some questions that need to be addressed squarely. Must the people of Kerala remain perpetually at the mercy of the government of another state? Must the government of Kerala, which has a constitutional obligation to protect the lives of its people, wait upon the goodwill of another state government to discharge its duty?
The Mullaperiyar dam stands on land leased by the Maharaja of the erstwhile Travancore state to the British government under an agreement signed in 1886. The Dewan of Travancore signed the agreement for the Maharaja and an official of the Madras Presidency for the Secretary of State for India, who was the British minister in charge of Indian affairs.
The agreement uses the term ‘lease indenture’. That term conclusively establishes its colonial character. Indenture makes it clear that the agreement was not between equals. The Maharaja of Travancore was a vassal of Britain, which had taken over the administration of India from the English East India Company in 1858.
The agreement set the period of the lease indenture at 999 years. The British presumably imagined India would be at their heels for all time. The Maharaja of Travancore certainly was reconciled to remaining a vassal for 1,000 years.
Under the lease agreement, Travancore made available 100 acres of land for the dam and 8,000 acres for the reservoir. The dam was built by British military engineers and it remained under the control of the Madras government.
The legal position is that the indenture ended when India became independent in 1947. Thereafter the government of Travancore and those of Travancore-Cochin and Kerala, made several unsuccessful attempts to sign a new agreement. The government of Madras and that of Tamil Nadu were determined to keep the advantage the colonial-era agreement gave them. Since the Travancore government and its successors scrupulously adhered to all terms of the lapsed agreement the authorities in Madras were in no hurry to go in for a new one.
The situation changed somewhat in 1970. Tamil Nadu wanted a new agreement as it wanted to use the waters of the Periyar for power generation also. The original agreement only provided for their use for irrigation.
The government of Kerala failed to use the opportunity to end the anomalous situation of another government controlling the dam located in its territory. The responsibility for the lapse lies at the door of the political parties which wielded power in the state at the relevant time. They fell in line with the wishes of their national leadership, which backed Tamil Nadu's demand. Ironically, the leaders of these very parties are now vying with one another to be recognized as the most vocal champions of the state’s interests.