Mullaperiyar imbroglio Rivers plight politicians delight

  • 30/01/2007

inter-state water conflicts have become the stock-in-trade of Indian politics. They are easy matter for politicians and technocrats to milk. The disputes most often end up in the Supreme Court with an uneasy imbroglio making matters easy for politicking.

The kafuffle over the century old Mullaperiyar dam on the river Periyar is in no way different. The beneficiary of this dam in Kerala is Tamil Nadu. It uses this water for irrigation in five districts, to meet drinking and industrial demands. Kerala raised its concerns on dam safety in 1970 and the reservoir level was lowered to 41.45 metres (m) from 46.32 m. Various committees recommended strengthening measures and Tamil Nadu wanted to restore the levels to 43.28 m. The Supreme Court also upheld this stand. But Kerala came back showing that the dam is still unsafe to hold water at even 41.45 m and that it would affect the lives of 35 lakh people downstream. Tamil Nadu is not ready to budge from its claim for 43.28 m.

But that's litigation. The main action is in the political corridors in Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram and New Delhi. Tamil Nadu's ruling party has already advised its chief minister to pull out of talks and drag the matter to the Supreme Court. Five districts downstream of the dam in Kerala and five districts in Tamil Nadu is large enough constituency to politicise the dam and its water.

Drowned in the bedlam is a critical fact: Tamil Nadu withdraws much more than what the reservoir could hold at 41.45 m. As against the live storage of 6,118 million cubic feet (mcft), it draws on an average 22,000 mcft. Still the state is bent on raising the height to 43.28 m to get an additional 1,500 mcft. Why then such a hue and cry over reservoir levels? Neither Kerala nor the neutral agencies like the Central Water Commission (cwc) has ever analysed this or raised the issue.

The country's citizens have no access to data on water drawn, its demand and uses in the command area and the difference that the reduction in reservoir levels would make. Six years have gone by since the cwc conducted a dam safety assessment. What has been done to strengthen the dam and the effectiveness of the measures, needs an unbiased assessment. Mullaperiyar typifies all inter-state water disputes. Agriculture in the command area and water use has changed drastically and water is not put into effective use.