Featured below is the text of a well-reasoned-out policy recommendation that proposes a solution to the Mullaperiyar Dam Conflict. Drawn up at a conference of dam and water resource experts, it proposes a fresh solution to the dispute.
Dr. Manmohan Singh,
The Honorable Prime Minister of India,
The Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India1 has been closely following the Mullaperiyar issue for the last several years. The polarisation of views around the Mullaperiyar issue has hardened over the years leading to diminishing trust and rising fears and apprehensions on both sides. The recent series of tremors with their epicentres near the dam site has created a grave situation that needs immediate attention. We therefore appreciate the fact that your esteemed office has taken the initiative in bringing the two parties together for a dialogue.
One of the polarised positions, taken by the Tamil Nadu government insists that the Mullaperiyar dam is safe and that the water level must be maintained at the maximum level as per the agreement. The other position, taken by the Kerala government insists that a new dam downstream of the present dam must be built to fulfil obligation to the Tamil Nadu government because the present dam is unsafe.
The shortcomings of the polarised positions
It is our submission that we need to think beyond the present polarised positions because both the positions are seriously flawed for reasons given below. Our suggestions for immediate action as well as for the long term are given below.
The Mullperiyar dam is now 115 years old, and to the common eye shows all signs of the ravages of time over this long period. While it is true that a CWC team has stated that the dam would be safe, provided certain specified repairs are carried out, expert opinion on this is divided and there are eminent experts who believe that the dam has not been demonstrated to be safe on count of hydrology studies as well as on the count of the technology and material used for the dam during its construction. (This was evident in a meeting organised by the Forum in Delhi. See below.2) It is also not clear whether all the repairs recommended by the CWC have been effectively carried out. There are increasing reports about observable damage to the dam. And recently, there have been a series of tremors in what is anyway a seismically active zone with epicentres close to the dam. While most experts would agree that the dam may be considered relatively safe for lower heights of storage, opinion is divided on maintaining water levels at the maximum height specified in the agreement, on both grounds as mentioned.
Similarly, there are difficulties with the new dam downstream. The new dam is being planned 300 m downstream of the present one with a larger storage capacity. Firstly, this would submerge a substantial additional portion of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Also, it would mean an additional massive structure right inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve and a continued massive interference and disturbance over the years it would take for the dam to be built. The dam would be subject to the same problem of seismicity. It would create a heavy financial burden along with associated issues of cost sharing. It would cause additional environmental damage in Kerala to fulfil Tamil Nadu's requirements.
In view of the above we would suggest the following course of action:
As a short term measure keep the water level around 120 feet or less.
The intense fear and insecurity amongst thousands of downstream people over the safety of the dam needs to be taken seriously and initiate measures immediately to address this. Given the fact that expert opinion on dam safety at higher water levels is divided, given the increasing seismic activity in the area, given the high levels of insecurity felt by downstream residents, and given the fact that the ravages of time on the dam are increasingly evident to the common eye, it would be best to use the precautionary principle and keep water levels low. A 120 ft level has generally been acceptable to the Kerala government as well.
Water can be comfortably delivered to Tamil Nadu at 120 ft level and Tamil Nadu should be encouraged to divert as much water as it can and store it inside Tamil Nadu in balancing reservoirs or other storages.
Long term action
1. Come to a common understanding of the role of the Mullaperiyar dam as a diversion dam rather than a storage dam. This will imply that the water level to be maintained in the dam will be governed by the ability to deliver water to Tamil Nadu efficiently rather than on maximal water storage behind the dam.
2.Reconfirm Kerala's commitment to provide the present quantum of water. The Kerala government in any case has publicly already confirmed this commitment.
3. Come to a common understanding that since over 115 years, the role of the Mullaperiyar dam has changed, the storage capacity needed for Tamil Nadu should be created inside Tamil Nadu, with adequate assistance from the Centre, rather than at the cost of greater environmental damage in Kerala through a new dam.
4. To immediately undertake studies a) on the requisite capacity needed inside Tamil Nadu, b) on the redesign of the diversion system (connect it to the storage sites and possibly increasing the size of the channels to accommodate greater flow) to minimise storage behind the dam which should be reduced to the minimum regulatory storage required, c) on measures to strengthen the dam at the new level and d) on a hydrological study of flow at dam site and a schedule for the regulatory storage and d) on working out arrangements in the transition phase.
5. The dam would continue to be in the control of Tamil Nadu and operated by it. However, we would suggest that there should be a tri-party panel or board consisting of representatives of Government of Kerala, Government of Tamil Nadu and the Union Government (in the lines ofthe Tungabhadra Board) that oversees the preparation of a reservoir operation plan and monitors and modifies it throughout the year.
We believe that this would be a just and optimal solution and would be financially and economically more viable.
The measures we have outlined above are based on what we think is the minimum that would be able to resolve the conflict. There are many ways in which these can be optimised. For example, every dam has a life span and it may be necessary to think through a strategy of minimising the requirements through local water harvesting and increase of on field and irrigation efficiency so as to gradually reduce the requirement from the dam so that eventually the dam is decommissioned.
Way back in 2005 addressing the conference of the irrigation ministers of the country you had said that ‘rivers should link and not divide us’. You had also expressed concern over the inter- state water disputes in the country and urged the state governments to show ‘understanding and considerations, statesmanship and an appreciation of the other point of view’. Sadly these seem to be missing in the ongoing dispute over the Mullaperiyar and other inter-state water disputes in the country. While an Indo-Pak agreement over sharing the Indus waters has withstood hostile political relations and wars, similar agreements have led to bitter conflicts between the Indian states. It is rather unfortunate that that even after 64 years after independence we have failed as a nation to put in place processes and institutions to amicably share our interstate rivers.
We would once again emphasise that the short term measures of keeping the water level down, strengthening the existing structure so as to alley the fears of the downstream people about the safety of the dam and abandoning the plans for a new dam are important both on the grounds of the precautionary principle as well as building trust.
We welcome your initiative and wish you all success in your initiative on the Mullaperiyar issue. We are at your service for further discussions, if required, on this critical issue.
K. J. Joy, Suhas Paranjape, S. Janakarajan, A. Latha
(For Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India)
1.The Forum is a loose network of civil society groups, academicians, subject matter experts and movement representatives working on water and water related issues and conflicts.