A Dam and Controversies

                                                                                       T.G. Jacob

The Mullaperiyar dam located in the highland Idukki district of Kerala bordering Southern Tamil Nadu has become a stormy issue between these two southernmost States. The issue as such is not new at all. The dam itself is 115 years old, which means the technology behind the construction of the dam, chronologically speaking, is archaic. The controversies concerning the height and the storage levels of the dam had erupted now and again, and the case had gone up to the highest court. The Supreme Court in 2006 ruled that the dam was safe enough to increase the storage level by six feet from 136 to 142 ft, but in a subsequent ruling asked the two States to settle the differences through discussions in an amicable manner. Strong demands were aired by all the political parties in Tamil Nadu that Kerala must abide by the earlier Supreme Court ruling about increasing the storage level of the dam. The plea of the Kerala government all through was that raising the storage level of this dam would be a major security threat to the lives and property of the people in three heavily populated districts of the State and to the fauna in Periyar National Park due to increased flooding.

The situation reached the stage of road and rail blockades of the routes leading to Kerala from Tamil Nadu. On Feb. 18 this year the Supreme Court ordered that a 5-member Committee headed by former Chief Justice, A.S. Anand, be constituted to look into the dispute and prepare a report within 6 months. This Committee was supposed to be formed within a month of the ruling, but this has not yet happened. The Supreme Court has criticized the Union government on its reluctance to fund the empowered Committee and has also refused the Tamil Nadu government’s request to scrap the idea of this committee. The tones of all the political parties in Tamil Nadu are acrimonious and strident, giving a not very congenial atmosphere for an amicable settlement of the issue.

Interesting side information to this water dispute is that Tamil Nadu is now embroiled in water disputes with all the three neighbours—Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh, with the Cauvery dispute with Karnataka remaining an ever ticking bomb. This dispute had already led to several large scale riots in the two States. Being a water scarce State with its agriculture crucially dependent on irrigation water, and vast areas being rain shadow ones and therefore drought prone, it is easy enough to understand how and why the water issue is a highly emotional issue in Tamil Nadu. The common man in Tamil Nadu firmly believes that Kerala is a water and electricity surplus State, and when its government objects to increasing the storage level it is  deliberately obstructing the progress of Tamil Nadu and Tamils. Hundreds of thousands of farming families are crucially dependent on the water from this dam; and Kerala’s objections are construed in Tamil Nadu as a deliberate ploy to prevent the development of agriculture here. The veracity of this belief is certainly subject to serious contention. That Tamil Nadu needs more water is indisputable, but how this water can be obtained is the pertinent question.

The history of this dam is interesting. At the stage of negotiations between the British Resident and the King of Travancore it seems that the royalty was not even fully aware that the proposed dam was within the territory of Travancore. This was typical of the feudal lack of clarity about the extent of territorial jurisdiction and was typical of not only the highlands of Travancore but also of Malabar. Moreover, it is interesting to note that the negotiations centred solely on  the amount of compensation and did not study or take into account the impact on the areas through which the river flows. The British had their way without any serious hitches, and it can be safely surmised that there was a certain amount of coercion and manipulation from the side of the colonial administration and all its conditions were accepted by the King’s representatives. Subsequent violations of the initial agreement were also resorted to by the colonialists. The aim of the colonialists was to maximize the revenue from the directly ruled adjoining areas of the then Madras Presidency, and irrigation was a must for this revenue farming.

It is certainly possible that Kerala is underutilizing its water resources and much of this precious resource is going waste. But so is the case with Tamil Nadu and all other States in the country. Water management in the entire subcontinent is shabby and unscientific and this is exemplified by the perennial droughts and floods in this whole chunk of the world. Efficient water management with zero environmental hazards is certainly a long term objective which needs priority attention. Unless this objective is achieved bickering on sharing of water is bound to remain, and water being a highly emotional issue, which vitally affects the well being of millions and crores of people the tensions can easily turn nasty.

Kerala agriculture has, over a period of the last several decades, shifted its focus from food production to cash crops production, and it is now crucially dependent on the neighbouring States and the central pool for the day-to-day food requirements. Kerala is particularly dependent on Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and Andhra for staples as well as vegetables and meat. It is probably this dependency that made the political parties of Tamil Nadu call for a blockade of roads. There is no doubt that if such a blockade is sustained, Kerala will witness massive price rises of essential commodities like vegetables, rice, and meat and even absolute scarcity may result. But to see a dam dispute from this angle is a one-sided approach, which can only be characterized as belonging to competitive brand of politicking which is probably the result of the existing party political dynamics of the State.

 If Kerala is dependent on Tamil Nadu for a significant part of its food requirements, the Tamil Nadu farmers and farm workers are equally dependent on the Kerala market as a dependable and sure outlet for their farm products. If the Kerala workers are looking at the Gulf countries for lucrative employment, a large number of Tamil workers, especially from the border districts, are looking to Kerala as their Gulf. The plantation sector in Idukki is marked by almost 100% Tamil migrant workers. The construction sector also is heavily loaded with Tamil workers. The main reason for such massive migrations is the differential wage rates, the same as between the Gulf countries and Kerala. This is the ground level situation devoid of political rhetoric.

The Tamil Nadu angle is a legalistic and populist angle, the only anchor of which is the earlier Supreme Court judgment based on some sort of an “experts’ report”. The Kerala angle is based on a conjectural conclusion on the safety of an old dam, and if both the States stick to their positions it is very clear that there is no point in discussing the issue. How expert was the “experts’ report” is something that can be re-examined. This is especially so because it has been proved within the last one decade that the Idukki mountain zone is a seismically unstable plate. Within the last ten years two series of quakes have occurred in the region. It is this geological characteristic more than the age of the dam itself that has to be taken into account. Keeping in view this single factor the advisability of large dams in the region has to be re-examined, even if the Kerala side argument that instead of the 115 years old present one a new dam can be constructed, is not really valid in the long run. What is really needed is the construction of several small dams in full agreement with Tamil Nadu on the share of water to each partner. Even these small dams should be constructed only in an environmentally friendly manner with the full concurrence of the people of the areas concerned. There is absolutely no reason why Kerala should not share water with the immediate neighbour, who is contributing a significant share of the food needs of the State, though this developmental model which leads to food insufficiency and import dependency requires a thorough critique and overturning. 

River water disputes are there in the entire sub continent. There are disputes between India and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and in the not so distant future they are bound to erupt between India and China because the major rivers passing through the Indo-Gangetic plain originate in Tibet, now part of China. There are numerous disputes between States within the country, out of which the Cauvery dispute in peninsular India and the Sutlej-Beas disputes in north-western India are very prominent. Relatively speaking, the Mullaperiyar is a small dispute and can be easily solved. What the resolution needs in the first place is a comprehensive joint study of the present state of the dam itself. This by no means should be an impressionistic study, but a proper scientific study. Once the study is done and discussed at all possible levels appropriate decisions can be made and implemented. This is not such a big task and there is little real space for raking up a ruckus. A ruckus may serve the sectarian interests of political parties in both the States, but negatively serve the interests of the peoples of both the States.

What we are witnessing in Tamil Nadu is that the issue is being steadily converted into a highly emotional one, which the political parties are bent upon using for their own sectarian interests. The same cannot be said about the main political parties in Kerala. There are no Vaikos or Jayalalithas in Kerala, but this gap is efficiently filled up by the media, both visual and print. The media there are fully involved in competitive populism of the most degenerate variety with all efforts to sensationalize the issue without looking at the ground realities and possible solutions.

Actually, there is a real political angle too, and this refers to the federal rights of States to decide on matters that pertain to them alone. Why the Centre has to come and preside over as arbitrator in a dispute that concerns only Kerala and Tamil Nadu is inexplicable. Who will be the gainers if bad blood is created between two neighbours who have very, very long historical, cultural, linguistic and geographic ties, is anybody’s guess. Who gained from the Punjab tangle on river waters is well known. It is advocates of unitary India that politically gained there. It will be sad, if in the interests of short term political and economic gains the actors concerned lose sight of this vital political implication.