The Mullaperiyar dam is located on the Periyar River in the Indian state of Kerala. It is situated in the Western Ghats in Thekkady, Idukki district. Initially named Periyaru Dam, the dam provides water to the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The name “Mullaperiyar” was derived from the names of the rivers Mullayar and Periyar. The Periyar River flows from western Kerala into the Arabian Sea. The dam was created to provide water to the rain shadow regions of Theni, Shivaganga, Madurai, and Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu. The dam helped divert the water eastwards into the Bay of Bengal.
Construction to build the Mullaperiyar dam began in the year 1887. Portuguese carpenters and troops from the army were employed for the same. On October 29, 1886, a lease agreement was signed between the British and the Maharaja of Travancore. As per the agreement, Tamil Nadu had operational rights over the dam for 999 years. After India’s independence in 1947, Travancore and Cochin merged to form a state. On November 1, 1956, under the States Reorganisation Act 1956, the current state of Kerala came into being. The new state declared the 999-year lease invalid and that the agreement needed renewal. The agreement was later renewed in the year of 1969. Tamil Nadu now has rights over the land and the water from the dam, and can also develop hydro-power projects. The state of Kerala would receive rent in return.
The Mullaperiyar dam is located 881 m above sea level. It is 155 ft. high and 1200 ft. long. In 1979, Kerala experienced a mild earthquake. As per reports, cracks developed on the walls of the dam. On suggestions from the Central Water Commission, based on emergency provisions, it was decided that the level of water stored in the reservoir should be reduced to 136 ft. from the current 142 ft. Also, the water level could be raised once the structure was strengthened.
The row between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu began in the year 1998. Tamil Nadu believed that all the necessary precautions had been taken and wanted to raise the water level. Kerala strongly opposed this move. It was stated that the measures undertaken were not adequate and that the lives of Keralites were at risk. Several cases were filed at both the Madras and Kerala High Courts. Finally, in 2000, the matter reached the Supreme Court. The SC appointed an Expert Committee to review the condition of the dam. The committee held that the and the water level could be increased to 142 ft. In 2006, the SC gave Tamil Nadu the right to increase the water level to 142 ft.
To resist the SC judgment, the Kerala government amended the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation Act of 2003 and created a list of endangered dams. The Mullaperiyar dam was included in this list, and it was decided that the water level could not be increased. A new case was filed by Tamil Nadu in the SC. Consequently, a report by IIT Roorkee stated that the dam was unsafe and that it would face damage if an earthquake of magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter scale occurred. Based on the report, the Kerala government proposed the idea of building a new dam. In 2010, the SC appointed a high-level working committee to conduct studies about the dam and whether there was a need for a new dam. The committee submitted its report in the year 2012, and it was concluded that the dam was safe. The water level could be further increased to 152 ft after further safety measures. In 2014, the SC passed its and held that the water level could be increased to 142 ft. and declared that the law passed by the state of Kerala that year was unconstitutional. After heavy rains in Kerala in October 2021, the government approached Tamil Nadu to decrease the water level. On the decline of their request, the government moved the SC.
Further discussions related to dams in India
To y and inspect the operation and maintenance of dams in India, the Dam Safety Act, 2021 was passed by Parliament in December 2021. Under this act, a National Committee on Dam Safety and a National Dam Safety Authority will be set up. The act also talks about the duties of dam owners and punishments for the same.
Severe floods in Morbi and regions of Gujarat caused the Machuchhu Dam to give way and collapse. The incident, which took place on August 11, 1979, claimed thousands of lives. The failure of the dam has increased fear in the minds of Kerala government officials.
Dams may collapse due to various reasons. It may be because of the old technology that was used to build them, or it may be because the dams are not well maintained. Extreme inflows or natural disasters such as landslides, earthquakes, or floods can all cause damage. Various parts of Kerala have been experiencing earthquakes and floods for the past few years. At any point, the same may occur in the Thekkady region. Will the Mullaperiyar Dam collapse? We can never assert that the dam will collapse, or even, for that matter, state that it will never collapse. Even researchers have been unable to reach a decision. But there is a chance of the dam collapsing. It may be 0.1% or it may be 50%. This puts the lives of almost 30 million people at risk. We cannot estimate the value of human life. The life of every citizen is equally important. Hence, both governments must come up with a feasible solution.
What should be done?
A new dam can be built using new technologies. The most risk-free solution is to decommission the current dam and replace it with a new one. This may incur huge costs. The current agreement regarding the use of the water may change, and the rent to be paid may also increase. The state of Tamil Nadu might oppose this move. The Mullaperiyar dam is the only source of water for lakhs of people in Tamil Nadu. Other relations between the two states might also be affected. Hence, a mutual solution is a must. The legal, political, and social interests of citizens co-exist on this issue. We cannot fulfill all the conditions of both states. Someone has to give in for the safety of the citizens. If the state of Kerala guarantees not to make any changes to the current agreement and the amount of rent, Tamil Nadu may agree to the idea of building a new dam. Also, no issue regarding the rent received has been raised by the Kerala government as of now. In my opinion, this is an achievable solution. After all, nothing is more important than the lives of the citizens. We must work in tandem and aim to achieve the common good.
Author(s) Name: Angel Jimmy George (Institute of Law, Nirma University)