As the death toll in the Kerala floods grows to more than 90, Tamil Nadu agreed to draw water from the Mullaperiyar dam. Engineers in Tamil Nadu said the digital recorders to maintain the water level have malfunctioned and hence are unable to record water levels.
Kerala has often raised concerns over the safety of the dam, which is one of India's oldest. Following heavy rains in Kerala, officials in Tamil Nadu have stated that the water level reached the Supreme Court stipulated 142 feet on Wednesday. The Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in a letter to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E.K. Palanisamy on Wednesday asked him to intervene to bring down the water level.
The dam, constructed more than a century ago, has been the subject of dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Built on the Periyar river in Kerala and originally being owned by that state, it is operated by the Tamil Nadu government through an agreement with the former British government for irrigation. The agreement granted full rights to the secretary of state of Tamil Nadu and the dam was built to divert eastwards a part of the west-flowing Periyar river, to feed the arid areas of Tamil Nadu.
The point of contention has to do with the water level. The agreement was renewed by the two state governments in the 1970s. Tamil Nadu was given rights to the land and the water from the dam. Additionally, Tamil Nadu was given the authority to develop hydro-power projects at the site, and Kerala would receive rent in return.
In 1979, there were safety concerns after reports claimed that cracks had developed in the dam as a result of an earthquake. The Central Water Commission examined the dam and recommended that the level of water stored be lowered to 136 feet. The commission also recommended that the dam's full capacity of 152 feet could be achieved only after it was strengthened.
The tow states have been at odds over this damn ever since. Tamil Nadu has claimed that it has undertaken periodic checks and conducted repairs while stating that Kerala has not allowed it to raise the water levels resulting in losses owing to not being able to use the dam to its full capacity. The dam is located in Idukki district, which is earthquake prone, hence the hesitation according to Kerala.
In 2000, the dispute reached the Supreme Court after languishing in the respective states' high courts for some time. In 2006, the apex court allowed the TN government to raise the water level and stated that the concerns of the Kerala government were baseless. To corroborate what some scientists have said with regards to the dam's capability to withstand earthquakes, the Kerala government commissioned IIT Roorkee to conduct a study of the dam. Their findings were validated and in 2009, the government of Kerala proposed for a new dam to be built on that site. The TN government refused.
The following year, in 2010, in an attempt to find common ground between the two states, the Supreme Court set up a five member committee to look into the concerns raised by the states. The committee, in 2012 declared the dam to be safe and said a water level of 142 feet was viable. Shortly after the 2006 order by the apex court, the Kerala government countered with an amendment to the 2003 Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation Act classifying the Mullaperiyar dam as endangered and restricted the level of water in it to 136 feet.
Ramaswamy Iyer, in a 2011 column for the Hindu, called for both sides to seek common ground in allaying the fears and concerns that both states had over the dam, while calling for a contingency plan for an eventual phasing out of the dam. While criticising the existence of the dam itself, he wrote that it's incumbent on the Kerala government to take the initiative –
"If Kerala's objective is to escape from what it considers an unfair agreement, the proper course is to re-negotiate the old agreement, and not build a new dam. Explore alternative ways of meeting the legitimate water needs of the affected population; minimise their dependence on waters from the Mullaperiyar dam through better water management."
In 2014, the Kerala government suffered a setback as the apex court stated that it could not object to Tamil Nadu raising the water level. It also struck down the 2006 amendment as unconstitutional. In the TN Assembly, then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa cited victory for the state saying in part, "The act of downing the shutters in Mullaperiyar in order to raise its storage level to 142 ft is a victory for the people of Tamil Nadu. More than a victory, it is justice delivered."
In June of this year, the Union cabinet approved a proposal for enacting the Dam Safety Bill 2018. This bill was opposed by Jayalalithaa over concerns it will dilute the power of Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar dam. The legislation will address issues concerning regular inspection of dams, emergency action plan and a comprehensive dam safety review.
The Mullaperiyar dam continues to be a point of contention between the two states with both sides having different views at each stage. Tamil Nadu is no stranger to issues related to dams and water sharing as the Cauvery issue illustrates.