Giving Mullaperiyar waters on a platter Wednesday, Dec 21 2011 

Dams are not for ever: 116-year-old Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala

Kerala is offering waters of Mullaperiyar to Tamil Nadu in a platter. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has reportedly promised Tamil Nadu Minister Paneer Selvam that Kerala Assembly would pass a resolution to grant waters of Mullaperiyar to Tamil Nadu. Kerala has already assured the Centre that it would provide water without even the pre-condition that Tamil Nadu should reduce the water level of existing dam to 120 feet for the safety of people of Kerala.

Since Tamil Nadu is not agreeing to construction of a new dam below the existing Mullaperiyar dam for whatever reasons, it is high time that Kerala abandoned the proposal. Instead, it should insist on gradual lowering of the water level to ensure safety, taking Tamil Nadu’s refusal to accept the new dam proposal as an opportunity. Alternate intake structures could be considered at lower levels, if feasible, to allow Tamil Nadu to draw water at current levels or reduced levels. Eventually, Mullaperiyar dam should be reduced to a diversion structure.  It might be possible for Tamil Nadu to draw water for an indefinite period though that may not be at the current levels.  The engineering aspects of this should be studied in detail and alternative to new dam should be drawn up.

There is no reason why Kerala should continue to accept a ‘primitive’ agreement signed between erstwhile princely State of Travancore and the British. It was, in fact, an annexation of territory of Travancore as the agreement provides for diversion of all waters falling on 8000 acres. It was an international agreement. And it is at odds with current international law that recognises lower riparian rights. It ignored the ecological impact of total diversion of a river into another basin (Vaigai basin of Tamil Nadu) as those who signed the agreement were never aware of such an impact. The government should realise the eventual need to decommission several dams in Idukki district towards eco-restoration.

Hundreds of dams have been decommissioned in the United States and are not being rebuilt. Similar trend is happening in Europe also. Kerala need not try to buck the trend by building a new dam to replace the 116-year-old dam.

Related linkAny dam has a life

Save Mullaperiyar, Save Kerala

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Kerala government don’t want to win the Mullaperiyar case! Saturday, Dec 10 2011 

Poster announcing fast by S. Rajedran MLA at Vandiperiyar in Idukki district seeking resolution of the Mullaperiyar issue. The poster is in Tamil because a substantial part of population in and around Vandiperiyar is Tamil

Kerala government does not want to win the case filed by Tamil Nadu challenging the State’s dam safety legislation before the Supreme Court! This argument may appear strange; but that is what many in government wish.

If the Supreme Court upholds the legislation – the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, then the State will have all the powers to reduce the water level of Mullaperiyar reservoir, dismantle it or replace it with a new dam.  Politicians and officials here are acutely aware of the difficulties in using the power they will get in case of a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court, against the background of emotional opposition from Tamil Nadu.

This is why Water Resources Minister P. J. Joseph is calling for speedy enactment of Dam Safety Bill proposed by the Centre. (The Centre has drawn up a Bill for this, but it has not been introduced in Parliament). If a Central Act is passed, it will supersede the State legislation (which is what Tamil Nadu also wants.  However, it has its own objections to the provisions of the the proposed Central legislation). When that happens, the State will lose all its powers to ensure safety of dams in the State. When the Centre enforces the Act, things are not likely to work in favaour of Kerala. (Note the reluctance of Centre to Act against Tamil Nadu, even to insist on its officials and Chief Minister to attend talks with Kerala). Many issues may also get close attention of proposed Central Dam Safety Authority.  However, Mr. Joseph is willing to sacrifice power, if Kerala government and the State  Dam Safety Authority could escape from a tedious task of taking control of a dam in its territory.

It is notable that the Authority had not even moved a finger to ensure safety of any dam in the State though it was established five years ago.  The Supreme Court has ordered status quo regarding water level in the Mullaperiyar dam, but no other powers of the Authority has been curtailed by the Supreme Court. It has not stayed any of the clauses of the Act. So, there is nothing that prevents the State Authority from issuing orders to the custodian of the dam (Tamil Nadu)  to take precautionary steps. (The dam falls within in its jurisdiction.)

For example, it could have ordered that all the seepage from Mullaperiyar should be collected and measured. As all the seepage is not getting collected in the galleries (which exist only on the concrete back up provided by Tamil Nadu as part of the strengthening measures),  it is necessary to have structures downstream to catch all the seepage. Seepage can give an indication of damage to the dam, especially from tremours if compared with earlier volumes.

Another direction that the Authority could have given is regarding increasing of the efficiency of existing spillways  for achieving marginally better safety from floods. A technical committee had recommended as back as in the nineties that the earth behind the spillways should be removed and a slope should be ensured to enable speedy discharge of water. It was only this year that the State government intervened and removed the earth and debris dumped behind the spillways. However, no slope is being ensured. The State government acted only after the water level rose to 136 feet. So, the bulldozers are now working practically in water.

Abject Failure of Kerala government on Mullaperiyar front Saturday, Dec 3 2011 

Vandiperiyar

Vandiperiyar town of Idukki district which will be washed away in case of failure of Mullaperiyar dam

The developments on the Mullaperiyar front points to abject failure of the State and Central governments. The Central government could not even make the Tamil Nadu officials to come to Delhi.  Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa refused even to take the telephone call from Prime Minister. This is the cost the Centre government is paying for yielding to political blackmail of Tamil Nadu politicians in the past. Now that Karunanidhi is antagonised over CBI enquires against his party leaders, the Centre could not afford to say a hard word against Jayalalithaa.

The Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s Delhi mission was a total failure against this background despite the supported reportedly given by Defence Minister A. K. Antony. Though he put a brave face, he dispatched Water Resources Minister P. J. Joseph to examine the possibility of approaching the Supreme Court.  Mr. Joseph had earlier returned after giving an undertaking to the Centre that Kerala would ask for any share in waters of Mullaperiyar. (Tamil Nadu thus got an undertaking without even moving a finger. Kerala should have assured water to Tamil Nadu only after dragging it to the negotiation table.)

This was a case that Kerala could have won in the first instance in the Supreme Court. All it needed to have done was to invoke the precautionary principle and present the risk profile with support of studies and dam break analysis and inundation studies.  However, despite it getting more than a decade, the government has only ordered the study.

The consequence was that the Supreme Court in the first case concurred with the argument of Tamil Nadu that water from Mullaperiyar would be contained in the Idukki reservoir in case of failure of Mullaperiyar dam. This argument was not only technically incorrect, but also ignored the impact on the populated area between Mullaperiyar and Idukki. About 75000 people live there, but Kerala had failed to point that out to the Court.

The Government is against failing to state facts before the High Court. The Advocate General made amateurish observations on water level, safety and media coverage when the whole State is seized of the matter. It points to lack of coordination and ineptness of various departments. The Advocate General was making remarks on the basis of shallow observations by the Revenue and Disaster Management Department.  There was neither a collective approach nor organised presentation of case. This is why the Advocate General was refusing to heed the demand for his resignation. He did not divert much from what the government had presented before him.  This would be confirmed if the government fails to oust him. No client will keep a counsel if he had made observations against his brief.

A dam failure will not follow the mathematics of TN, the Advocate General or the Supreme Court. It will be catastrophic.  The dam completely gives way; it will be a column of water, more than 100 feet high, that will be flowing down.  Even when it reached Idukki reservoir, it will be more than 15 feet high. The torrent will bring down a lot of rocks and earth and will silt up the reservoir, raising the possibility of overtopping of the dam even when the water level of Idukki reservoir is low. Moreover floating trunks of trees and debris would hit the dams of Idukki with possibility of damage to the dram structure and spillways. So, Idukki would be at risk whatever the time of collapse of Mullaperiyar dam be.  If it is in summer, the scale of disaster would be lower, but it would make no difference for those on the path of the flow of water.

The authorities are actually misleading people by talking of plans to evacuate 450 families. This is a plan for evacuating people in case of an overflow of up to six feet through the spillways of Mullaperiyar dam. If one is to take precautions against a dam failure, about 2500 people would have to be evacuated from Vallakkadavu alone. The magnitude of disaster management in case of dam failure is something beyond the capabilities of the State government.

Related links:

Mullaperiyar– in search of truth (about precautionary principle)

Dam Safety: Mullaperiyar and its implications