Much has already been said on the history and geography of Mullaperiyar issue. I do not intend to repeat those aspects here. I would like to merely state the facts that are not in dispute and concentrate on the way forward to resolve this issue in a win-win spirit from all concerned.
First, let us list the facts:
Mullaperiyar River and the dam are situated well within the state of Kerala, unlike other rivers involved in similar disputes, like Kaveri that flows through multiple states.
The claim of Tamil Nadu on the waters of Mullaperiyar is based solely on the lease treaty that was entered into between the King of Travancore and the Government of India under British rule, in 1886. The lease under the treaty is valid for a period of 999 years.
In 1970, Both Kerala and Tamil Nadu Governments have signed a new agreement virtually adopting the entire provisions of the 1886 treaty. In effect, Kerala government accepted the terms of an agreement that was widely believed to be thrust under duress by British masters on a hapless Indian King.
With this adoption by respective State Governments, no further scope exists for debating the basis of the original agreement. It is a legal obligation binding on all parties.
Today, the water from this dam is the lifeline for a large area of Tamil Nadu with people depending on this project for drinking water and irrigation of over 3 lacs acres of land. Denial of water would be disastrous for people and agriculture of these areas.
The dam was constructed with lime and surkhi, which is considered not to be an efficient mode of construction today. Studies have shown that up to 30 tons of surkhi was being lost from the dam every year. This has been endangering the safety of dam. Even though reinforcement work was carried out by providing concrete cover, the frequent leaks and losing of surkhi continued to cause fear in the minds of downstream people.
Since 1979, there were many instances when minor to medium intensity earthquakes happened in the area. Various studies by independent bodies have maintained that the dam in its present condition may not withstand an earthquake that measures 6 on the Richter scale.
Since March, Idukki district where dam is situated has felt 22 mild tremors. An earthquake that read 3.4 on Richter Scale took place in the last week, which has caused panic among the people of Kerala. (To dismiss this panic as a mass hysteria stage managed for release of a movie named Dam 999 is adding insult to injury!)
When in 1979, there was a minor earthquake in the dam area and that caused panic among people. On State of Kerala’s request, State of Tamil Nadu agreed to reduce the water level to 136 feet from 142 feet till completion of strengthening of the dam with reinforcement of concrete cover etc.
Post completion of reinforcement work Tamil Nadu wanted to increase the water level back to the original 142 feet. However, continuing tremors in the area caused concerns among people living downstream that this lime and surkhi dam of such vintage may not survive a major earthquake. This is when the present legal disputes originated.
Not going into details of the long legal battle between two States, let me come straight to the present dispute. The major issues that really affect people of either state are as follows:
Will Tamil Nadu continue to get water in the same manner as it was agreed to in the previous treaty/agreement?
Should Kerala Government be allowed to ensure safety of millions of its people who are living in the thickly populated downstream districts, by constructing another dam to replace the present one?
In my view, no Court or Government can afford to neglect the genuine concerns of people. When I say this, I mean the concerns of both people of Tamil Nadu and people of Kerala. Therefore, the Highest Court (including its Empowered Committee) which is currently seized of the dispute must take this up on priority and complete the hearing on day to day basis and give an order that addresses both the concerns.
Kerala can be allowed to go ahead with the survey and other activities related to constructing a new dam without touching the existing one. The cost of construction of new dam can be shared between Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Centre in whichever ratio as court deems fit. Once the new dam is completed, the old one can be decommissioned.
Kerala must be put under an obligation to continue ensuring the same level of supply of water to Tamil Nadu as exists today.
The operation of the new dam can be entrusted to a joint team of officials from both sides so that the adherence to the terms of Supreme Court Order can be ensured, with or without supervision of an independent agency or central Government. However, these are all peripheral issues that can be tackled once the two fundamental issues are resolved.
The new slogan coined by Kerala after its all party meeting on the issue, WATER FOR TN AND SAFETY FOR KERALA must be adopted by Tamil Nadu as well in its true spirit and formed the basis for a just order by the Supreme Court.
It is also a fact that there are forces and individuals who try to cash in on any conflict so as to spread their nefarious agenda. I was surprised to note that there were efforts to convince people that the whole Mullaperiyar controversy is generated by Church to reduce the flow of pilgrims to nearby Sabarimala temple. I am glad that people have by and large dismissed such efforts and refused to give credit to Church for having so much of miraculous powers as to invite earthquakes in support of their so called strategy!
The agreement to give water for survival of a large area of Tamil Nadu is good neighbourly/brotherly act. Let all parties continue that spirit and make Mullaperiyar an example for others to emulate rather than fishing in the troubled water! Let us hope leaders from both sides and the Apex Court will be able to live up to the expectations of people.