Mullaperiyar Dam, the oldest Indian dam: know what went wrong

Situated on the Periyar river, Kerala, the oldest Indian dam, Mullaperiyar dam is back in the limelight. On Friday, the Supreme Court granted the liberty to serve on the Standing Counsel for the State of Kerala notice, in a plea filed seeking termination of lease deed between the States of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in relation to Mullaperiyar dam.

Let’s see how it all started. 

The Mullaperiyar dam is 126-year-old, situated at the confluence of the Mullayar and Periyar rivers in Kerala. However, it is operated by the Tamil Nadu government for irrigation and power generation. 

Why was the Dam constructed:
The dam was built to divert eastwards a part of the west-flowing Periyar river, to feed the arid areas of Tamil Nadu. It provides water through a tunnel to the Vaigai basin in Tamil Nadu for irrigation benefits in the 68558 ha area. 

How did Tamil Nadu come into the scene?
In 1970, the lease agreement of 1886 was renewed by the two-state governments, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu was given the rights of the land, the water from the dam, and the permission to generate power out of it. In return, Kerala was to receive rent out of the lease deal between the two. 

Mullaperiyar dam issue:
In 1886, Maharaja of Travancore (present-day Kerala) and Secretary of State for India agreed on a lease indenture for 999 years for the Periyar irrigation work. The dam was constructed from 1887 to 1895. 

In 1979, Kerala Press reported safety concerns about the dam. It claimed cracks on the dam as a result of a minor earthquake. After the reports, the Central Water Commission (CWC) held meetings and some emergency medium and long-term measures for strengthening of  Mullaperiyar Dam were decided. After the completion of emergency and medium-term measures, in 1980, it was decided that the water level could be raised in the reservoir up to 145 ft. 

In 2001, after the dam was strengthened, the water level could be raised from 136 ft to 142 ft without endangering the safety of the dam. Raising the water level to 152 ft was also considered after the balance strengthening measures were implemented.

In 2006, the Government of Kerala passed the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act which prohibited the raising of water level beyond 136 ft. in the Mullaperiyar Dam and placed it in the Schedule of ‘Endangered Dams’.

This started the war of water between Tamil Nadu and Kerala as the Government of Tamil Nadu filed a suit in the Supreme Court praying for the declaration of the above Act as unconstitutional. It also asked for restraining the State of Kerala from obstructing Tamil Nadu to increase the water level to 142 feet.

Over the years, Tamil Nadu has claimed that it suffered huge losses as Kerala did not allow it to raise the water level, as a result of which the full potential of the dam couldn’t be utilized. 

Meanwhile, the Government of Kerala has carried out hydrological review studies and concluded in the report that the Mullaperiyar dam is hydrologically unsafe for passing the estimated Probable Maximum Flood. However, upon CWC’s examination, it was observed that the report did not appear to be well-founded.

Apart from the legal and constitutional issues, according to the Supreme Court in 2010, the real grievance that concerns the state is Tamil Nadu is not being able to increase the reservoir level of Mullaperiyar Dam to 142 feet. While that of Kerala appears to be relating to the safety of the Dam.

In 2012, the dam was declared hydrologically safe. It was suggested that either Kerala construct a new Dam and the existing dam may not be dismantled, demolished, or decommissioned till the new dam construction is completed and it becomes operational, or to repair, strengthen/ restore the existing dam.

In 2013, the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act,2006 was declared unconstitutional. The Union Government was also directed to set up a three-member Supervisory Committee about the safety of the Mullaperiyar Dam on restoration of the FRL to 142 ft.

In 2014, The State Government of Kerala filed a Review Petition against the Supreme Court Order which was dismissed by the Apex Court on 2nd December, 2014.

The government of Tamil Nadu too went to the Supreme Court pleading the Apex Court for the Deployment of CISF to guard Mullaperiyar Dam. In 2015, the court directed the Union of India to file a counter reply.

Fast forward to the present day, the Supreme Court has issued notice to the central government, state government of Kerala, and Tamil Nadu on a plea seeking termination of Mullaperiyar’s 1886 lease agreement.

According to the petition filed with the court, Tamil Nadu did not carry out the necessary repairs on the dam.

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