The row between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar dam is essentially about the safety of the 116-year-old structure and how much water it can safely hold. Both these are technical issues — but they are, unfortunately, being politicised. The fact that there is no proper technical assessment of the dam’s strength, combined with a perceived risk of its giving way due to either an increased water load or natural disasters like earthquakes, has allowed for the issue’s politicisation. The plea by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to both states to refrain from whipping up sentiment until an experts’ panel examines the issue, therefore, makes immense sense.
The Mullaperiyar dam is a gravity dam constructed between 1887 and 1895 with the technology available at that time and using chiefly limestone and surkhi (a mixture of calcium oxide and sugar). It cannot, thus, be as sturdy as dams built with modern technology and material. The misgivings about its reliability arise also from numerous past instances of leaks in the dam. Increased seismic activity in that region, of late, has exacerbated these concerns. From this viewpoint, Kerala’s demand for construction of a new dam to replace the old one does not seem irrational. However, the counter-argument, that even gravity dams, if maintained well and operated to their inherent capacity, can last far beyond their rated life, is not to be taken lightly. After all, nearly 80 per cent of the country’s 4,700-odd dams have already outlived their rated life and are still in service. About 114 of them are over a century old. This is the substance underlying Tamil Nadu’s stand that, instead of going in for a new dam, the existing structure should be strengthened.
Such a plea, however, does not really resolve the dispute, which arises from an ill-conceived agreement between the Maharaja of Travancore and the state of Madras, brokered by the British rulers in 1886, and renewed in 1970 between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Under it, Travancore leased out the dam, located in its territory, to Madras for 999 years. The fears of those living in the Kerala districts downstream have been aggravated after the failure of the Morvi Dam in August 1979 and a report by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Earth Science Studies that claims Mullaperiyar would not be able withstand tremors of a magnitude of more than six on the Richter scale. Regardless of the merits of these arguments and counter-arguments, the need today is to douse tempers in both states and expedite technical assessment of Mullaperiyar’s strength. Both states have cooperated in the past to repair structural breaches. A similar spirit should be allowed to prevail again.