If one looks at it dispassionately, the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have actually had an excellent relationship with regard to water sharing when compared to the fractious relations between other southern states on water resources. And in Andhra intra-state faultlines  runs deep on question of water sharing and played a significant role in fuelling a sepearate statehood agitation.  Intense water conflict between states are caused usually because these states depend on monsoons for water and have large dry regions.

The situation with Kerala, though, is very different.

Rivers of Kerala (C) Prokerala

Kerala is blessed with copious amounts of rainfall enriching the state with 44 rivers! The state’s problem though has been with electricity. With a high density of population coal based projects are not easily viable and Kerala does not seem to like nuclear power either. A proposal to set up a nuclear plant in the state was made in the 1980’s but was moved to neighbouring Tamil Nadu due to opposition. This necessitated Kerala to rely heavily on hydro power and a network of dams across the rivers were duly built to produce power. These dams are of no great significance to drinking or irrigation in Kerala.

Besides Mullaiperiyar, Tamil Nadu and Kerala cooperate on Siruvani, Parambikulam-Aliyar Project (PAP) in borders near Coimbatore-Palghat regions.

The three major PAP reservoirs and its other structures are controlled jointly by the Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments.  Drinking water schemes on both sides are implemented with due cooperation from each side. The joint water regulatory board on interstate PAP takes care of this. In the recent past, increased needs on both sides have led to minor issues, but have been taken care well. The PAP is one of the best interstate river water projects!

The other border area of KanyaKumari where again Western Ghats provides for many rivers and streams also has had some minor issues and allegations flying, but has more or less remained peaceful. There exists a dispute over Neyyar water sharing (in complete limbo now). Kerala is reported to have stopped supply in a channel which irrigates Vilavancode taluk.

A similar sticking point is Shenbagavalli Amman veer.

The Sivagiri hill ranges in the region sees a host of streams originating. In the past Travancore and the Sivagiri polygars (one of the 72 originals palayams of Pandyas) reached an agreement to create the veer to feed tanks in Sivagiri and Rajapalayam areas. The veer was damaged in 1971 and has since not been repaired by Kerala till date though Tamil Nadu had made payments towards the same in 1986.

These though have smaller zone of influence and hence haven’t snowballed into a bigger controversy and are being patiently dealt with.  Unfortunately the Mullaiperiyar issue may end up spoiling this bonhomie. Increasing power needs on both sides have also not helped matter.

Jayalalithaa finds herself in almost the same situation as in 2001 when she took over a state with a badly managed power sector. Back then Kerala ensured power supply to Tamil Nadu thanks to AK Antony’s interference. In other areas such as movies, tourism, cattle/poultry and others the two states have enjoyed mutual co-operation and prosperity.

Mullaiperiyar, however, has been a sore point for over last thirty years .

The Mullaiperiyar Project

Before we get to a primer on the history of this issue, it would be pertinent to place on record that I hail from Chennai, and there in ends my association with this.  I haven’t been to the dam. This is an attempt to place the concerns and viewpoints of the two sides based on the discussions I have held with people from both sides.

Periyar dam during construction

Tamil Nadu’s driest regions lying in the present districts of Ramanathapuram, Tuticorin, Theni and parts of Virudhunagar were one of the worst hit in the series of famines that occured in India around the 1700’s.

With a view to address the annual prospect of drought , the then Ramanathapuram Raja  got his minister to analyse the feasibility of tapping the perennial Periyar river which originated from the Sivagiri mountains by means of a canal. However the proposal was dropped due to precarious financial situation of kingdom despite finding the project to be feasible.

This idea was once again revived by the British when these areas were under their control. James Cladwell once again began the studies to construct a dam.  More than half a century later after various issues, like endemics, the British revived the idea, with Colonel John Pennycuick in charge.

By 1884 the project was sanctioned at a cost of 62 lakhs.  The construction began in Devikulam and Peermede taluks. With terrain remaining tough, the construction materials and personnel were sourced from the eastern side, which was the main access to these areas. To enable the construction, British government inked a deal with the then Maharaja of Travancore in 1886.  It stipulated:

  • The agreement is for 999 years and can be renewed at end of lease.
  • For the 8000 acres of land on which the water will be stored, a lease amount of Rs.5/acre and Rs.40000/year will be paid to Travancore state. This was considered to be valuable revenue those days given these areas were less developed, and inhospitable with limited access.
  • Full rights to Tamil Nadu for
    • water sourced from those 8000 acres.
    •  to carry out works related to dam and irrigation on those 8000 acres.
    •  For fishing on catchment areas, rights over stone, minerals, trees, plants in the catchment areas.
  • Full right of access to officials, workers and associated people and to take things with them
  • Full Ownership rights for 100 acres to facilitate dam construction, irrigation and maintenance

During the initial stages of the construction a severe flood washed away some of the constructed segments.  Torrential rains, flash flood, wild animals, tough terrain, diseases like malaria meant labour was a major problem.  Colonel John Pennycuick though was a determined man. He sold all his properties in UK and constructed the dam at a cost of about 85 lakhs.  He is thus celebrated as the Arthur Cotton of southern Tamil Nadu.

Periyar Dam during construction (C) Columbia.edu

Technical details of the dam:

With a height of 172 feet (152 feet storage) and about 1241 feet long the dam could hold about 15 TMC of water.  However water storage upto 104 feet is to be considered dead storage as the water cannot be tapped towards Tamil Nadu side.

Water stored above 104 feet is transported to Thekkady through man-made canals for 2 kilometres. From Thekkady penstocks (sluice gate) water is transported to Tamil Nadu through 2 kilometres of Tunnels bored across mountains in Western Ghats and finally drained into a tributary of Suruli river.

In 1933 the dam was strengthened.  In 1956, following states division, a four bay dam was constructed in Tamil Nadu to produce electricity using this water. From this dam, water is carried in a tunnel and huge pipes for a distance of 5800 feet to lower camp where electricity is produced.

After producing electricity, water is let into Suruli River for irrigation purpose. This water then irrigates about 2,08,000 acres in Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivagangai and Ramanathapuram districts. It also serves as primary source of drinking water in these otherwise parched districts.

In 1960, the dam was once again strengthened.  This involved guniting the upstream face and grouting the inside face body. However, the first murmurs concerned the strength of the dam has begun by now. The sixties also saw Kerala building a number of check-damns along the course of Periyar river. Proposals to build the Idukki dam were also being made in earnest.

In 1970 a supplementary agreement was signed between Kerala and Tamil Nadu by which the latter surrendered rights to fishing and tourism in the dam areas. The agreement also included clauses providing for power production rights, and an amendment regarding the monetary aspects.

The seventies also witnessed the construction of Kerala’s biggest hydroelectric project – the Idukki dam about 50 kilometres downstream of the Mullaiperiyar dam. This was a arch dam, 1200 feet long and 555 feet tall with a capacity of 70 TMC (six times more than the Mullaiperiyar dam)

The resulting flora and fauna in over 80 years of dam’s presence also led to the region being declared reserve forest followed by declaration as a tiger reserve.

Signs of Dispute

Now, the genesis for the present conflict breaks in 1979.

A Malayalam daily ran a story on 16th October 1979 that tremors were felt in Idukki district and that the dam was not safe.  Following this under the Kerala government’s request then CWC president Thomas inspected the dam. CWC though opined that dam was in good shape. However the CWC did suggest a few strengthening measures. The then Tamil Nadu government led by MGR agreed to reduce the level of water stored at the Mullaiperiyar dam to a maximum of 136 feet until the suggestions of the CWC were implemented.

The works were divided into three categories and short term measures to be done before next monsoon, medium term measures like pre tension /cable anchoring and long term measures were identified.

It was agreed to increase level back to 145 feet following completion of medium and short term works and both the states reached a commitment on this as per CWC.

Around 1986 CWC made various design notes to Tamil Nadu  on additional spillways, RCC topping to add weight to gravity dam, RCC wall backing and other measures. CWC also had opined that following completion of these works, the dam was competent enough to hold back its original storage of 152 ft.

Moving the courts

Following the refusal of Kerala to allow maximum storage even after strengthening works had been completed and post some usual rabble rousing ‘public interest groups’ in both the states petitioned the High Courts (in Kerala and Tamil Nadu) in 1998 seeking to reinstate/restrain storage reaching original storage heights. Subramaniam Swamy played a role in getting the cases transferred to the Supreme Court which recommended that the two states talk it out. Talks failed.

The SC then appointed an independent technical committee to study the issue and submit a report on the dam’s state.

The committee had on board a CWC Design and Research wing director, two chief engineers of CWC, Director of dam safety (Madhya Pradesh), a retired engineer in chief from UP besides representatives of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

(The Committee’s recommendation and further legal consequences to be discussed in the next part)