Mullaperiyar dam, history and related issues

Read below the history and details about the agreements on the use of the water stored in the dam reservoir. Also discusses the resulting conflicts between the two neighbouring States Kerala and Tamilnadu. Certain aspects about the legal battle between the States are too explained. Additionally technical aspects of the dam are presented.

Genesis of Mullaperiyar dam

The issue of Mullaperiyar dam has become a major topic of discussion among media and people. Political parties are also doing their share to keep it alive. The interesting part of the issue is that the rivers Mullayar and Periyar (jointly called Mulla periyar) and also the Dam built on it are within the geographical limits of Kerala State. Yet the controversy exists about the dam and the water in it with the neighbouring State, Tamil Nadu.

It all started years back when the British Government, the then rulers of Madras Presidency (now called Tamil Nadu) approached the Maharaja of Travancore (present Kerala State was formed adding Kochi State and Malabar to Travancore State in 1956) for diverting water from Periyar toVaigai river(flowing within Tamilnadu) for agricultural purposes. It originally started in 1808 when Sir James Caldwell formulated this plan. Later the project was taken up in 1850 by Captain Fabor with more details. The plan was for constructing a small dam across Chinnamooliyar, a small tributary of Periyar, and diverts the water to Vaigai basin through an open canal.
The Madras Government started the work on this dam even without informing the Travancore Government. However the work could not be completed since many workers died due to an infectious disease spread there. Next was an attempt to build an earth dam of height 162 ft. based on a proposal by the District Engineer Major Ryves. The plan was for building a dam across Mullaperiyar and diverts the water into Suruliyar, a tributary of Vaigai River. It also had to be abandoned due to lack of technical expertise for constructing earth dams. Again the proposal was revised with increased height of 175 feet and with a tunnel of 7000 feet length.

During these years the Maharaja of Travancore was being pressurised by the British Government politically. Because of this high and prolonged pressure the Maharaja had to sign the agreement. It is stated that he was so much disturbed mentally in taking such a decision, which reflected in his statement that he was signing the agreement with the blood from his heart. It was His Highness Sreemoolam Thirunal (in power from 1885 to 1924) who was the Maharaja ruling Travancore in those days. The official signing of the agreement was done on 29th October, 1886 and the signatories were Vembakam Ramaiengar, Dewan of His Highness the Maharaja of Travancore and John Child Hannyngton, the Resident of Travancore and Cochin by order and direction of the Right Honorable Governor in Council of Fort St. George acting on behalf of Right Honorable the Secretary of State for India in Council.

This agreement gave Madras Presidency the right to divert the entire water below the 155 feet contour (taking the lowest point as the base) for 999 years. For this purpose land measuring 8000 acres (3248 ha) inside this water contour was allotted on long lease to the Madras Presidency. Additionally for the same period another 100 acres of land required for the execution of the project was also allotted. In this 'Periyar Project Area' they were allowed to make necessary constructions. Also they were having the rights on all timber, woods, under woods and saplings of that area. Fishing rights in the above waters were also vested with them. They could also by right take necessary stones and soil from there for construction and maintenance purposes.

As compensation the State of Travancore was entitled to deduct annually 'forty thousand British rupees' from the annual tributes to be paid to the British Government. Additionally the Madras Presidency was to pay rent for the leased land at the rate of Rs. 4 per acre to the State of Travancore. The agreement also contains a provision for extending the period of agreement for another 999 years after the expiry of the present agreement.

One sided actions and resulting controversies

The original agreement signed in 1886 allows the lessee (Madras Presidency) to utilize water diverted from Periyar to Vaigai River for irrigation purposes only. But the lessee, after two decades, started the process of generating electricity from these waters, without getting consent from the Government of Travancore. Though the British Government used all its pressure tactics, the Travancore Government was so stern, as a result the dispute had to be left for arbitration. Arbitration also failed, which led to the appointment of an umpire by the British Government. Sri. Nalini Ranjan Chatterjee was the umpire. It was nobody other than the famous Dewan of Travancore, Sir. C.P. Ramaswami Iyer,who appeared for Travancore and argued the case. In 1949 the umpire decreed that as per the agreement the water from Mullaperiyar cannot be used for generating electricity.

But the then Madras Government did not give any weight for this decree of the umpire and continued the power generation. They even modified the tunnel in order to increase the discharge capacity, so that more power could be generated. They completed the works on the necessary infrastructure, like generating station, penstock pipes, surge shafts, etc. Installation work of four numbers of 35 MW generators was also carried out and started producing electricity at the rate of 500 million units per year from 1965 onwards. All this without the consent of Travancore (later Kerala) Government.
By this time the rules of Maharaja and British had been replaced by popular Governments in both Kerala and Tamilnadu. Unlike the Maharaja's prompt and effective action, the popular Government of Kerala kept quiet. By the time the Government took it up electricity started flowing from the Power House of Tamilnadu at the lower side of Mullaperiyar.

Kerala plunge into deep waters

Though Kerala could have legally stopped this power production unit, the then popular Government instead gave legal sanction to this unauthorized action of Tamilnadu through another agreement signed in 1970 (May, 29). This was a foolish action by the Kerala Government. Because of this it forfeited the right to challenge the section 108 of the State Reorganization Act 1956, which provided for the continuation of the agreements on water and electricity made before the reorganization of the State. In fact by signing this new agreement Kerala Government was ratifying the previous agreement signed in 1886. This action by the Government took away any scope to challenge the 1886 agreement in the court of law.

Tamil Nadu Government gave Kerala the right to fishing in the Mullaperiyar water, as a compensation for allowing power generation. Also it allowed to increase the annual rent for land from Rs. 5 to Rs.30 per acre, with the right to revise the same after thirty years.

The agreement also clarifies about the payment to Kerala by Tamilnadu for the power generated from this water. The rate was fixed as Rs.12 per kWyear for the first 350 crore units of kWh and as Rs. 18 per kWyear above 350 crore units. Generally, accepted unit of electricity is kWh. Here the mentioned unit is kWyear, which is equivalent to 8760kWh. Thus the rates given can be converted into rates per kWh as 0.137 paise for the first 350 crore units and 0.21 paise for above 350 crore units.
This agreement was signed in 1970 officially by Secretary for energy K.P. Viswanathan Nair for Kerala and PWD Secretary K.S. Sivasubrahmaniam for Tamil Nadu. This agreement grants Tamilnadu the authority for the construction and maintenance of Mullaperiyar dam and also to carry out any related works.

Dam safety issue pops up

The details given above with regard to the agreement clearly shows that Kerala's stand became very weak legally. Though disputes were started in 1909, Kerala could not get any favourable decision at any stage. From 1960 onwards, Kerala Government started to raise the issue of safety of the dam. It was when the Tamilnadu Government's efforts to reduce the leaks with grouting and guniting failed to give desired results. On request the Central Government interfered and an expert commission was appointed with K.C. Thomas as Chairman (who was the Chairman of Central Water Commission) and two engineers from the two states as members. The Commission after visiting the dam site in 1979 came out with certain urgent safety measures to be taken up as protection measures. These included the keeping of all the ten spillways open in order to retain the water level at 136 feet, providing an RCC capping above the dam and constructing three additional spillway gates for quick discharge of floods.
The Government of Tamilnadu completed all these works without delay. Additionally, grouting was done on the exposed upstream face when the water level was low.

The Commission had also suggested certain long term measures which include (i) flattening of the down stream slope and increasing the area at the base of the dam by putting up an RCC backing on the down stream side, (ii) constructing drainage galleries at levels of 10 ft and 45 ft inside the back-up dam and to make provision for doing grouting operation wherever necessary and (iii) constructing a new dam not far away from the existing dam.

The Tamilnadu Government completed the first two of the above suggestions of the Commission. As far as the third one, namely, the construction of a new dam is concerned they could not proceed. The main reason being that the site proposed for the new dam came under the wild life sanctuary, hence the sanction of the Forest department was needed for construction of the dam.

Meanwhile, leaks were detected below the baby dam and hence the Commission suggested the strengthening of this dam also. Kerala Government had no much interest in this since it has nothing to do with retaining the water level at or below 136 feet. Moreover Kerala believed that by strengthening the baby dam, Tamilnadu would try to increase the water level under some pretext or other.
Because of pressure from the Tamilnadu Government to raise the water level, Kerala Government appointed a two-member commission to look into the matter. The Commission after going through all aspects, especially the age of the main dam (it had already completed its normal life) and the ineffectiveness of the strengthening measures, submitted three reports . These reports did not recommend the raising of the water level beyond the stipulated 136 ft.

Legal battle between the States

In the year 1998 a ministerial level meeting of both the States was held to discuss the issues relating to the dam. It took a decision for appointing separate expert committees for both the States to study the issue and submit reports. These reports were exchanged between the Governments in 1999. These two reports were contradictory in nature. By this time different suits had been filed in courts in Kerala as well as in Tamilnadu by various individuals and agencies to find a solution to the Mullaperiyar issue. Tamilnadu and Subramanya Swami approached the Supreme Court for transferring all pending cases into the purview of the Apex Court.

The Supreme Court asked both the States to hold bilateral talks and come out with a solution. Accordingly, discussions were made at the ministerial level at Trivandrum in 2000. This discussion also could not arrive at a decision regarding raising the water level above 136 ft. Then the Apex Court directed the Central Government to convene a meeting of the representatives of the two States. On the basis of the decision of such a meeting, an expert committee consisting of seven members was constituted in order to make a study about the safety of the dam. Chairman of the Committee was Dr. B.K. Mithal of Central Water Commission and its Secretary, B.M. Upadhyaya, Chief Enginner of the Central Water Commission. The representatives of both Kerala and Tamilnadu were also in the Committee in addition to other experts. In December 2000 the Committee inspected the dam and the works there and held its first sitting at Mullaperiyar itself. The Committee had another sitting at New Delhi also.
During these days (in December 2000 and January 2001) two serious earth quakes (magnitude 5.0 and 4.8 on the Richter Scale, respectively) took place near Erattupetta. This place being near to the dam site, one of the members of the Expert Committee, M.K. Parameswaran Nair visited the dam site together with experts on earthquake from Kerala. This team was convinced that there were several serious cracks and water leaking at different places on the dam. This team recommended a study about the magnitude of cracks and the continuous measuring of the quantity of water leaking. It was aimed at knowing the impact of earthquakes on the dam.

Based on these recommendations the Govt. of Kerala requested the Govt. of Tamilnadu to cooperate with the investigations and not to close the leaks in haste. The Tamilnadu Govt. did not even reply to this request. Then Kerala Government appointed its own committee to assess the possible impacts of earthquakes on dam. Another investigation on the baby dam was conducted, meanwhile, by the Centre for Soil and Material Research Station, New Delhi. They used sophisticated instruments like radar and ultra-sonic devices. Their reports and the effects of the earthquakes were discussed at the next sitting of the Expert Committee. After a detailed discussion the Committee decided to submit the following recommendations to the Central Govt.
i) The CWC recommendation for strengthening must be completed soon. Remaining part of the parapet at the top also be strengthened. Kerala should cooperate with the TN Govt. in the execution of these works.
ii) The water level could be raised to 142 ft. even before the above said works are completed.
iii) After the satisfactory completion of the strengthening works, the water level could be further raised to the full reservoir level of 152 ft.

The representative of Kerala in this Expert Committee dissented with the above recommendations. His disagreements were based on several reasons, which he presented in his note.
The final meeting of the Committee was held in March and it approved the earlier recommendations without changes, which was forwarded to the Central Govt. Based on these recommendations the Supreme Court, in Order made in 2006 February, rejected the Kerala Govt's objections against the raising of water level in the dam. Court's Order permitted the TN Govt. to carry out the strengthening works as suggested by the Central Water Commission. The Order further restrained the Kerala from creating any obstruction to these works. Also the Court Order permitted to raise the water level to 152 ft. after the completion of the strengthening works.

Immediately after the pronouncements of the above Orders by the Apex Court, demands from all sections in TN started pouring in to close all shutters in order to allow the raising of water. The Kerala Assembly, though had adjourned indefinitely, decided to meet as an extra-ordinary session, as demanded by an all party meeting. The then Chief Minister (Sri. Oommen Chandy) made it clear that the water level would not be allowed to rise above 136 ft. The special session of the Assembly passed 'Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act 2006' which gave powers to Kerala State to verify the safety of all dams in the State and take necessary actions if necessary. Immediately, Tamilnadu approached Supreme Court to get this Act as unconstitutional.

Parallel to this a review petition was filed in the Supreme Court by the Mullaperiyar Environment Protection Forum stating that when the case was considered earlier several facts were left out, and praying that the case should be considered afresh. This was not allowed by the Apex Court. But the Court ordered that the arguments on the case moved by the Tamilnadu Government would be heard. But hearing the arguments the Division Bench felt that the case involved several issues related to the Constitution of India and hence decided to refer the suit to the Chief Justice of India for giving necessary directions to place it before a constitution bench. During the period the States were asked to continue status quo. Accordingly the water level was to be kept at 136 ft level. The TN Govt. could undertake all repair works as per the earlier decision. Thus the matter is now pending with the Chief Justice of India.
Today, the 13th of December, 2011 the Supreme Court has dismissed the demand of Kerala to reduce the water level to 120 ft. The Court did not consider that the situation of the dam is not that critical to reduce the water level. Also the Apex Court has dismissed the demand of the TN Government to raise the water level over the present limit of 136 ft.

Certain technical details about the Mullaperiyar dam

Mullaperiyar dam was constructed in 1880s; hence it did not follow the present day dam construction technologies. The main dam is a 'masonry gravity dam' of length 1200 ft. and height 155 ft. (with parapet the height becomes 158 ft.). the height from the bottom of foundation will come to 176 ft. Full reservoir level is 152 ft. while the maximum flood level comes to 155 ft. the highest water level recorded (on 3.1.1943) is 154.8 ft.
The spill ways are at 136 ft. height and there were ten spill ways up to the year 1980, later three more were constructed. The spill ways are having a height 16 ft. and length of 36 ft.
The earth dam has a length of 243 ft. and a height of 56 ft. the baby dam is of height 240 ft. and length 56 ft.
The storage capacity of the dam is 15.662 TMC, and the live storage is 10.563 TMC.
The river Periyar has a total length of 300 km. The catchment area comes to 5334 sq. km. of which 5222 sq. km come inside Kerala, the rest is in Tamilnadu. The total flow is 12,484 Mm³ of which 12,290 Mm³ are from Kerala's catchment area.

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Author: Renith Ravindran13 Dec 2011 Member Level: Gold   Points : 2

This is really one of the best article about Mullaperiyar Dam that clearly depict all information of the dam from the past to present. Nicely articulate. If you could have attach some good pictures of the dam (both old and new) along with the article then it would have make the article more interest to read. Otherwise many new readers wont take interest on reading much broad topic in one sitting. Congrats for your effort !


Author: T.M.Sankaran25 Mar 2014 Member Level: Gold   Points : 2

All the anxieties and issues on the Mullaperiyar was just a hoax, it seems. Many staying in the neighbourhood became frustrated and even were spending the nights without sleep. One wonders what for we are having these Governments.

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