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Mullaperiyar Dam-a deadly Water Bomb: transboundary dispute

Mullaperiyar Dam-a deadly Water Bomb: transboundary dispute and mutual settlement The Mullaperiyar water dispute has reached a flash point with the water level crossing the maximum permissible storage limit of 136-ft . With the Idukki District Collector issuing a high alert, fear has gripped thousands of residents in the downstream of the dam. 


The water level crossed the 136-foot mark by the evening after increased inflow of water following heavy rains in the catchment area for the past few days. Outflow through the first five spillways has started. If the water level touches 137 feet, water will start to leak  from other 13 spillways also. Kerala’s Idukki district is on a heightened state of alert after flood warnings were issued on 27th November amid growing fears of a possible dam collapse. Local authorities believe recent tremors have weakened the 116-year-old Mullaperiyar dam and that torrential rainfall, which has seen the water level pass the maximum limit, could help trigger a catastrophic chain reaction.


According to experts, the 116-year-old Mullaperiyar dam is one of world’s few surviving dams built mainly of lime-and-surky mix as most such structures in other parts of the globe have been scrapped and new ones built in view the threat posed them to people. The dam was built over a century back by British engineers as part of a 999-year-long lease agreement signed between princely state of Travancore and the Madras province under the British rule.


Kerala has buttressed its case by producing several experts studies that pointed to the precarious condition of the dam located in seismic-prone area. Recurrence of tremors in recent times has been cited by the state to reinforce its case seeking urgent Central intervention by persuading Tamil Nadu take a supportive stand. A team of experts inspected the earthquake-hit areas on last week of November at Upputhara, Valacode, Kannampadi and Kothappara in Idukki district. With water from Mullaperiyar starting to flow into the Idukki dam, the district authorities have set the disaster management units in position. Kerala saw widespread protests over the Mullaperiyar dam issue with people agitating for its decommissioning in five districts and the State capital. In places like Karinkulam Chappathu in Idukki district, the protests almost took the form of a grass-root level movement with people from different parts of the district joining the stir.


The row over Mullaperiyar dam started after Tamil Nadu sought an increase in the water-level in the reservoir to 142 feet. Kerala has been insisting that it be reduced from the current 136 feet to 120 feet. The concerns over 116-year-old dam’s safety have grown in the recent past and there are fears that the structure is weakening in the wake of recurring tremors in the Iddukki district of Kerala where the dam is located. It is operated by the Tamil Nadu government by way of a lease agreement.


The first dam was built by the British Corps of Royal Engineers. After the first dam was washed away by floods, a second dam was built in 1895. It is built with stone and Surki ( A mixture of sugar and Calcium oxide).The construction work on a small dam began in 1850 but was abandoned. This was because of fever among workers and demand for higher wages. In May 1882, the work on the dam resumed and was entrusted to Major John Pennycuick. It's total estimated cost was Rs. 84.71 lakhs. The reservoir was to have a height of 152 feet and a capacity of 10.56 thousand million cubic feet. The dam's purpose was to divert the waters of the west-flowing Periyar River eastward, taking the water from the reservoir through a tunnel cut across the watershed and Western Ghats to the arid rain shadow regions of Theni, Madurai District, Sivaganga District and Ramanathapuram districts of Tamil Nadu.


Although Kerala claims that the agreement was forced on the then princely State of Travancore, presently part of Kerala, the pact was re-validated in 1970 by Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The lease provided the British the rights over "all the waters" of the Mullaperiyar and its catchment basin, for an annual rent of Rs. 40,000. Tamil Nadu is the custodian of the dam and its surrounding areas. In 2006, the Supreme Court of India has allowed for the storage level to be raised to 142 feet (43 m). However, the Kerala Government promulgated a new "Dam Safety Act" against increasing the storage level of the dam, which has not been objected by the Supreme Court. Tamil Nadu challenged it on various grounds. The Supreme Court issued notice to Kerala to respond; however, did not stay the operation of the Act even as an interim measure. The Court then advised the States to settle the matter amicably, and adjourned hearing in order to enable them to do so. The Supreme Court of India termed it as not unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court constituted a Constitution bench to hear the case considering its wide ramifications.


The case involves pre-constitutional agreement between two entities which does not exist now. Kerala did not object giving water to Tamil Nadu. Their main cause of objection is the dams safety as it is as old as 110 years. Increasing the level would add more pressure to be handled by already leaking dam. No masonry dam may survive for 999 years so a new dam may replace the existing one in near future. In September 2009, the Ministry of Environment and Forests of Government of India granted environmental clearance to Kerala for conducting survey for new dam downstream. Tamil Nadu approached Supreme court for a stay order against the clearance; however, the plea was rejected. Consequently, the survey was started in October, 2009. The survey team looked at three spots for the final report. The arguments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu are continuing in the Constitution bench of Supreme Court. Kerala argued that if Mullaperiyar is an interstate rive

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