TN, Kerala continue to feud over dam built by an Englishman 128 years ago | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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TN, Kerala continue to feud over dam built by an Englishman 128 years ago

May 29, 2024 11:45 PM IST

Tamil Nadu has requested an increase in the storage capacity of the dam's reservoir to 152 feet (46 metres) in front of the Central Water Commission and the SC

It has been almost two years since a statue of Colonel John Pennycuick was erected in his hometown of Camberly, in northwest Surrey, England.

Kerala and TN disagree over the safety of the Mullaperiyar Dam and the rights to the water it holds.(K A Shaji) PREMIUM
Kerala and TN disagree over the safety of the Mullaperiyar Dam and the rights to the water it holds.(K A Shaji)

The late British engineer was a forgotten hero in the neighbourhood until the MK Stalin-led DMK government in faraway Tamil Nadu (TN) contacted the municipality and expressed its desire to donate a statue of the personality revered across the state.

For the southern Indian state, Pennycuick built the inter-state Mullapperiyar Dam to address the drinking water and irrigation needs of a vast and arid region spread across five districts, now aged 128 years.

The statue, on which the TN government spent 92 lakh, has turned into a rare token of appreciation, transcending linguistic and geographic boundaries.

In the Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga, and Ramanathapuram districts of TN, Pennycuick has many memorials, including statues, bus stands, school buildings, and even a temple.

However, in the Idukki district of Kerala, where the dam is situated, Pennycuick is a controversial figure. Most residents feel he was instrumental in plundering their once-abundant water resources.

Kerala and TN disagree over the safety of the Mullaperiyar Dam and the rights to the water it holds. Kerala is pushing for a new dam to replace the one Pennycuick built while TN believes the dam is secure and only requires routine maintenance.

Despite being in Kerala, Tamil Nadu owns and runs the dam.

Kerala insists that the current dam threatens people living downstream and advocates for constructing a new, stronger dam. However, TN is concerned that a new dam would reduce the water it receives from the Periyar River, the largest river in Kerala.

The two states have fought over this issue with TN asserting that the existing dam has considerably improved living standards in the region and remains well-maintained. On the other hand, Kerala fears that the current dam is unsafe and could trigger a major accident.

The central environment, forests, and climate change ministry was supposed to discuss the feasibility of the new dam this week under acute pressure from the Kerala government. Still, the meeting was cancelled, giving Tamil Nadu an advantage in the ongoing dispute.

Kerala had planned to submit a detailed project report (DPR) for the new dam at the meeting, but it is yet to be determined when the committee will reconvene. The meeting, seemingly planned under pressure from Kerala, evoked resentment, leading to protests in TN, particularly among farmers who benefit directly from the dam.

Roshy Augustine, Kerala’s Irrigation minister, emphasised the need to decommission the old dam and construct a new one downstream and the dire consequences that could result from the old dam's failure.

According to Ashok Kumar Singh, secretary of Kerala's water resources department, Kerala seeks to persuade TN and the Supreme Court by drawing parallels to decommissioning a similar dam in Australia.

"In April 1990, the Victoria Dam in Australia, constructed in the 19th century, was removed. A new dam has been constructed in its place, and it now supplies the city of Perth with drinking water. We can take similar steps here," he said, emphasising that the new dam will protect the interests of both states.

Experts are concerned about the dam's location in a seismic zone III area. The significant changes in the rainfall pattern in Idukki since 2018 are adding to these concerns.

Water specialist S Janakarajan expressed concern about building a new dam in the same seismic zone and highlighted the potential environmental impact, particularly on the Periyar Tiger Reserve close to Mullaperiyar. He suggested creating smaller storage facilities in TN and redirecting excess water from the dam to these facilities as a more effective approach.

“Kerala is required to investigate the demand for a new dam in light of the newly developing reality. It is anticipated that decommissioning and construction activities will occur within a seismic zone located within a tiger reserve, which is renowned for its abundant biodiversity and secure conservation. Constructing dams might increase the risk of earthquakes, landslides, and rockfalls, according to the experiences gathered from many world regions,” he said.

This method would prevent the need to hold huge amounts of water in the lime concrete structure built in the 19th century.

According to him, the dam could be preserved for many decades by reducing the amount of water stored in it and by carrying out regular maintenance.

Environmental scientist V S Vijayan said that building major new dams is no longer considered an environmentally sound proposal.

Tamil Nadu has requested an increase in the storage capacity of the dam's reservoir to 152 feet (46 metres) in front of the Central Water Commission and the Supreme Court. Currently, the reservoir's capacity ranges between 136 feet (41 metres) and 142 feet (43 metres). When the storage level is increased to its maximum capacity, Tamil Nadu can store 438 million cubic metres (mcm) of water, requiring an additional 138 millimetres of water.

Environmentalists like Sreedhar Radhakrishnan argue against constructing a new dam in the Western Ghats, stating that it would significantly disrupt the local wildlife population. They also mentioned that Kerala's Water Resources Department may need to contact the dam's construction department as they may need more time to complete the project.

Radhakrishnan has highlighted the concerns about the existing Mullaperiyar dam, stating that its unique construction makes it challenging to assess its structural integrity. He mentions that the proposed new dam will submerge 50.5 hectares of the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

C.P. Rajendran, an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, suggested forming an independent group of experts to analyse existing technical reports and collect data to determine the dam's future stability prospects.

In the meantime, anti-dam activists in Kerala said the government and the dam lobby are pushing for the new dam, seemingly eyeing the huge funds it involves.

"The last dam was built about half a century ago in Kerala. So, the greedy dam lobby is campaigning for a new dam unmindful of the environmental and livelihood risks it involves,'' Kusumam Joseph of the National Alliance of People's Movements said.

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