The Union environment ministry’s decision to recommend grant of terms of reference to a preliminary study proposed by Kerala regarding construction of a dam to replace the 123-year-old Mullaiperiyar dam has stirred a hornet’s nest. The standoff between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on the matter is rooted in a pre-Independence agreement between the king of Travancore and the British secretary of state. Thus the dam, though located in Kerala, is owned and operated by TN on a lease. The dam diverts waters from the Periyar river to five water-starved southern districts of Tamil Nadu through a canal in the Western Ghats that feeds water into the Vaigai.
The issue between the two states comes down to one state’s requirement for the water—used for irrigation, drinking water and generating electricity—and the other state’s fear that if the dam were to burst, three of its districts would be wiped out. Tamil Nadu, which has been permitted to raise the level of water in the dam to 152 ft against the current 142 ft if strengthening works are done, has claimed that the dam is safe and that Kerala is not allowing it to complete strengthening measures. Kerala has instead proposed a new dam be built downstream. It is to build such a dam that the Centre has opened the door through its recommendation to grant a ToR for the preliminary study. The project feasibility report for this proposed dam has been met with criticism from Tamil Nadu as it does not explain how it will be able to access the same amount of water from a dam that will be at a lower height.
As things stand, the Centre’s move only serves to heighten tensions between the states. The TN chief minister in his letter to the PM against the ministry’s move has pointed out that previous such requests from Kerala have been turned down. Indeed, while the dispute has gone on for decades, and cannot be allowed to continue for decades more, the Centre’s move won’t bring both parties to the negotiating table in good faith. It will only force both sides to dig in their heels to the detriment of all.