Whenever a water dispute erupts between two states it often takes very bizarre proportions and in the midst of state pride, regional sentiment, legal complications and political rhetoric the reality gets clouded beyond recovery. Mullaiperiyar is no different.
What’s interesting is that the Mullaiperiyar dispute does not fit the definition of a water dispute at all. A water dispute is between two states or parties over the quantum of water released by the upper riparian state to the lower. Like in the case of Cauvery, Godavari or even the Indo-pak dispute over the Indus. In the case of Mullaiperiyar the dispute is over the existence of a dam. Kerala is a water rich state and does not want water from the Periyar River. It’s willing to give as much as Tamil Nadu wants.
Kerala says ‘safety’ is the key. In the past it had raised the issue of ‘safety’ of the 116 year old dam and had wanted water storage levels reduced. In 2006 the Supreme Court ruled in Tamil Nadu’s favour and after safety audits ordered that the dam is safe to hold 142 feet of water compared to the present 136. Kerala doesn’t need the additional water that Tamil Nadu hold’s in the dam but yet is opposing an increase in storage levels and the reason for that opposition is not water but land.
While Kerala is a water surplus state it’s uncomfortable with the large tracts of land (8000 acres) that are submerged in the Mullaiperiyar’s catchment area. Most of this land is Kerala’s and an increase in water storage would mean more land would be submerged. Instead if a new dam is built down stream then several thousand acres of Kerala’s land would be relieved of water and can be a gold mine for the state. So this dispute from Kerala’s point of view is about land and not water.
From Tamil Nadu’s point of view it needs the water for irrigation and drinking water needs in four southern districts. Building a new dam down stream would mean land in Tamil Nadu would be submerged and the state feels that it is an unnecessary waste of resources and could result in uncertainty over water. It’s also been turned into an issue of political pride over the last decade.
This is pretty much the history of the dispute, it’s not been an emotive war, except in 2006 when the Supreme Court ruled in Tamil Nadu’s favour and Kerala virtually overruled the verdict with a “Dam Safety Act”. What’s interesting is that the issue of the dam’s safety suddenly re-erupted, ostensibly because of tremors in the Idukki region. Kerala suddenly stepped up the political momentum on ‘safety’, Jayalalithaa responded and both states have now taken the issue to the prime minister. But why did the issue erupt suddenly?
A few hundred kilometres away from the dam is the site for the Koodankulam Nuclear power plant. The centre’s been trying to negate anti nuclear protestors there campaigning against the project on the ‘safety’ plank. The centre sought Jayalalithaa’s support in controlling the protests at Koodankulam, but the Tamil Nadu CM, miffed by the centre not treating her ‘special’ refused to help. Remember, without the state government’s help negating the Koodankulam protests will be impossible, and the PM’s dream nuclear power project could face uncertainty.
Some political observers are now seeing a link between the sudden eruption of the Mullaiperiyar issue and the Koodankulam stand off. They may be conspiracy theorists, but their logic seems plausible. They believe Congress led UDF ruled Kerala has systematically raised the Mullaiperiyar issue to counter Jayalalithaa’s non cooperation with the centre in handling the protests in Koodandkulam. The dam dispute has now created a situation where Jaya ruled Tamil Nadu needs the centre’s help in negating the matter. This puts pressure on the Tamil Nadu government to co operate with the centre on the Koodankulam issue. It's virtually given the centre a tough handle on Jayalalithaa when it negotiates with her for help to defeat protestors at the nuclear power plant.
But if this is true it also creates the anvil for a precarious situation. If the two states overplay the issue it could become politically impossible to handle. And if it’s not dealt with tact it could result in creating uncertainty over a 116 year old dam and a state of the art Nuclear power plant. The fear is political egos could result in a large loss for the nation as a whole.
This may be dismissed as ‘paranoia’ by some and ‘conspiracy theory’ by others. But there are some who believe that this reflects the inability of Indian politicians to rise above their political egos and build a consensus. The key with Mullaiperiyar is it’s not a dispute over water. Both states have a case and it’s not like other water disputes where a solution seems impossible, raising the political temperature will only make it one more in our long list of emotive, idiotic and unmanageable inter state disputes. Sadly even the Supreme Court orders and the larger good of the nation have been defeated by regional political rhetoric and egos of our political personalities. The effort should be to ensure that a dam and a nuclear power plant do not fall victim to this self destructive course of our political landscape.