Contemporary issues related to human development , regional and global.

Category: Dams and reservoirs


By Engr. K Vijayachandran FIE

Mulla Periyar, the more than a century old gravity dam in Kerala owned and operated by the neighboring state of Tamilnadu is once again live in the regional media. It is a ping-pong game, quarter century old and played by the media and opportunist politicians from both sides both sides. Its entertainment value had greatly come down with the last definitive verdict by Supreme Court, about an year ago, authorizing Tamilnadu to go up to 142 feet of reservoir level, six feet above the restrictions fixed by the court in 1979, pending a final decision.

Dispute was about the safety of the old gravity dam and not on any sort of riparian rights. Tamilnadu is quite within its legal and moral right to store the water in the reservoir up to 142 height which is supported by the best of professional opinion in India, globally respected for its dam related expertise. Kerala has lost the case legally, morally and politically. Its last weapon was a horror film DAM900 depicting the massive destruction of four Kerala districts with a population of over four million ion people.

Horror scenes with tens of thousands of bloated carcasses of humans and animals floating around the flood were acclaimed as great cinematic achievements. But hardly anybody, in Kerala, was interested in the movie and Tamilnadu had simply banned its exhibition: Film had proved beyond doubt the limitations of art in distorting facts and manipulating human minds. Opportunist politics and other vested interests have totally failed in instigating processions and satyagrhas, this time, despite attempts by small sections of the media. Some five hundred families staying on the downstream of Mulla Periyar were advised to move to safer places. But they were not convinced about the official logic.

There is the argument that even the best of predictions could go wrong some time and the preparations to deal with accidents may not work. They insist on unreasonably high safety factors. However, one of the suggestions now made by the Kerala side is worth considering: Why not limit the water level in Mulla Periyar to the minimum dictated on by the actual irrigation demands on the Tamilnadu side. Kerala has suggested that level in MP may be raised beyond 136 feet only after filling the Vaigai reservoir to the maximum limit, and only when it is absolutely necessary for the farmers.

This is break from the endless debates on safety, possibly a healthy development: by moving to a dialogue mode, lot of problems could be easily resolved. In fact, when and how much water was required by Tamilnadu farmers or the actual storage and water level requirements were never discussed or debated by the court or the media. Let us hope that that such discussions will take place, now: After all, dams and reservoirs are extremely flexible instruments and we are sure to discover plenty of solutions, as we play them.

Another equally interesting debate has now sprouted from the higher water levels of MP. This relates to the over 6400 acres of land that got re-submerged under water, after some three and a half decades. Reports are slowly coming in on the desirability of ecological and environmental changes these areas are now undergoing: Such issues, though not unexpected, were never discussed or debated within or outside the trial courts.

Earlier, there were also stray reports on illegal settlements, by businesses, tourism and religious establishments that had come up on the tracts of lands vacated by MP waters. We may hear about them more in the coming days.

19th Nov 2014



Engr. K Vijayachandran F.I.E

Kerala legislative assembly was aggrieved on the Supreme Court verdict of 7th May, on Mulla Periyar Dam (MPD). Kerala Government’s MPD folio  is 35 years old: Sri OOmmen Chandy is the eighth or ninth Chief Minister, piloting the case.

Having exhausted all possible doors of litigation, the members of Kerala Legislative Assembly have unanimously appealed to the President of India and to the Federal Government, to ask the Supreme Court to reverse its latest verdict on the 119 year old MPD, using provision No 143 of the Indian Constitution, considering the environmental impact of raising the maximum water level to 142 feet and the consequent threat to life and property of four million people, living downstream.

Environmental damage is a totally new argument in the 35 year old MPD litigation: But the threat to life and property of people has been dealt with exhaustively by the print and visual media of Kerala and even a horror film, named DAM 999, with plenty of Hollywood clippings and bloated dead bodies swimming all around . It was exhibited in the Cinema houses of Kerala with very little impact and banned later by TN Government.

Supreme Court, with the help of its five-member Empowered Committee (EC), had evaluated the safety of MPD operations threadbare. In fact a major part of its lengthy information-rich report relates to the safety concerns raised by the media and Government of Kerala, within and outside the court. EC has studied in detail, (a) the hydraulic safety, (b) the structural safety, and (c) the seismic safety of MPD operating at 142 feet level in every detail, and also got done an elaborate dam breaking analysis. The results were found OK and MPD declared safe by the highest judicial establishment in the country.

These studies conforming to international standards were made available for the review and scrutiny of all concerned, including GOK, before presenting them in the open court. The Supreme Court judgment was all praise for the elaborate work done by the EC and its subcommittees: “The reports and investigations, tests and studies (ITS reports) are contained in 50 CDs and 4 DVDs. The report of EC consists of 8 Chapters. Chapter I has the title “Dams – An Overview”. Chapter II deals with three aspects, viz., (a) Use of Periyar waters; (b) Evolution of Periyar Project; and (c) Mullaperiyar dam Dispute in the Supreme Court. ….

……Chapter VI is appraisal and analysis of the reports of technical investigations, tests and studies. Chapter VII records conclusions. Chapter VIII deals with general observation with the title, “Way Forward-Towards An Amicable Resolution”. Two notes, one from Justice K.T. Thomas, member of the EC, and the other from Justice (Dr.) A.R. Lakshmanan, member of the EC, on Chapter VIII of the report of the EC are also appended to the report.” (para 185 of the SC report)

It took little more than two years for the EC to collect and collate field data and compile its eight chapter report with the help of numerous experts, specialist institutions and task forces. SC judges took another two years to organize hearings and analyze the massive volumes and filter through the numerous law points, relevant as well as irrelevant, that are typical of India’s archaic legal system, to finalize its 158 page judgment of May 2014.

MPD judgment is monumental proof for the technological as well as the legal maturity of India’s Federal Institutions. Unfortunately they are being rubbished by opportunist politics under pressure from vested interests, who stand benefited by the billion dollar real estates built on the land vacated by the reservoir thanks to prolonged low level operations of MPD.

Local media, print as well as visual, were playing up Kerala patriotism by blindly supporting these illegal occupants of reservoir lands. Environmental and other consequences raising the MPD level once again after three decades of low level operations were brought to public attention, even as early as in June 2007, when the Hindu newspaper published the extracts from an official study report by the  expert committee headed by Dr. D Ghosh, appointed by GOK. I had dealt with this in detail in an earlier blog: https://kvijaya40.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/mulla-periyar-scrap-book-i/

Surprisingly, there was no follow up on this seven-year old news-report either by the Hindu or by any other media who are normally over-enthusiastic on any environmental issue. It looks strange that GOK did not show the courage or wisdom to place Dr. Ghosh’s report in public domain or place it before the Supreme Court in support of its demand for restricting the MPD level.

Dr. Ghosh had studied in detail the environmental and other consequences of raising the MPD level beyond 136 feet: His report should be released immediately and placed in public domain.

eod/11th June 2014



K Vijayachandran

[I wrote this untold story in December 2011, when a warlike situation was developing across Kerala-Tamilnadu border over the decades old Mullaperiyar dispute that got triggered some thirty-five years ago, during 1979 Monsoon season. It is being republished on the eve of the bandh called by the Kerala side to protest against the Supreme Court judgment of today (07-05-2014) over the issue]

There are over five thousand dams and reservoirs in our country: big and small, situated in various states, of different vintage, serving diverse objectives and built with all sorts of technologies. Central Water Commission (CWC) is a statutory authority that serves as the federal custodian of Indian dams and their safety. CWC does not have its state-level counterparts and its members are nominated by the Indian President.

India is a member of the International Convention On Large Dams (ICOLD) and CWC is in charge of our national membership. Design, construction and operation of Indian dams, thus, enjoy the safety umbrella provided by this professional network at the national and global level. Even the safety problems related to Mullaperiyar, despite its age, could seek solutions within this broader professional framework, national as well as international.

Our country is greatly respected by the international community, for its vast experience in the design, construction, operation and management of dams, and canal networks. With numerous tanks, dams, and millions of kilometers of man made as well as natural canals, crisscrossing the subcontinent, India is a world leader in traditional canal irrigation. The garland canal project of MN Dastur as well as the Ganga-Kaveri link proposed by KL Rao was examples for the grandiose dreams of Indian engineers during freedom struggles and after. Even Kerala had an extensive network of irrigation canals and waterways network: They turned mostly dysfunctional due to continued neglect and totally unplanned development of the region. Unlike Kerala, Tamilnadu has not only retained, but also improvised on their age old canal networks, by supplementing them with more efficient pipe systems with sprinkler and drip irrigation accessories. Grand Anicut and other dams and reservoirs on Kaveri, Vaigai and the associated irrigation networks are part of this centuries old Tamilnadu tradition.

Mullperiyar Dam was conceived and constructed in 1895 as an integral part of the Tamilnadu irrigation network that had evolved over several centuries. “It created a reservoir in a remote gorge of Periyar river situated 3,000 feet above the sea in dense and malarial jungle. From this reservoir, water flowed first through a deep cutting for about a mile and then through a tunnel, 5704 feet in length and later through another cutting on the other side of the watershed and into a natural ravine and so onto the Vaigai River which has been partly built up for a length of 86 miles, finally discharging 2000 cusecs of water for the arid rain shadow regions of Tamilnadu.” (ref. Wikipedia)

A large amount of manual labour was involved and worker mortality from malaria was high. It was claimed that had it not been for the medicinal effects of the native spirit called arrack, the dam might never have been finished. Close to 500 people died of diseases during the construction of this dam and were buried on-site in a cemetery just north of the dam. The dam construction involved the use of troops from the 1st and 4th battalions of the Madras Pioneers as well as Portuguese carpenters from Cochin, who were employed in the construction of the coffer-dams and other structures. A fairly large community of local people had struggled under the determined leadership of a British army officer for nine long years, to complete the dam and its associated structures.

The greatest challenge was the diversion of the river so that lower portions of the big dam ( 221,000 Cubic Meter) could be built. Temporary embankments and coffer-dams used to restrain the river waters were regularly swept away by floods and rains. Due to coffer dam failures, the British even stopped funding the project. Major Pennycuick, the British Officer in charge of the dam, raised funds by selling his wife’s jewelry to continue the work. In Madurai, his statue has been installed at the state PWD office and his photographs are found adorning walls in people’s homes and shops. In 2002, his great grandson was honored in Madurai, a function that was attended by thousands of people. According to the Wikipedia, the Periyar project, as it was then known, was widely considered well into the 20th Century as “one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering ever performed by man”. Even the present generations in the region have an emotional attachment to this century old structure.

Mullaperiyar Dam (MPD) is the only dam situated in one Indian state but owned and operated by another, for irrigating its farmlands. But, it has brought in economic benefits to Tamilnadu as well as Kerala, a fact often neglected or even suppressed by the Kerala side in the ongoing emotion charged debate. Apart from irrigating some 200,000 acres of Tamilnadu farmlands, MPD has brought to life the numerous tourism ventures of Thekkady, and also the world famous wildlife sanctuary around its reservoir, now forming part of the much larger National Park under the care of Central Government.

Economic gains of Kerala from these byproducts of MPD are commensurate with those of Tamilnadu, from irrigation and power generation on the other side of Sahyas. The wild life sanctuary is home for 62 different kinds of mammals, including several endangered species like the Silent Valley fame, the lion-tailed macaque. And, according to Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), the 700 square kilometer of national park surrounding is a biodiversity hot-spot, attracting over a lakh of tourists and thousands of academics and foreign research workers every year.

It is a win-win situation for Kerala as well as Tamilnadu, and then the country as a whole: MPD and the surrounding forest areas need to be seen as a major national asset and not a simple instrument for irrigating a few lakh acres of farmland. But, vested interests have developed around this valuable water-body thanks to the prolonged low water levels maintained, ever since the court order of 1979. Submerged area under the reservoir was 8591 acres when the water level used to touch the design value of 155 feet.

With water level getting restricted to 136 feet, the submerged area has nearly halved, releasing around 4000 acres of dry land. Dr. D. Ghosh, an environmental expert appointed by GOK, had reported in 2007: “… at least six conglomerations with human settlements had come up in areas that were under water, prior to 1979. Public institutions and commercial establishments have also grown. Raising of water level (once again) would mean displacement of large number of families along with their economic activities.”

These illegal occupiers of reservoir land have a vested interest against water level going up once again. They had, naturally, sought protection from GOK and formed a Mullaperiyar Samara Samithy with religious leaders as patrons. This forum had started a relay hunger strike at the dam site, five years ago in December 2006, soon after the Supreme Court judgment. This hunger strike continues even today with the blessings of GOK and ministers and other political leaders, who frequently visit them.

This forum was running a chauvinistic campaign against Tamils for the past five years, with all sorts of horror stories planted in the internet to start with, and then spreading them through campaigns through the print and visual media. They have succeeded in creating a fear psychosis among the people living in the neighborhood and downstream of MPD. Water level of MPD, like in all other dams of the region, reaches its annual peak during first half of November. Agitation at MPD site as well as media campaigns were intensified during this period, which also witnessed the release of a Hollywood horror film, with the controversial title of Dam-999.

Neither the media nor the political leaders, in and outside of Kerala Government, who organized and supported this systematic campaign, with chauvinistic overtones, had found no merit in seeking genuine professional opinions. Services of half-experts and academic institutions were hired for getting doctored views, for confusing the public and for spreading horror stories on dam bursts. Genuine professional opinions were never sought or encouraged. Minister KM Mani himself has stated that, GOK does not require any expert advice on the need for building a new dam.

This columnist, who had pleaded for Kerala accepting with grace, the Supreme Court verdict of 2006 on its merit, was considered an untouchable in media debates. Even the views of a reputed senior Malayalee engineer like Dr. Thomas, the former Chairman of Central Water Commission who had studied MPD in every detail, under instructions from Supreme Court, were not sought by Kerala media and politicians. Only the Kochi edition of Deccan Chronicle had showed the courage to publish his expert opinions, along with those of the spokesperson of GOK. This sort of chauvinistic intolerance against truth finally bombed out, with GOK and its Advocate General disowning each other in the Kerala High Court.

The prolonged low level operations of MPD had its obvious impact on the irrigation canal network and farmlands of Tamilnadu as well. They had estimated a farm income loss of Rs. 40,000 Crore for the period 1980-2005. This may be a lot exaggerated but, there is no denying that, pegging the reservoir level at 136 feet has virtually transformed MPD into a diversion dam from its designed status as a storage dam. Live storage of MPD at 136 feet was only around three million cubic meters according to CWC statistics. This is only small fraction of the net storage possible at the reservoir level of 155 feet.

The forced operation as a diversion dam, for long periods, had drastically changed and distorted the distribution pattern through the canal grid. Ground water storage and consumption in the upper ayacuts, as in Theni district, had increased substantially, at the cost the ayacuts at the outreach districts like Ramanathapuram or Thirunelveli, where farmlands where sold out at distress prices, during the eighties, following the Supreme Court verdict of 1979. Kerala investors made use of this grand opportunity by launching all sorts of plantation projects and innovative farms in these areas; many of them were, as turned out later, were nothing but speculative misadventures.

It is for the future historians to attempt a detailed mapping of the social and economic impacts of the past three decades of Supreme Court intervention on MPD operations. However, the main contours of this transformation are clear from emotion charged war-like situation that has emerged. On one side, is a large number of poor peasants fighting for their livelihood, and supported by almost all political parties of Tamilnadu. On the other side, is the emotionally charged people, living close to MPD, who keep asking the question: Why should they risk a water-bomb for irrigating the farmlands of Tamils? Vested interests, which have a big stake in the continued low level operation of MPD had played a crucial role in building up this fear psychosis, and they were inadvertently supported by diverse streams of opportunist politics within Kerala.

Let me conclude this by quoting from my column published exactly four years ago: “May be the century old dam could be there, for all centuries to come, like the great wall of China, as a living memory of Tamil-Malayalee friendship and cooperation, and serving the people of the region on both sides of the mountain divide…..We are sure to find surprisingly pleasant solutions, if we are prepared to pool the expertise of our great country, and seek the best of technological and aesthetic solutions under the sun, not only for ascertaining and ensuring the safety of the dam, but also for ensuring enough water for our farmers on the other side of the divide. Let us stop petty politicking, seek broader solutions outside the narrow legal framework, and start asking some of the more basic questions: How much water for the farmers and when? And, who is afraid of raising the water level and why?”

(written on 28-12-2011)

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