Kerala rains: Tiff with Tamil Nadu over release of water from Mullaperiyar dam adds to state's troubles

Kerala's two-page letter pleaded with Tamil Nadu to start releasing water in smaller quantities, instead of doing so only after the water reached the level of 142 feet.

TS Sudhir August 16, 2018 16:42:26 IST
Kerala rains: Tiff with Tamil Nadu over release of water from Mullaperiyar dam adds to state's troubles

"As I write to you, I am informed that Tamil Nadu field engineers (at Mullaperiyar dam) have informed that their digital water level recorders are now malfunctioning and hence are unable to record water levels accurately and are measuring the same manually from ordinary gauge posts installed in the river. Such a stand is inappropriate as the readings from manual gauge posts are prone to error, more so given the current weather and wind conditions at the dam site."

This was part of the Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan's SOS to his Tamil Nadu counterpart Edappadi Palaniswami on 15 August and focused on Kerala's biggest natural calamity. It pointed to what seemed like being in the battlefield with your weapons not in working condition.

Palaniswami's reply came 24 hours later.

Kerala rains Tiff with Tamil Nadu over release of water from Mullaperiyar dam adds to states troubles

File image of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. PTI

"The Chairman, Sub-committee of Mullaperiyar dam during the inspection on 15.8.2018 has found that the digital water level recorder is functioning well. I would like to point out that Kerala is not permitting Tamil Nadu officials to gauge the rainfall in the catchment area and Tamil Nadu officials are therefore compelled to assess the inflow only based on the actual rate of raise in water level of the dam," wrote Palaniswami.

This in a nutshell tells you that at least at a government-to-government level, it is not a friendly neighbourhood in India's south. And one of them is not speaking the truth.

Kerala's two-page letter pleaded with Tamil Nadu to start releasing water in smaller quantities, instead of doing so only after the water reached the level of 142 feet. The Mullaperiyar dam, though it is located in Kerala, is operated by Tamil Nadu. It serves the irrigation and power needs of the southern part of Tamil Nadu, besides releasing water into Idukki.

Put this in context. Vijayan's was no ordinary distress call. This happened on Independence Day, when 29 people were killed in floods in Kerala on a single day, taking the death toll in the last week to 67. When 1.5 lakh people had been moved to over 1,060 relief camps. When the Kochi airport was shut till Saturday. When the army and the NDRF were fighting against nature to save stranded people. When hospitals were under water with no power supply and water and landslides were being reported from the Malabar region.

Within a few hours of Vijayan's letter reaching Chennai, the water level surged to 142.3 feet. It was then that Tamil Nadu engineers opened the shutters. The Kerala chief minister was not amused.

"We have been releasing water from our dams in different stages since the beginning, considering the extreme weather situation. But Mullaperiyar dam water was released only after it touched 142 feet, leading to intensified water discharge and impact,'' Vijayan said.

Tamil Nadu was reluctant to release water between 139 feet and 142 feet in comparatively smaller quantities, citing the Supreme court order that had asked to maintain water level at 142 feet. Kerala, on the other hand, was in panic mode, knowing that once it crossed 142 feet, the mass of water released from Mullaperiyar would be far more huge and would result in increased damage to property and loss of life downstream.

"The government of Tamil Nadu will take all necessary steps to manage the water level, as per law, in the Mullaperiyar dam,'' said D Jayakumar, Tamil Nadu's fisheries minister, refusing to understand the nature of Kerala's request.

Kerala alleges the outflow from Mullaperiyar has resulted in a flood crisis in central Kerala. Finance minister Thomas Isaac tweeted: "Focal point of flood crisis shifting to Chalakudy river basin due to severe excess release of water from dams partly also arising from non-synchronised release of dam on Tamil Nadu side. The situation in Periyar is also worsening. Much better inter-state coordination required."

That's exactly the heart of the problem. In his reply to Vijayan, Palaniswami made it a point to insist that the dam is "hydrologically, seismically and structurally safe".

Kerala asks if this is the appropriate occasion to establish that the Mullaperiyar dam is strong when the state is gripped with fear. The state has all along maintained that the dam is not safe and should be replaced by a new construction while Tamil Nadu says it is in good condition after repairs were undertaken.

"Their attitude has been the same as in Chennai 2015 floods when the government released water from the Chembarabakkam reservoir without adequate warning. Here, we lost critical time, escalating it to the CM's level, writing letter to the Tamil Nadu CM and also calling the Union Home ministry. They showed no respect for people downstream. Mullaperiyar has to go to a central control, not Tamil Nadu," says James Wilson, Special Officer in the Government of Kerala.

Once Kerala gets over handling this disaster, Mullaperiyar will be its top agenda to ensure the lives of people in the state are not at the mercy of its neighbour.

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