Mullaperiyar issue: Kerala CM Pinarayi's bold new stand is better for ties with TN
In other words, at least obliquely, Pinarayi doesn’t agree with the consensus view Kerala has drummed up over the years that the dam is unsafe.
For the politicians and chauvinistic groups of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the contentious Mullaperiyar Dam is an eternal tinderbox; but with a single line comment on the issue on Saturday, Pinarayi Vijayan, the new Chief Minister of Kerala, has sought to chart a bold new new path.
Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, he said that the view of the Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court on the safety of the dam cannot be overlooked. And what’s the Committee’s view? That the dam is safe.
In other words, at least obliquely, Pinarayi doesn’t agree with the consensus view Kerala has drummed up over the years that the dam is unsafe. In fact, till about two years ago, the fear of the dam breaching and washing away three million people downstream had gripped the entire state even as the Supreme Court had said that the dam was safe and the level of water can even be raised.
When he spoke his mind, Pinarayi didn’t give credence to the majority sentiment of the state possibly because it was irrational; neither did he stick to the views of other political parties or his own party. He also said, rightfully, that there was no need to whip up passion on the issue and it needed to be settled amicably between the two states concerned. Even if the dam has to be rebuilt, it cannot be done without the consent of Tamil Nadu, he said.
Undoubtedly, Pinarayi’s statement is the sanest political voice on the issue in a long time.
No politician, either from Kerala or Tamil Nadu, has ever taken such a reconciliatory stand earlier even when parochial sentiments boiled over on several occasions, sometimes leading to violence and loss of property.
The dam, built in Kerala 120 years ago to exclusively ameliorate the water scarcity in southern Tamil Nadu, is the latter’s lifeline; but for Malayalis, it’s a permanent pet-peeve, a prick to its sense of sovereignty and a source of fear that has been manufactured and fanned by politicians — mostly from the Syrian Christian dominated Kerala Congress — local chauvinistic groups and a major media house over the last 35 years.
In Tamil Nadu, which has a stronger base of parochial politics, the passions are stronger and people from Kerala are physically targeted even when there’s a faint opposition to its stand on the dam.
Kerala thinks the dam is unsafe and hence wants to decommission it, but is happy to build a new one while Tamil Nadu feels it’s absolutely safe and the idea of a new dam is to deny them their right to water. Tamil Nadu also wants to raise the level of water to 142 feet, while Kerala wants to cap it at 135 feet.
Pinarayi’s statement makes a lot of sense because he rightfully echoes the views of the technical experts of the Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court that in 2012 declared the dam safe. The team comprised top experts and it conducted several rounds of tests before certifying its safety. Pinarayi seems to have backed science than political expediency, parochial sentiments and vested interests. There’s no point in fighting a phantom.
The only other person from Kerala who took a similar stand was Justice KT Thomas, a member of the Committee. In an interview to India Today, Justice Thomas, who once was a judge of the supreme court, had said that the dam was strengthened thrice and was stronger than a new one.
“It was me who argued for the new dam in the Empowered Committee and got the approval for a new dam in the committee. But our experts have found out that the old dam is far stronger. There has been greater strengthening of the dam done in 1979, 1989 and 1981. But it has not been reported by the media. It was since 1979 when there were fears on the strength of the dam, two points emerged. One was to build a new dam and the other one was to strengthen the dam. Strengthening was the better option, experts suggested. That is how the strengthening happened in three phases. The 2006 Supreme Court verdict was based on these facts,” he said in the interview.
Thomas was instantly slammed for “not safeguarding Kerala’s interests” and for “siding with Tamil Nadu”. Protesters had burned his effigy and stoned his house.
Now with his unpopular view, Pinarayi too has come in for an all-round attack. Except the leaders of his party, everybody else seems to be angry with him. They are unanimous in their opinion that he has compromised on the state’s interests. They find it unacceptable that he is taking a line that is inconsistent with the resolutions passed by the state assemblies during the LDF and the UDF rules. In fact, Pinarayi’s party predecessor in the Chief Minister’s office, VS Achuthanandan was a strong supporter of the anti-dam agitators and had never accepted the Committee’s view. The local unit of the CPI, Pinarayi’s partner in government, also had taken a lead role in the agitations.
Mullaperiyar is the most sensitive political issue that pits people and politicians in Kerala and Tamil Nadu against each other. The spar on its safety, fuelled by provincial nationalism by both the states, and business interests has been raging for more than three decades. Kerala Congress leaders, who are influential in the hill ranges, have been on the vanguard of the agitations. Its alliance partner, the Congress, however was less enthusiastic. Even at the height of the controversy, neither Oomen Chandy, the then Chief Minister, nor Ramesh Chennithala, the then Pradesh Congress Committee President, appeared to have been overtly worried.
The last round of judicial interventions started in 2006 when the Supreme Court ordered raising of the level of the water in the dam from 136ft to 142ft; but Kerala, through a legislation in the assembly blocked it in 2008.
Tamil Nadu went to court against it, and in 2010, the Supreme Court left it to an Empowered Committee to conduct various safety studies and apprise the court. The Committee said in 2012 that the dam was safe, which was endorsed by the Supreme Court in 2014. The apex court also said that the level of water can be raised. Kerala’s legal chances practically ended there.
Therefore, Pinarayi’s statement doesn’t harm the interests of his state as his rivals, and probably his own alliance partners, allege because it has no other option but to buy the Committee’s view. It’s better not to fight a case that had been lost at the cost of good neighbourly relations with Tamil Nadu.
That’s precisely what Pinarayi has done. And he must stick with it.
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