Mullaperiyar: What is Pinarai Vijayan up to?

Pinarayi-Vijayan

Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan

The new Chief Minister of Kerala Pinarai Vijayan has willingly courted controversy in the first week of assuming office itself over Mullaperiyar and other issues.

The essence of his statement on Mullaperiyar was that Kerala will have to take into account the finding of the empowered committee appointed by the Supreme Court that the dam was safe and future negotiations would have to be over the report of the committee and its reliability. Secondly, he said that a new dam at Mullaperiyar, which Kerala had proposed as a means to ensure safety of people of five districts in the State, was not possible without cooperation from Tamil Nadu.

Faced with strong opposition to the change in the State’s stand over Mullaperiyar, Mr. Vijayan clarified that the government was still for new dam. What he had said was that it was not possible to build a dam without cooperation from the Centre and Tamil Nadu.

There was no compulsion for Mr. Vijayan to come up with an early policy statement on Mullaperiyar as no decision was pending on the issue that needed immediate attention. He also made a statement in favour of revival of the Athirappally hydroelectric project which is strongly opposed by environmental activists and leaders of the CPI which is a constituent of the ruling coalition, the Left Democratic Front. He could have delayed taking a stand on both the issues if he wanted.

However, he apparently had political and administrative reasons for making statements on Mullaperiyar and Athirappally even at the risk of losing some goodwill. On the face of it, the statements hook his bite noire in the party V. S. Achuthanandan who had adopted stands in favour of new dam and against Athirappally project in the past. There has been a truce between Mr. Achuthanandan and Mr. Vijayan before the elections, and Mr. Achuthanandan, as Leader of the Opposition, led the campaign of the Opposition Front. However, the CPI (M) chose Mr. Vijayan as the Chief Minister.

Mr. Vijayan’s statements come at a time when the party is considering an advisory position with Cabinet rank for Mr. Achuthanandan in the Government. Mr. Vijayan’s camp has already raised the criticism that this would give rise to duel power centres. If Mr. Achuthandnan loudly opposed the policy pronouncements by Mr. Vijayan, that would be proof to support the argument. Being a seasoned politician, Mr. Achuthanandan’s reaction was measured. Yet, there is no certainty that he would get the position he desired.

In a raising a controversy, Mr. Vijayan’s political costs are limited. His party does not have much support in any of the areas that will be directly impacted by failure of Mullaperiyar dam. The sufferer is the CPI which has won seats in areas that would be hit by a failure of the Mullaperiyar dam and impacted by the Athirappally project. CPI had done a sterling performance in this election winning 70 per cent of the seats it contested. The CPI (M) knows that it would have to concede more ground to CPI as CPI comes out of political stagnation in Kerala. So, any damage done to CPI is to its advantage.

There is also speculation that the CPI (M) would like to come closer to AIADMK considering CPI (M)’s diminishing importance at the national level. It is also notable that in Devikulam constituency in Kerala, where there is a Tamil population; AIADMK secured over 11600 votes which was more than twice the margin of victory of the CPI (M) candidate in the constituency.

Apart from political objectives, Mr. Vijayan’s statement is clearly aimed at laying the path for new initiatives. Kerala has nearly exhausted its legal options on Mullaperiyar at least for the time being. The way it conducted the cases before the Supreme Court left a lot to be desired. For example, the Supreme Court made an erroneous observation in its 2006 judgement that the waters would be contained in the Idukki dam downstream in case of failure of Mullaperiyar dam. However, Kerala failed to produce the Dam Break Analysis showing that towns and villages and a large population would be washed away, in subsequent litigation in the Court. The previous government then tried to hide reports of the Analysis, which it had commissioned, and other documents relating to the litigation from public by issuing an executive order against releasing documents on Mullaperiyar under Right to Information Act.

Now, Mr. Vijayan needs an opening to drive new policy and this could not be done without admitting the status quo following the Supreme Court orders and the impossibility of building a new dam in the near future. He has to open dialogue with Tamil Nadu. Acknowledging that there is a finding that the dam is safe is first step towards that.
Water for Tamil Nadu and safety for Kerala is slogan raised by the previous government. However, with Tamil Nadu seeking legal options and rejecting the proposal for a new dam, it had only campaign value. Mr. Vijayan has not specified what policy options he would pursue now. He probably has to reconstitute the Mullaperiyar Cell, which failed in its objective, and hold discussions with experts and lawyers before proceeding.

Even before Mr. Vijayan deprecated the proposal for new dam, there was a section of those agitating against the raising of water level in the old dam who argued that the dam should be decommissioned in a phased manner. The decommissioning should be over 50 years or so allowing Tamil Nadu the opportunity to shift its agriculture practices to modern techniques that need less water for irrigation.

Water policy expert Ramaswamy R. Iyer, who was Union Secretary for Water Resources, stated as back as in 2011 that Kerala would be repeating a folly committed more than 100 years ago by building a new dam.

Opinion is growing around the world against large dams and inter-basin diversion of river waters. The Mullaperiyar dam totally cut off flow through river. International covenants now recognise lower riparian rights and the need to allow flow needed maintain ecosystems and activities downstream.

Moreover, Kerala’s stand on impact on the Periyar Tiger Reserve is contradictory. On one side, it argued that the raising of the water level would harm the Reserve. On the other side, it proposed a major construction activity and impounding of water within the protected area.

It is expected that Mr. Vijayan would look into all this and come up with a new approach to the issue.

Conclusions of empowered committee of SC in Mullaperiyar case

The final hearing of the Mullaperiyar case is likely to begin in February next year before the Supreme Court. (The date is tentatively fixed as February 19, 2013). The report of the Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court on Mullaperiyar Dam has gone totally against Kerala. So, Kerala will have to disprove the Committee’s findings or advance fresh and acceptable arguments if it is to win the case. The Court has said that that it would not accept fresh evidence including the Dam Break Analysis.

Baby dam

Baby dam saddling the main Mullaperiyar dam. Repairs were carried out to this dam despite objection from Kerala but with tacit support by officials. Another round of repairs are underway now, reportedly with the permission of the courts.      Photo: Roy Mathew

It is notable that the Committee has suggested repairs to the dam even while holding that the dam was hydrologically, structurally and seismically safe. The repairs have already begun.

The repairs proposed include treatment of upstream surface of dam, reaming of drainage holes, instrumentation and grouting of dam body. It has also suggested “periodical monitoring, analysis and leading away the seepage from toe of the dam towards downstream “.

The Committee found that the dam has not been adversely affected by leeching of lime dissolved in seepage water and rejected Kerala’s contentions in this regard. (That leaching has occurred is something that even Tamil Nadu had admitted. The dam had already been grouted for this reason and further grouting is proposed by the Committee itself. )
It said that the precautionary principle is not applicable as the dam has been found safe, and added that the Dam Break Flood Analysis and Emergency Action Plan do serve as precautionary measures. The findings of studies by Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkie and Delhi were rejected.

The Committee said that it did not accept the scare of a dam break flood wave because the Kerala government had not prepared dam break flood analysis. (The dam break analysis has since been done and it leaves little doubt that a dam break would be catastrophic.)

Conclusions of the Report in full at Expert-Eyes.org
Appraisal and analysis of various studies by EC Committee(Chapter VI of report)
Report of the Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court– all chapters
Mullaperiyar Dam break analysis by IIT Roorkee
Structural stability analysis of Mullaperiyar dam

Mullaperiyar: strategic failure of Kerala government

The report of the empowered committee of the Supreme Court is the result of a strategic failure from the part of the Kerala government.

The Central Water Commission was actually the opposite party in the case for Kerala. Yet, it failed to prevent those associated with the Commission from undertaking safety related assessment of the Mullaperiyar dam.  (Technical members of the Committee C.D. Thatte and D. K. Mehta were former Secretary to the Ministry of Water Resources and retired Chief Engineer, Central Water Commission respectively.)

Kerala nominated retired Supreme Court Judge K. T. Thomas to the committee. This was a strategic mistake as what Kerala needed was a man who could understand and judge technical matters and argue on technical issues.  Kerala could have better argued legal points before the Court itself instead of having a legal luminary in the committee. It seems that Mr. Thomas did not push forward any legal issues. He failed to express his views strongly on technical matters, he being not a technical expert.  The result is the finding by essentially by Mr. Thatte and Mehta that the dam is structurally and hydrologically safe.

In the process, they ignored studies by IIT, Roorkie and IIT Delhi which had found that the dam was not structurally and hydrologically safe.  It was true that they had done the studies in a hurry and this affected its quality. However, there were irrefutable facts in their reports which the twosome has ignored.

Core sampling and its examination for strength was important in determining whether the dam was strong enough to withstand earthquakes and higher water levels.  During drilling, proper samples could not be obtained except from the foundation, apparently because portions of the old dam were hollow.  However, it seems that the committee submitted its report before the results of the study came in.  Kerala should have insisted that the report should wait the finding of the study.

Now, Kerala would find it extremely difficult to argue technical points before the Court. The Court cannot be convinced easily that the dam is unsafe, as judges would attach value to the report of the empowered committee.

It may also be worth examining why Kerala made strategic mistakes.  The government had always failure to act in time and in a coordinated manner. Its engineers did not see eye-to-eye on several matters. Its lawyers were not often briefed properly by its engineers. Politicians concentrated on playing to the gallery and there were often allegations against both the politicians and officials who were in charge of fighting the Mullaperiyar case over the past two decades.  It is also worth noting that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa herself had alleged that Kerala politicians had land in areas irrigated by waters from Mullapeiryar.

For further reading:
Mullaperiyar– in search of truth
Mullaperiyar and dam safety
Mullaperiyar dam dispute
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