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.

Mullaperiyar studies are public documents

The Kerala State Information Commission has ordered Kerala Irrigation Department to release study reports and documents, submitted by it before the Supreme Court in the Mullaperiyar case filed by Tamil Nadu, under Right to Information Act. (See earlier post here)

The Department had refused to provide reports including the Dam Break Analysis on the ground that they were documents of “Strategic interests of the State” which were not required to be released under the RTI Act. The Commission did not uphold this contention and points raised by the Department in very detailed 70-page affidavit.

The complaint against the Department’s stand was made to the Commission as back as  in March 2012. The hearing was taken up only by the middle of 2013 and was completed by September 2013. However, the Commission took nearly six months to issue the order.

RTI

Order of State Information Commission

Earlier posts:

Mullaperiyar: behind the veil
Mullaperiyar dam break analysis: area of submergence
Mullaperiyar: strategic failure of Kerala government
K. T. Thomas and Mullaperiyar
Mullaperiyar: Directive against disclosure of dam break analysis
Mullaperiyar and Kerala’s technical studies
Conclusions of empowered committee of SC in Mullaperiyar case

Regenerated Attappady: boon to Tamil Nadu

After initial hiccups and extension of project implementation periods, the Attapady Wasteland Comprehensive Environmental Conservation Project has achieved many of its objectives. Trees are now growing on the hills, rendered barren in the past, and rivers are flowing even in summer.

Much of the Attappady hills, once covered with evergreen forests, had become wastelands owing to encroachments, unwise agricultural practices and consequent soil erosion, cattle grazing and felling of trees. The project was started in 1995 with funding from the Japan Bank for International Corporation (now JICA) received in 1996, but field work took off only in 2000. The project was targeted to be completed in 2005. However, the situation was not rosy as an extension of project was considered. There has been misuse of funds and corruption and targets were far from achieved.

However, project implementation improved from 2005 and a peak performance in expenditure was achieved by 2010. Then continuation of the project became an issue and further extensions were granted. Another extension with new projects under the implementing agency Attappady Hill Area Development Society is under consideration.  It is pointed out that about 5000 hectares more remained to be developed and the trees planted need to be protected from fire and plunder.Attapady hill planted with trees

Attapady hill planted with trees. The area was barren before planting

A decade is hardly the time for forests to grow back. Patches of barren fields could still be seen amidst the planted trees. (Planting was done in government owned forest land as well as in private lands as conservation measure). Resumption of grazing and felling of trees for fire wood can reverse the trend. However, protection will ensure further regeneration without fresh planting and other project operations.

The fact that restoration is far from complete can be gauged by looking at both banks of Bhavani River. The River, which originates in Silent Valley National Park of Kerala, flows through Attapady for about 25 km and then through the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border for about seven km. If you look across the River into Tamil Nadu side (see photo below), you can see the riparian forest trees growing there whereas the bank on the Kerala side is almost barren. Compare this with the restored hill on the Kerala side close to the River in the photo above.Kerala TN border marked by Bhavani River

Bhavani River Seperating Kerala and Tamil Nadu territory

The re-forestation of Attapady hills would reduce threat of degradation to the buffer areas of the Silent Valley National Park. It would also benefit Tamil Nadu as it increases the flow through the Bhavani River which courses through Coimbatore and Erode districts of Tamil Nadu after leaving Kerala. It is a boon to Tamil Nadu as was the declaration of the Kurinjimala Wildlife Sanctuary in Idukki district. (Covering about the same area of Periyar lease (for Mullaperiyar dam), the shola grasslands of the Sanctuary is capable of retaining about the same quantity of water as could be stored in the Mullaperiyar reservoir and release them gradually throughout the year. Thus Kerala gifted a second Mullaperiyar to TN by conserving water.)

K. T. Thomas and Mullaperiyar

Member of the empowered committee of the Supreme Court on Mullaperiyar K. T. Thomas has stated in an interview to Malayala Manorama that the Mullaperiyar dam will stand for another 100 years.  This should surprise many.

Mullaperiyar dam

Mullaperiyar dam

According to experts, the normal life of a well-built concrete dam is about 60 years. None could predict the life span of a composite dam like Mullaperiyar with accuracy. However, there is enough evidence about the weakness of the old structure which actually stands supported by the concrete backup built by Tamil Nadu as part of strengthening measures. The Central Water Commission itself had acknowledged the weakness of the old structure in 1979, and if the backup would support the waters, its life span is only less than 60 years. (The strengthening measures were proposed for keeping the dam in service for 30 years at water levels higher than 136 feet.) Studies by the IIT, Roorkee and IIT Delhi showed that the composite structure could not stand a once in a 100-year flood or earthquake of the magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter scale.  Mr. Thomas ignored these findings.

In his report, Mr. Thomas says that the capacity of the Idukki reservoir is 75 tmc and water level in the reservoir had never exceeded 54 tmc. Both these averments are wrong. The capacity of the Idukki reservoir is 70.5 tmc at full reservoir level. It can reach 74.4 tmc at maximum water level. However, water would have to be regulated once it reaches full reservoir level.

The water level in the reservoir had exceeded 70.5 tmc twice and the spillways had been opened. On several occasions, it had crossed 54 tmc. Then, why did Mr. Thomas quote these figures. Is it to substantiate the argument that waters from the Mullaperiyar (11 tmc) would be contained in Idukki reservoir, in case of a failure?

The argument that the former judge actually raises is that the Mullaperiyar reservoir level should be kept at 136 feet so that Idukki could get waters for power generation. This had never been the argument of Kerala and it had never got even five per cent of the water from Mullaperiyar.  (The Committee has rejected Kerala’s demand for allowing environmental flow of 1.1 tmc from the dam, but has suggested that a small pipe outlet can be constructed through the right bank hillock, on the basis of an assessment of need, to enable limited flows. It has also suggested that an intake tunnel should be constructed at 50 feet from the base of the dam to Tamil Nadu.  Even without such a tunnel Tamil Nadu is drawing almost all the waters from the dam. With such a tunnel, it will not have to spare any waters for Kerala even upon lowering of the reservoir level, but for anything conceded as required environment flow.)

Kerala wanted the level to be kept at 136 feet for safety reasons. However, the argument that the dam is unsafe had been rejected by the Committee. So, it may be better for Kerala to change the demand for new dam as neither the Centre nor Tamil Nadu are going to agree to that given the findings of the Committee.

So, it should call for phased decommissioning of the dam on the basis of continuous evaluation of the condition of the dam by a competent body like the Dam Safety Commission. (A tunnel at a lower level as proposed by the Committee could aid this by allowing Tamil Nadu to draw water at current levels for years).  Kerala should also press for its lower riparian rights and a good share of its own waters which had been denied to it through an agreement between a weak princely State and a colonial power.

Nuclear power: consider these facts

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha’s Trojan strategy would have seen the melt down of resistance against Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant; but consider these facts:

Kudamkulam nuclear power plant

udamkulam nuclear power plant while under construction. Source IAEA

Japan shut down its last reactor today (May 5, 2012). Host communities and provincial governors have a say in whether they should have nuclear plants.  17 of Japan’s 54 commercial reactors had been damaged in the earthquake and tsunami last year.  The leakage at the Fukushima reactors displaced roughly 100,000 people.

If a similar accident happens in Kudankulam, around 50 lakh people in Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and Thiruvananthapuram district would be displaced.  The Nuclear Liability Bill would not even provide for their transportation costs.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister is demanding all the power from Kudankulam for her State. If the Centre allows that, Kerala would be taking a risk without getting any power. The situation will be similar to that at Mullaperiyar.  It is high time that Kerala’s political leadership got sensitised about another Mullaperiyar in the making.

For further reading:

Washington post report
Nuclear Liability Bill will get you Rs. 1000

 

Mullaperiyar: behind the veil

It seems that the Inter-State Waters wing of the IDRB under the Irrigation Department has something to hide regarding the way it commissioned studies and presented facts before the Supreme Court.

In the case between Mullaperiyar Environmental Protection Forum v. Union of India and Others decided On: 27.02.2006, Kerala had failed to present its case properly and forcefully. This even resulted in the Mullaperiyar dam being recorded in the judgement as a masonry dam instead of as a composite dam. This weakened Kerala’s case because masonry dams, in general, have a longer life. Problems specific to Mullaperiyar, its structure, quality of the lime-surkhi mixture used and causes of weakness were never elucidated before the Court with supporting material. Kerala even failed to challenge Tamil Nadu’s contention that the waters from Mullaperiyar would be contained in Idukki reservoir in case of a failure of the former.

The judgement said: “Further, it is pertinent to note that the dam immediately in line after
Mullaperiyar dam is Idukki dam. It is the case of State of Kerala that despite the ‘copious
rain’, the Idukki reservoir is not filled to its capacity, while the capacity of reservoir is
70.500 TMC, it was filled only to the extent of 57.365 TMC. This also shows that
assuming the worst happens, more than 11 TMC water would be taken by Idukki dam.

It seems that nobody seemed to have cared to tell the Court that there are about 50000 people living between Mullaperiyar and Idukki who would be killed in case of breach of Mullaperiyar dam. (Analyses show that about 8800 houses would be submerged). Did the Court think that the area downstream of Mullaperiyar were all forests, given that the State’s arguments were all about disturbance to animals in the Periyar Tiger Reserve from raising of the water level? Why did Kerala make a case of Kerala that Idukki reservoir was filled only to the extent of 57.365 TMC, especially when the facts were to the contrary?

Kerala seems to be lackadaisical in efficiently and ably arguing the present case before the Supreme Court (filed by Tamil Nadu challenging Kerala’s law that mandated that the reservoir level of Mullaperiyar dam should not exceed 136 feet for safety reasons). Several of the studies commissioned by the IDRB were done in a hurry at the last minute. Studies like that on the Ecological Impact Assessment of Water Level Increase at Mullapperiyar Dam were full of wrong assumptions and errors.

When it commissioned a study by IIT, Roorkee, on the threat posed to the dam from earthquakes, there was hardly time to complete in time. The first draft was full of factual mistakes and none from the IDRB was willing to quickly go to Roorkee and get the errors corrected. By the time the Department forced someone to go and the final version was readied, it was too late. The Court did not accept that as the time for producing evidence was over. A dam break analysis was not in sight even then.

The dam break analysis was quickly commissioned when the Empowered Committee of the Court was seized of the matter. Though Committee’s term is about to expire, only the first part of the study is over. The IDRB is refusing to divulge the full details of the study to the public. Tactics were raised to prevent furnishing of the documents relating to the analysis and material produced before Court. I reproduce below the details of the RTI request and response of the Department.

The following documents were requested under RTI Act:

  1. Copy of dam-break analysis /inundation study for Mullaperiyar done by IIT, Delhi.
  2. Copies of submissions, statements, argument notes and affidavits made by Kerala in the Mullaperiyar case filed by Tamil Nadu (challenging Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation Amendment Act) before the Supreme Court and its Empowered Committee.

The reply from the Office of Chief Engineer was as follows:

An appeal was filed against this as follows:

Roy Mathew
F-42 RBI Staff Quarters
Plammoodu, Pattom
Trivandrum 695 004

Appellate Authority under RTI Act
Office of the Chief Engineer (ISW)
IDRB, 3rd Floor, Vikas Bhavan
Trivandrum 695033

Sir,

Sub: Appeal on decision of State Information Officer on request for supply of documents regarding Mullaperiyar case, regarding,

Ref: Letter No. IDRB/ISW/AD2/2594/2010 Vol V from Public Information Officer dated February 29, 2012.

  1. The request for copy of dam break analysis is rejected on the ground that the IIT Delhi had not conducted such as a study on Mullaperiyar dam. The reference to IIT Delhi was only an error in the request which was otherwise clear. Section 5(3) of the RTI Act specifies that the PIO should render reasonable assistance to persons seeking information. So, it is imperative that the PIO should have pointed out that the study was done by IIT Roorkee and proceeded to supply the information. The PIO has thus infringed the Act in letter and spirit. Hence, I request you to order immediate supply of copy of the analysis done by IIT Roorkee.
  2. The Sections and subsection quoted by the PIO in rejecting my application for copies of submissions, statements, argument notes and affidavits made by Kerala in the Mullaperiyar case do not exist. However, I assume she is referring to sub clauses of Section 8 (1). Affidavits and other documents submitted to the court are public documents once it is filed before the court. Hence, there is no ground for rejecting my request under 8(1). Moreover, the strategic interest referred to in Section 8 Clause (1) Sub clause (a) of the Act refers to the sovereign State of India in relation to foreign States and not to states of India such as Kerala or Tamil Nadu. Section 8(1h) do not apply as no prosecution or apprehension of offenders is involved in the Mullaperiyar case.
  3. In view of these above reasons, I request you to set aside the objections raised by the PIO and order release of the information without any further delay.

 

Trivandrum                                                                                                      Yours truly

9-3-2012                                                                                                          Roy Mathew

 

The Appellate Authority did not respond directly to the points of appeal. Instead, it came up with a new argument that the dam break analysis has not been completed.

Apparently, the Department did not want the public to know how it is fighting the case and the quality of studies being commissioned by it. So, Expert-Eyes will be making efforts to bring these materials to the attention of the public. Though the Department is refusing to provide the material, we have the executive summary  and conclusions of the  dam break analysis and more at http://expert-eyes.org/mullaperiyar/index.html

Let the experts have a look at it.

 

“News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

 Lord Northcliffe