Mullaperiyar- fresh litigation will be ill-advised at this stage

Kerala Government plans to approach the Supreme Court yet again on the Mullaperiyar issue— this time over the alleged failures of the supervisory committee appointed by the Court to properly manage release of water from Dam through the spillways.

This is just an attempt by the politicians to buy time and hoodwink the public. The supervisory committee has representatives of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and Central Water Commission. The question of failure to issue timely warning before release of water through the spillways is a matter that the State government should be able to settle administratively, if necessary seeking intervention of the Centre. It will not be appropriate to agitate the Supreme Court now.

Moreover, it is not Kerala’s case that the Tamil Nadu did not warn it of impending release of water. There were reports that Theni Collector did so a few days ago. The complaint is that the Idukki Collector was not informed six hours before the release. Tamil Nadu apparently wanted to record that the water level touched 142 feet. When water level reached 141.9, it became imperative for Tamil Nadu to release water immediately as the inflow was very heavy. There needs to be an understanding on gradual release of water without waiting for the water level to touch 142 feet.

Kerala should also insist upon its lower riparian rights. The Expert Committee appointed by the Supreme Court had mooted construction of a tunnel to drain water into Periyar River downstream. This is also important from the point of view of safety. All modern dams have Bottom outlet tunnel which will facilitate emptying of the dam in case of an emergency—the Mullaperiyar dam does not have one, being one designed in the 19th century.

Every time Kerala has gone to Court over the Mullaperiyar issue, it has led to closure of its options. It has already lost its case that Tamil Nadu should raise the water level of Mullaperiyar beyond 136 feet only after exhausting storage at Vaigai Dam and that the spillway shutters should be opened gradually. In fact, when Kerala is arguing that the dam is not safe, it should be prepared for sudden release of water. This was what was lacking downstream of Mullaperiyar this Monday.

Kerala has failed to set up monitoring facilities it proposed on earlier occasions downstream of the Dam. Around 50 monitoring installations on the dam and reservoir, under control of Tamil Nadu, are reportedly not functioning. This is an issue that Kerala should be taking up legally or administratively. Even a modern dam without functioning monitoring equipment is unsafe.

Kerala had rushed to nullify a Supreme Court order of 2006 though legislation within weeks of the Court issuing the order. The legislature in its wisdom fixed the water level at 136 feet without building up supporting material. The Kerala Dam Safety Authority, which is a quasi judicial body, on the other had could have commissioned international studies on Mullaperiyar under the law and fixed the water level appropriately which would have been difficult to question before the Supreme Court.

When the Court quashed the law, Kerala suffered a multiple blow. Its arguments had led to the Supreme Court appointing a supervisory committee. As the supervisory committee of the Supreme Court is now managing the water level, it could put blame on Tamil Nadu only if it disregarded directives of the committee. Kerala will not even be able claim damages from Tamil Nadu for any losses caused by release of water or dam failure.

Kerala had ample time to prepare internationally acceptable documents on safety of Mullaperyar Dam from 2006 and even before. But it always rushed to do studies at the last minute. When safety of the people was paramount, one of the first studies it commissioned over a short span of time after 2006 was on submergence of forests and wildlife. (An analysis of errors in that study is available here. The author had to admit before Court that he had done a copycat job of work done by a State agency.)

Though there was an erroneous observation in the 2006 judgment (See Mullaperiyar- behind the veil.) that waters from Mullaperiyar would be contained in Idukki reservoir in case of failure of the former, Kerala failed to complete and produce the Dam Break Analysis before the Supreme Court in the case filed by Tamil Nadu challenging Kerala’s dam safety law.


Extract from judgment
Extract from the judgment of Supreme Court in ORIGINAL SUIT NO. 3 OF 2006 between Tamil Nadu and Kerala

Though the State Information Commission has ruled that this and other studies are public documents, the Principal Secretary of Water Resources Department has issued an illegal order against release of documents pertaining to the Mullaperiyar Dam as long as the issue is under litigation. Perhaps this is one reason why it wants another litigation.

As its strategies have failed so far, it is high time that it reconstituted the Mullaperiyar Special Cell with fresh talent and drew up fresh strategies.

For further reading:

Mullaperiyar: Kerala seeks review of Probable Maximum Flood





2 thoughts on “Mullaperiyar- fresh litigation will be ill-advised at this stage

  1. I came across your blog by accident when I was searching the report for IIT-Roorkee WRC- 1022/ 11-12 by S. K. Mishra. I am also deeply concerned as I live in Kochi with my family. I used to live in Chennai earlier, and I can see the tragedy that has unfolded there with my own eyes, as many of the people there are known to me.

    The concerns that you have raised repeatedly over the Mullaperiyar issue is very serious. I could see how you have committed yourself in this work for the last many years.

    If the worst case scenario were to strike, given the numbers of casualties that are likely to be seen, I fear for the worst for my family. I consulted an expert on this topic, and his prognosis was very frightening.

    I need to consult with you over a possible escape route from Kochi in the event the worst were to happen, can you please advice me?

    • It may be understood that dam failure is not a certainty but a probability. Individually, one’s chance of being killed in a dam failure may be less than getting killed in a road accident in Kochi. (The probability is higher than in Kochi in the case of those living by the side of the Periyar River downstream of Mullaperiyar). However, the issue here is that a large number of people would be wiped out by a single accident (dam failure). Hence the concerns.

      It might be noted that Mullaperiyar dam failure is feared in the case of a once-in-a-hundred-year flood. Study by Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, estimated that two-day probable maximum precipitation in Mullaperiyar catchment is 65.43 cm. If that kind of a rain occurs, water level could go beyond 160 feet if the reservoir level is already at 136 feet. This will mean that water will flow over the dam and the structure might fail. (Theoritically, even a new gravity dam will fail in event of overtopping, though there are a few cases of dams having withstood such events.) However, the Supreme Court has not accepted the Institute’s finding that the Dam is hydrologically unsafe. It has also not accepted the finding of IIT, Roorkie that the dam could be at risk in case of earthquakes of intensity of seven under high load conditions.

      In the event of failure of Mullaperiyar dam and Idukki/Cheruthoni dam, the best escape route in Kochi may be towards sea by ship or boat. Stable elevated locations above six metres including upper storeys of multi-storeyed building away from the course of the Periyar River shall also be safe. However, it is better to seek advice from the local disaster management unit or State Disaster Management Authority.

      The third volume of Dam Break Analysis should offer guidance as to which areas would be submerged. However, this is being kept under wraps by the government. In other countries, such documents are published even before the dam is completed.

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