New Delhi: Prabhu Joel (name changed) is 60 years-old and resides in the Idduki township in Kerala. He has just retired from his state government service and is facing the biggest challenge of his life: to pack his bags and move out of Idduki, the place where he belongs, or continue to live with the fear of a massive flood destroying his locality.
“My life, my family, my livelihood and the land of my forefathers are under threat, but there is nothing I can do about it” he told ETEnergyWorld. Joel is not the only one battling the fear. “I fear my house, along with others in our district, will be flooded in the worst case scenario,” another resident of the Idduki ownship said.
The Idduki locality is surrounding a hydro dam by the same name located 50-Kilometer away from another smaller dam called Mullaperiyar. Home to both the dams on the river Periyar, flowing through Kerala, the Idukki district is a natural source of hydro power. The two dams are in the centre of a controversy over the weak structure of Mullaeriyar, a 121 year old gravity dam built by the British.
The concern among the locals stems from the fear the dam, built as long ago as 1895, may give away any time. Mullaperiyar is Kerala’s oldest dam and was built to divert Periyar waters eastwards into the Maduri district of Tamil Nadu. A 999-year lease was signed between the British, King of Travancore and the Tamil Nadu government allowing the state to operate the dam.
The Mullaperiyar dam has now undergone major wear and tear which has caused water to spill from the walls of the Dam, according to reports. The dam’s design is very old and the core of its structure is made up of sun-baked bricks and limestone. Hence, the fear of a breakdown.
In a case study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Delhi in 2006, and funded by the Kerala government, it was concluded that the Mullaperiyar Dam could break if rainfall above 500 millimeter was to take place in the dam enclosed area. The average rainfall in the area reported at that time was 250-300 millimeter.
In another Kerala government-funded study conducted by IIT-Roorkee on earthquake resistance of the dam, it was concluded an earthquake of magnitude 6 and above on the Richter scale will cause the Dam to collapse.
The two states have been at loggerheads over the issue of Mullaperiyar’s safety. While the Kerala government says the water level in the dam should not be maintained above 136 feet owing to the weak structure, the Tamil Nadu government insists on raising the level to 142 feet and above to supply water to farmers. The dispute reached its peak in 2006 when the Supreme Court started hearing on the issue.
In its argument before the court, the TN government presented losses of Rs 1,600 crore per year due to lack of water supply to bolster its case. Its farmers were being forced to switch over to a double cropping cycle from a triple cropping cycle, it alleged. The total loss suffered by the state as a result of reduced water availability amounted to Rs 40,000 crore over the 25 year period through 2005, it said. The other side pressed for limiting the level to 136 Feet.
The apex court appointed a 5-member committee in 2010 and concluded, based on the panel’s report, in May 2014 that the Periyar Dam was safe and the water level in the dam can be increased to 142 feet.
While the hearing in the case was ongoing, a special petition was filed in the case by Neelakandan, an activist, arguing water from the dam can be diverted at a height of 110 feet using tunnels so that Tamil Nadu gets adequate water without compromising on safety. The petition was rejected by the SC on grounds of its judgment.
According to Neelakandan, the Kerala government’s arguments in the case were meant to preserve the tourist attraction of the Mullaperiyar reservoir by maintaining adequate water levels. “The issue surrounding the Mullaperiyar dam can be solved by building canals at a lower height to divert water into Tamil Nadu,” he told ETEnergyWorld.
His view is supported also by another environmentalist and lawyer Harish Vasudevan. “The main issue facing the Mullaeriyar Dam were not addressed in the Supreme Court Case by the Kerala government. Diverting water from a height of 110 feet by building separate spillways will let the Dam last many more years,” he said.
C P Roy, former chairman of the Mullaperiyar Agitation Council, also agrees with the views. “Reducing the level of water in the dam will help. It will increase the area of the Periyar tiger reserve. So, the criticism that reduced water level will impact tourist attraction may not be valid,” he told ETEnergyWorld. According to the data by Kerala government, losses would incur if the tourist attraction and boating is affected by reducing the reservoir level.
As a solution to the issue, the Mullaperiyar Agitation Council had earlier proposed building a new dam below the MullaPeriyar. But it was not found to be a feasible option as the Periyar Tiger reserve could lose area due to submergence of the reservoir created by the new dam.
The Idukki hydroelectric project is the biggest such project in Kerala and contributes 35 per cent of the total electricity generated by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). The electricity board could suffer loss of generation in case water level is reduced. “The fear of the locals on flooding due to breakage of Mullaperiyar is unfounded,” said an official.
An email sent to Public Works Department (PWD) of the Tamil Nadu government, which manages Mullaperiyar, seeking comments on the issue of safety remained unanswered. Meanwhile, locals in idukki continue to live in fear.