Column: Don’t damn the Mullaperiyar

Dec 07 2011, 03:29 IST
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SummaryThanks to the Mullaperiyar dam controversy, Tamil Nadu’s major political parties are speaking in one voice for a change.

Thanks to the Mullaperiyar dam controversy, Tamil Nadu’s major political parties are speaking in one voice for a change. They banned the screening of the film Dam 999, directed by Sohan Roy and produced in Hollywood, which shows the collapse of a dam in Kerala. Although the director denied it was a political film, the number 999 made Tamil Nadu politicians see red. They found it a motivated title, an apparent reference to the 999-year rights held by Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar dam. Disaster movies are about spectacles and these are images we carry with us. Each time there is an incident, we remember what we saw on the screen. In reality, these horrors do not occur with any great regularity. More people die of road accidents than air crashes. Yet, we fear plane crashes more, although we continue to fly. But our decisions are not based on facts. Emotions take over. So much so that the banning of the film (which reviewers say is tedious) was not criticised by even those who support freedom of expression.

The Mullaperiyar dam crisis is an emotive issue for both Tamil Nadu and Kerala. One fears the death of millions (numbers vastly exaggerated) by the crashing of a 116-year-old dam due to earthquakes. The other fears deprivation of water and livelihood in five districts. The Mullaperiyar dam was constructed by the British during 1887-1895 across the Periyar River in the then Travancore state (now Kerala). The dam, with a full reservoir level of 152 feet, provides for the diversion of water from the reservoir through a tunnel to the Vaigai basin in Tamil Nadu for irrigation. The Travancore state and the Madras presidency signed a 999-year lease, according to which the dam was to be operated by the Tamil Nadu government. The Periyar power station in Tamil Nadu produces hydroelectric power from these waters and distributes that electricity in the state.

Agreements signed during the British rule became invalid after Independence. However, in 1970, the Kerala and Tamil Nadu governments signed a formal agreement to renew the 1886 treaty. The Idukki Hydroelectric project, located 30-km downstream, was completed subsequently, in 1976, by the Kerala government. Over the years, the areas downstream of the Mullaperiyar dam have become heavily inhabited in Kerala. Tamil Nadu’s requirement for irrigation water has also increased. But safety considerations started haunting the Kerala psyche. A couple of dam collapses in

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