Mulla(i)periyar Dam – History


Discussing about rivers and the sharing of its water between states has always been an emotive issue especially in states having areas south of Vindhyas. The current river debate that’s in the spotlight concerns the Mullaiperiyar river.

Unlike other river water sharing debate, this one is less about the river and is more about a dam. Before we get to read a primer on the history of this issue, its pertinent to place on record that I hail from Chennai, and there in ends my association with this.  I haven’t been to this dam. This is an attempt to place the concerns and viewpoints of the two sides based on the discussions I have held with people from both sides.

History :

With many parts of India facing famine in 1700’s, Tamilnadus driest regions like current Ramanathapuram, Tuticorin,  Theni and parts of Virudhunagar dists faced severe drought. With a view to address the annual prospect of drought, the then Ramanathapuram king  got his minister to analyse the feasibility of tapping the perennial Periyar river which originated from the Sivagiri mountains by means of a canal. The proposal was dropped though due to precarious financial situation of kingdom even though it was found feasible.

This was once again revived by the British when these areas were under their control. James Cladwell once again began the studies to construct a dam.  More than half a century later after various issues, like endemics, the British revived the idea, with Colonel John Pennycuick  in charge.

By 1884 the project was sanctioned at a cost of 62 lakhs.  The construction began in Devikulam and Peermede taluks. With terrain remaining tough, the construction materials and personnel were sourced from the eastern side, which was the main access to these areas.

To enable the construction, British govt. inked a deal with the then Travancore King in 1886.

Based on that,

1) The agreement is for 999 years and can be renewed at end of lease

2.)For the 8000 acres of land on which the water will be stored, a lease amount of  Rs.5/acre and    Rs.40000/year will be paid to Travancore govt. This was considered to be a valuable revenue source those days given these areas was less developed, and inhospitable with limited access.

3.Full rights to TN for water coming under those 8000 acres. Full rights for TN to do works related to dam and irrigation on those 8000 acres

4.Full Rights to TN for Fishing on catchment areas

5. Full Rights to TN for using stone, minerals, trees, plants in the catchment areas

6. Full right of access to Officials, workers and associated people and to take things with them

7.Full Ownership rights for 100 acres to facilitate dam construction, irrigation and maintenance

During the initial stages of this dam construction, a severe flood washed away the constructed segments in the flood.  Torrential rains, flash flood, wild animals, tough terrain, diseases like malaria meant labour was a major problem

Colonel John Pennycuick was a determined man. He sold all his properties in UK and he constructed this dam at a cost of 85 lakhs.  He is hence the equivalent of Arthur Cotton-andhra to southern tamilnadu.

Technical details of the dam

:ht 176 ft, storage ht – 152 feet, wall height -155ft(160 post strengthening) and length: 1241 feet. total capacity : 15.5 TMC. Current capacity :10.5 TMC

Upto 104 feet, its dead storage and water cannot be tapped towards the TN side. The water stored above 104 ft in the Mullai Periyar dam are transported to Thekkady through man-made canals for 2 km. From Thekkady penstocks(sluice gate), water is transported to TN through 2 km of Tunnels bored across mountains in western ghats and water is merged with a tributary of Suruli River.

In 1933 the dam was strengthened.  In 1956, following states division, a “Four Bay” dam was constructed in Tamil Nadu to produce electricity using this water. From this dam, water is carried in a tunnel and huge pipes for a distance of 5800 feet to lower camp where electricity is produced.

After producing electricity, water is let into Suruli River for irrigation purpose. Using this water farmers in Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivagangai, Ramanathapuram districts carry out agriculture in 2,08,000 acres. This also serves as primary drinking water source to these parched districts.

In 1960, the dam was once again strengthened.  This involved guniting the upstream face and grouting the inside face body.

The 1960’s also witnesses for the first time murmurs regarding stability of dam. It also saw Kerala building a no of check dams along the course of Periyar river.  1960’s also saw the  proposals for Idukki dam.

In the year 1970 supplementary agreements were signed between Kerala and Tamilnadu. This saw TN surrendering the fishing rights, boat rides.  The agreement also saw clauses for power production by TN and amendment regarding the monetary aspects.

The 1970’s also saw the construction of Kerala’s biggest hydroelectric project – Idukki Dam, 50 km downstream of Mullai Periyar dam. Idukki Dam is 1200 ft long and 555 ft tall Arch type Dam.Its capacity is 70 TMC(Thousand Million Cubic) feet, which is 6 times more in capacity than Mullai Periyar.

The resulting flora and fauna in over 80 years of dams presence led to the regions being declared reserve forest followed by declaration as a tiger reserve.

The genesis for conflict breaks in 1979. A Malayalam daily ran a story on 16.10.1979, that tremors were felt in idukki district and the dam is not safe.

Following this under Kerala government request, then CWC president Thomas inspected the dam. CWC though opined that dam was good, suggested strengthening measures.

Then TN govt led by MGR agreed to reduce the level of water storage to max of 136 feet until strengthening of dam was over as suggested by CWC.

Petitions were filed in both HC around 1998 with TN petition calling for increase in level once again with strengthening works almost finishing.

Subramaniam Swamy approached SC and got all petitions transferred to SC. After talks were held between two states following SC request failed, the SC appoints a independent technical comm. to study the strengths of dam and submit a report.

Part 2 Part 3  Part 4

 

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