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Friday 9 December 2011

Mullaperiyar Controversy : An Opportunity for Revisitng Dam Building

Mullaperiyar Controversy : An Opportunity for Revisitng Dam Building

New Delhi, December 8 :  The rising tension, passion and stray incidents of violence in Kerala and Tamilnadu over the Mullaperiyar dam on Periyar river in Kerala has once again brought the focus on the water conflicts in the country, control over natural resources of the communities and on the safety of the dam. Unfortunately, the debate is still not about the dams as source of irrigation, power generation and flood control and projecting dams as a solution. The debate though limited to the water sharing between states of Kerala and Tamilnadu fails to address the larger issue of effective management of water resources and communities control over water and natural resources.

India is witness to a large number of anti-dam agitations by people's movements ranging from Bhakra, Koel Karo, Tehri to Dams in Narmada Valley. The 'No Big Dam' agitation started in case of Sardar Sarovar Dam is still being waged in North East of India and other Himalayan states and opposed by communities for various reasons environmental to life and livelihood.

A fair number of India’s dams are over 100 years old. A list compiled by the Central Water Commission (CWC) shows at least 114 dams in this category. There are roughly 400 dams which are 50-100 years old. According to Madhya Pradesh government, the state has 168 dams which can be called “distressed dams”, out of which 63 are less than 50 years old.  Since 1917, 29 dams have reportedly been damaged. In 2002, the Jamunia Dam in Madhya Pradesh breached and the toll is continuing till date. Such breaches of dams have affected the lives and property of hundreds of people, and, the number of those killed and injured in such accidents has reached thousands. Mullaperiyar is one such ageing dam and fears of further breach and damage has increased in recent times with the seismic activity in the region.

It is widely believed that the tremors in the region are influenced by the pressure of a large number of dams including Idukki and Mullaperiyar. As such, a new, larger dam in place of the existing one may actually increase the risk of seismic activity in the area. The issue of additional forest requirement of about 50 Ha in the Periyar Tiger reserve should also be considered. So, to imagine and call for construction of a new dam by Kerala government is an ill founded solution.

The safety of the dam at present may be a point of debate for the conflicting parties. But by any stretch of imagination, we can not foresee the dam holding good eternally. Hence, sooner or later, alternative arrangements have to be made. Considering the possible risk of continuing with the 116 year old structure and by the application of the precautionary principle, it is better to go for alternate arrangements for irrigation in Tamilnadu areas and ways to exploit the Periyar waters should be explored on both sides as soon as possible.

The water conflict between these two states are not alone, we have other water sharing issues over almost every river in this country. The fact is that rivers don't respect the artificial boundaries created by nation-state and have their own natural flows. Communities living in their vicinity know about their flow and rhythm of life. Dams have only destroyed the rivers and killed their flow. It is time we started thinking of alternative ways of harnessing the river water for livelihood and civilisational survival.

India’s ageing dam population, absence of proper maintenance of the dams and absence of accountability mechanisms is going to increase the frequency of dam disasters in years to come. When the increased frequency of high intensity rainfall, melting glaciers and other such events due to global warming is added to this already heady mix, the consequences could be grave. We have Dam Safety Bill pending before the parliament but we need this to be put to fresh scrutiny in public domain and consult all the movement and communities groups in light of the ongoing controversy and develop a dam safety agency which will take care of the aging dam population and also work towards decommissioning of these dams. Simultaneously, there is a need to put a moratorium on the large dams construction in the country anywhere. 

The frequent failure of large dams to provide their claimed benefits and this poor performance needs to be recognised and accepted. There is no reason for optimism on the feasibility of improving the poor performance of dams and mitigating their impacts. A major question is the feasibility of just rehabilitation with land for land lost by agriculturists and alternative, appropriate sources of livelihood for other displaced people. In large scale displacement, the experience shows a clear failure. Within the value framework we stand and propagate – equity, sustainability, transparency, accountability, participatory decision-making, and efficiency – large dams have not helped attain, but rather hindered, “human development”.

As World Commission on Dam concluded there is an urgent need for developing a new framework for decision-making which provides a solid basis for assessing options for energy and water development, and for planning and implementing projects that can achieve the desired benefits without exacting an unacceptable cost for anyone affected, or for our environment and future generations.

It is in this light that we from NAPM demand that :

1.      The government of India brings out a white paper on all the dams, divulge the benefits vis-a-vis projections and plans, current status, cost of running, number of people displaced, rehabilitated and so on.
2.      Establish a National Commission on Dam to study the existing and planned dams and look at their feasibility, impact and contribution to the overall intended development till then put a moratorium on construction of all the big dams.
3.      Government of India, Kerala and Tamilnadu come together for a dialogue and find a solution which will not compromise their stand but also not affect the fears of loosing livelihood either by dam breach in Kerala or lack of water for agriculture in Tamilnadu.
4.      To  start the overall process of debate and discussion leading up to enactment of Dam Safety Act which in consultation with affected communities and also work towards putting an end to the water conflicts in the country and develop institutional mechanisms for water  sharing between different states.

Lastly, NAPM in this regard offers its help in mediating between the states of Tamilnadu and Kerala with the help of Central government in case of Mullaperiyar controversy. We do hope with the help of people's movements from both sides we will able to reach out a compromise which will serve the livelihood and safety concerns of the people.

Medha Patkar, Sandeep Pandey, Gabriele Dietrich, Prafulla Samantara, Akhil Gogoi, Geo Josh, Hussain master, Gabriele Dietrich, Suniti S R, Rajendra Ravi, Ramakrishna Raju, Anand Mazgaonkar, Vimal Bhai, Madhuresh Kumar

National Alliance of People’s MovementsNational Office: Room No. 29-30, 1st floor, ‘A’ Wing, Haji Habib Bldg, Naigaon Cross Road, Dadar (E), Mumbai - 400 014;
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