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New dam needed at Mullaperiyar urgently: Shashi Tharoor

Last updated on: December 13, 2011 08:22 IST

New dam needed at Mullaperiyar urgently: Shashi Tharoor

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Shobha Warrier in Thiruvanathapuram

Shashi Tharoor was just back from Delhi after meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh along with all the other members of Parliament from Kerala, on the Mullaperiyar dam issue. Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier caught him in Thiruvananthapuram for an exclusive interview.

As a Member of Parliament from Kerala, how do you look at the Mullaperiyar dam issue?

It is a very serious issue. It has also stirred up a lot of emotions here which has not been seen well elsewhere. I want to stress that despite the emotional reaction of many people, I don't think any responsible Kerala leaders wish to see this as an inter-state dispute or a water dispute or a problem between us and Tamil Nadu.

I think the fundamental issue is that Tamil Nadu is entitled under a century old agreement to get water for its drought prone districts. It is not an issue for Kerala. Not a single Kerala politician says, reduce the water to Tamil Nadu. However, the problem we have is, by giving Tamil Nadu water, we do not want to jeopardise the lives of our people.

The issue has not been new. A year-and-a-half ago, I presented a 100-page dossier given to me by an expert, to the water resources minister.

The Supreme Court is studying the issue. But this year what gave the issue an urgency was the tremors. I have seen a list of 26 tremors, not the 22 that everybody is talking about.

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Image: Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor
Photographs: Reuters

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'You don't have to wait for a disaster to occur to take pre-emptive action'

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But Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha in her letter to her Kerala counterpart Oommen Chandy wrote that there were only four tremors.

When she said that, I spoke to Chandy and he gave a list that mentions the precise longitude and latitude and time down to the second when they occurred. These are seismological observations and not made up by political people for political purposes.

So, there is a list of 26 tremors from July this year and the highest is 3.9 on Richter scale and the lowest barely registering 1 point something. Even up to 5, we do not have to worry. According to a study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology-Rourkee, the dam collapses if the tremor is 6 at Richter scale.

Then the 39 lakh people in the path of the resulting flood would lose their property and lives. In the worst case scenario, the entire geography of India will change. The land from the Mullaperiyar dam to the sea would literally be washed out. That is why it is a very serious matter.

I do not want to spread panic but I have read that according to one estimate, the amount of water flooding down will have the force of 180 atom bombs. That is not a small matter. I don't know whether that figure is reliable but it is widely quoted in Kerala. That is not to be taken lightly.

There is a simple international doctrine called the precautionary principle. It says that you don't have to wait for a disaster to occur to take pre-emptive action. Given the fact that so much is happening there, we have to take precautionary measures. Otherwise, why would Kerala want to spend Rs 663 crores which is the estimated cost of building a new dam? But Rs. 663 crores is small in comparison to the lives of people.


Image: The Mullaperiyar dam


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'I don't understand Tamil Nadu's concern'

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Tamil Nadu fears that if a new dam is built, they will not get the amount of water they are getting now, but all the Kerala politicians including the chef minister say that there will not be any disruption in that. Why do you think Tamil Nadu harbours such fears?

I don't understand their concern because every politician has pledged that they will get the same amount of water. We will not give any less water that they are getting now.

I suspect their bigger worry is that the operations of such a bigger dam on Kerala soil will be controlled by Kerala.

Equally also possible, when the new dam is constructed, a new agreement will be required. That may raise certain worries to them as for almost 90 years, they have paid just Rs 40,000 a year for the water.

In 1970, it was upgraded to Rs 5 lakhs. In terms of what water costs anywhere in India, this is only a fraction of the real cost of water. Perhaps they are worried that Kerala would exact higher price. But I do believe that it is not beyond the imagination of politicians on both sides of the border to work out an amicable negotiated settlement.

Tamil politicians are of the opinion that Kerala politicians are spreading panic and that there is no problem with the safety of the dam.

I don't know whether the Tamil politicians who are saying that, are in a position to guarantee the behaviour of the tectonic plate under the earth.

Maybe they are right. Maybe there would be no earth quake. 99.99% earthquakes all over the world have taken large toll, were not predicted including the ones in Pakistan recently. The quakes have taken thousands of lives. So, we are talking about lakhs of lives. Even if you predict an earthquake, it wouldn't help.

Do you think it is high time Indian rivers are nationalised?

I would say there should not be any dispute between states.


Image: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa


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'I think the central government has to do what is necessary'

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These two states are fighting as if they are two different countries. Similarly, there were fights between Tamil Nadu and Andhra and Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over water...

You are talking about completely rewriting the country's constitutional arrangements. I don't want to suggest that. It is for the people of various states to work amicably and solve these problems. I agree with you there are disputes between states.

In any case, even if you were to nationalise the rivers and make them into Union responsibility, still, you have to make a decision on who gets what amount of water. So, inevitably, it is the state considerations that have to come in. So, it is better to leave it to the states to sort this out.

Unlike Cauvery or Krishna, Periyar is one river that flows only in Kerala.

The British built the dam years before Kerala or Tamil Nadu existed. The British had an agreement with the Maharaja of Travancore to give water to the Madras Presidency where there definitely was a need for water. I must say, it was a far-sighted thing to do.

I think it is very good that Kerala was able to give that water till now. I am strongly in favour of continuing to give water. At the same time none of us can take the risk of being complacent about the dam. We cannot wait for a catastrophe to happen.

Do you think the central government should intervene now that proper discussions are not taking place between the two states?

The Centre is intervening. I am sure the meeting between the officials called by the water resources ministry will soon take place. I think the central government has to do what is necessary.


Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh


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'We do not want this to become a Keralite versus Tamil issue'

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As a politician from the Congress, what kind of pressure you can put on the prime minister and your party so that the issue is settled fast?

All the MPs from Kerala went to meet the prime minister and particularly, our chief minister also went to see the prime minister. In Kerala, it is not a party issue. I get the impression that in Tamil Nadu also, all the political parties are united.

At the same time, we do not want this to become a Keralite versus Tamil issue either because there are Tamil speaking people on this side of the border and Malayalam speaking people on the other side of the border. Their lives are in jeopardy.

A lot of water that flows into Tamil Nadu irrigates the crops, particularly fruits and vegetables and is then sold to Keralites. So, there is understandably a mutual dependence. I don't think we should ever make this issue as one versus the other.

It is just a practical matter what weight you give to the fears of an earthquake and what weight you give to the studies of the vulnerability of the dam and what weight you give to the potential danger to many lives.

For example, one question we hear is, so what the Mullaperiyar dam breaks? The water will flow down to the Idukki dam. First of all, there are 75,000 people living between these two dams. It is not right to write off the lives of so many people and their property which will be wiped out if the dam breaks. But beyond that, if the Idukki dam breaks because of the additional water from the Mullaperiyar, the catastrophe will be absolutely colossal.

I think it is important that people who are critical of the government's concerns should not trivialise the fears of people. After all, we are not talking about excessive rainfall or heavy high tide; we are talking about literally wiping out the lives, homes and livelihoods of millions of people.

What was the response of the prime minister when all the MPs from Kerala met him?

He was attentive and willing to consider the matter. The prime minister has the executive authority to speak on the matter but he is also responsible for promoting harmony amongst the states. One of the things he specifically said was, please don't let this spoil the traditionally good relations between you two people's interests. We also assured him that we have no desire to do so.

We respect the fact that the prime minster has to take a national view and has to give equal importance to the point of view of Tamil Nadu also. The day after we went, the Tamil politicians went and met the prime minister. So, he has to take both the points of view.


Image: Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy


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'I am not supportive of those who are talking only of dangers in Koodankulam'

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The question many people in Kerala ask is, in both Mullaperiyar and Koodankulam, lives of people are at risk. So, why two standards? What is your answer to the question?

In the case of Koodankulam, I am not supportive of those who are talking only of dangers. There are enough safeguards that are built in. Overall, given the number of nuclear reactors there are in the world, only a very, very few had significant fall outs threatening the lives of people, So, purely in terms of percentage, nuclear power plants are safer than going out in a car on the highway.

Having said that, it is also true that if something does go seriously wrong, people who live around the area are going to get affected more. That is why Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, who is also from Tamil Nadu, went to Koodankulam to try to reassure the people of that area.

Here, people who are from Kerala have similar concern. Just as people of Koodankulam say they do not want to take the theoretical risk of being affected by a nuclear fall out, the people here do not want the theoretical risk of being destroyed by a water explosion that has the force of a nuclear fall out. So, in both cases, it is possible that the fears are exaggerated and in both cases, there is enough bases for the anxiety being expressed by the local people.

Now, one big difference is, when people of Koodankulam say they do not want any nuclear plant at all, Kerala doesn't say they do not want a dam at all. They only want a new dam that is safe and secure.

Is building a new dam the only solution?

Yes. The only way we can continue to give water to Tamil Nadu from Periyar is by building a new dam. Obviously we can't build it on top of the existing dam. It has to be a little further downstream.

It is more or less agreed that the new dam will have to be fully built before the old dam is de-commissioned. So, there is no question of stopping the flow of water to Tamil Nadu. Their worry is that while we are building a new dam which they don't believe will be done in one year like our ministers say. They say that it will take ten years and they will not get water during that period and it will affect the livelihood of the people.


Image: Nuclear reactors at the Koodankulam site


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'The urgency comes from the unknowable'

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So, Kerala assures that it will give the same amount of water to Tamil Nadu even while the dam is being built?

Not a drop less. When the new dam is built, we will see that its capacity is no way inferior to the existing dam.

Where do you see the problem moving towards?

The fear we have in Kerala is that the process will drag on in an unseemly and unhealthy way. Right now, people are very anxious. They want some concrete action very soon.

Do you see an amicable solution soon?

The irony is, even if everything goes well and Tamil Nadu agrees for a new dam, and we start building, the very next day, a catastrophe can happen. That is, even before the new dam is finished. So whatever we do is not soon enough.

Also, we build a dam and there may not be any earthquake. Or, while building a dam, there comes a serious earthquake. The urgency comes from the unknowable.

Passions are running high on both sides. During the Cauvery and Krishna water disputes, things went out of hand and there was a lot of violence. Do you fear about things going out of hand now also?

I do worry about that. I condemn unreservedly the irresponsible young men who are torching effigies and creating problems here. That is extremely silly.

Do you feel time is running out?

I have no idea whether time is running out or not. You don't know, I don't know and Jayalalitha doesn't know whether there will be an earthquake tomorrow or ten years from now or a hundred years from now or never. But there has to be an urgency because 26 tremors happened in the last few months.


Image: The Mullaperiyar reservoir


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