Idukki: When Tamil Nadu banned Dam999, a Hollywood movie depicting the dangers posed by a dam in Banqiao, China, it re-energized a bitter rivalry in South India over the 116-year Mullaperiyar Dam. The movie's makers maintain that it is based on a 1975 disaster which killed 2.5 lakh people in Banqiao, but many in Tamil Nadu say it is based on a dam far nearer their home.
The Mullaperiyar dam was built in 1895 in Kerala on the River Mullayar and its tributary, the Periyar. The water is diverted eastwards to service farmers in Tamil Nadu. Kerala has repeatedly expressed its opposition to the fact that all benefits from the dam accrue to Tamil Nadu. But its over-whelming concern is about whether the dam is safe.
Kerala claims the old construction and the fact that the dam is in an earthquake-prone zone merit bringing down the existing structure and rebuilding it. The first time that Kerala claimed the dam was dangerous was in 1979, when it developed leaks following an earthquake.
Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, wants to raise the storage level for the water in the dam. It accuses Kerala of stirring up panic to curtail Tamil Nadu's share of water. The dispute between the two states moved to the Supreme Court and in 2006 the court directed that the water level be raised to 142 feet from the current 136 feet. But the Kerala government brought in a law to negate the order. The Tamil Nadu government challenged this law in the Supreme Court, which has now appointed a panel to examine issues of safety and the need for a new dam.
On Tuesday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the second time in a week, requesting him to advise Kerala not to "precipitate matters" since the Supreme Court is involved in deciding the future of the dam, and how much water it should hold. She requested Dr Singh to advise Kerala to "desist" from using safety concerns for building a new dam and reiterated that the structure was safe.
Today, Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy is scheduled to meet Dr Singh, to present his government's case on the matter.
"We are very anxious about safety of the dam and we are concerned. We have already decided to give the full quantity of water to Tamil Nadu. Our slogan itself is Water for Tamil Nadu, Safety for Kerala. We are not aware on what grounds Tamil Nadu is opposing construction of a new dam," said Mr Chandy.
Kerala will also convene a special session of the Legislative Assembly on December 9 to discuss the Mullaperiyar dam issue.
In Idukki, where the dam is located, a series of quakes - the area has seen 20 since July this year - have created concern among the three million residents of districts like Alappuzha and Ernakulam. These earthquakes have measured between 2.8 and 3.4 on the Richter scale. The dam's structural safety was also questioned in 2009 by experts from IIT Roorkee suggesting that it may not be able to withstand a quake measuring more than 6.4.
Last week, Kerala Minister for Water Resources PJ Joseph said that area lies on a geological fault. He cited an assessment by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS) to argue that the structure may not be able to withstand a quake of magnitude 6 or more on the Richter scale.
When delegations from Tamil Nadu and Kerala took up the issue with him yesterday, Dr Singh indicated that a meeting of Chief Ministers of both the states could be convened to find a solution to the issue. Those who met Dr Singh included MPs from Tamil Nadu and Central and state ministers from Kerala.
Kerala has seen protests by political parties and voluntary groups as they lobby for a new dam.
In an attempt to embarrass the Congress government in Kerala, the Opposition has said that it will collect funds to construct a new dam if the authorities fail to respond to peoples' sentiments.