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An Impending Water Bomb in Kerala?

Via The Wall Street Journal, a report on a dam controversy that also raises serious questions about India’s federal structure and its ability to solve inter-state disputes on issues like water and rivers which do not follow regional boundaries.  As the article notes:

“…On the morning of March 12, 1928, William Mulholland — the chief engineer under whose supervision the St. Francis Dam in Santa Clarita, California was built — examined a new leak that had developed in the structure.

This was one of several cracks that had appeared over two years, but Mr. Mulholland didn’t think there was anything alarming for a dam of St. Francis’s size and proceeded to declare it safe. On the same day, three minutes before midnight, the St. Francis Dam collapsed. It was one of the worst civil engineering disasters in the U.S. A wall of water, said to be 78 feet at its peak, destroyed everything in its path and claimed more than 500 lives.

As Karl Marx recognized a long time ago, the lessons of history often go unheeded: “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Even as India’s Congress-led UPA government lurches from one political crisis to another, it is blissfully blasé about the potential human and ecological catastrophe that is unfolding at the Mullaperiyar Dam, a bone of contention between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.  The 116-year-old dam built over the Periyar River, owned by and located in Kerala, but operated by Tamil Nadu under a lease (a peculiar colonial legacy), has developed serious safety concerns. While Kerala (which is the affected party in case of a dam failure) wants to decommission it, Tamil Nadu (which is the beneficiary of the water) continues to assert that there are no safety issues.

Let us look at the facts: the dam was built with archaic 19th century construction techniques and has outlived it predicted lifespan by over 65 years. Recently it has seen, according to one national news report, “profuse seepage in its foundation, deep cracks on its surface and soaring leakage volumes.” Crucially, it is located in a moderately active seismic zone – from this July alone, the surrounding areas have experienced more than two dozen mild to moderate tremors, the last of which was on Dec. 10, according to reports. Heavy rainfall in the region has also caused water levels to rise above Central Water Commission of India-designated limits of 136 feet. A collapse of the dam, which has a capacity of 443 million cubic meters of water, could bring about a catastrophe of tsunamic proportions, potentially submerging five districts and up to four million people in Kerala.

But New Delhi doesn’t seem to have taken notice of these alarming facts. The government is in paralysis, its legitimacy constantly threatened by various crises. When a catastrophe of this nature stares it in the face, it closes its eyes and hides behind legalese. As Defence Minister, A.K. Antony (who incidentally hails from Kerala) said, the central government cannot do much as the matter is in the courts. And the courts lumber along too, for they are waiting for the Supreme Court-appointed expert panel’s report on the safety of the dam. But that won’t be submitted until February 2012. Until then, people in the affected areas are pawns in the machinations of India’s legal rubrics.

A political solution is necessary. Many people in Tamil Nadu depend on the dam for water. Fearing that one of their main lifelines is under threat, some have turned violent, targeting Keralites and their businesses. There have also been reports about Tamils being attacked in Kerala. But a political solution is distant in an electoral democracy where principles are sacrificed at the altar of votes. Here no politician would want to rise above the parochial interests they represent, hence Tamil Nadu’s refusal to participate in talks with Kerala to resolve the issue. Freedom of speech is also muzzled: a film dealing with dam failures is banned by Tamil Nadu.

The dam controversy also raises serious questions about India’s federal structure and its ability to solve inter-state disputes on issues like water and rivers which, of course, do not follow regional boundaries. It is shocking that the Mullaperiyar problem has persisted for over 30 years without a solution. The controversy also exposes the relative lack of power of a state like Kerala, a world-renowned model of human development, but marginalized within India for a lack of numbers.

Perhaps, the most notable feature of the tragi-farce is the technological hubris based on a supposed scientific mastery of nature. Full-page advertisements have been brought out by the Tamil Nadu government in major newspapers affirming the safety of the dam. Various expert committees assess and pronounce verdicts and these are imbued with a divine halo (it does not matter that the “experts” themselves are not in agreement about the longevity of the dam.) Nobody seems to think that perhaps the right course of action would be to privilege precaution over scientific certainty.

China’s Banqiao Dam, which is almost the same size as the one in Mullaperiyar, was designed by experts to withstand a once-in-a-millennium flood. But nature always finds ways of confounding humans. When the dam catastrophically collapsed in 1975, killing 250,000 people, it was caused by a once-in-two thousand years flood.

Ultimately, it is not just about the Mullaperiyar Dam, but about the desirability of big dams, yet this has been completely ignored in debates. In the early years of India’s independence, Jawaharlal Nehru famously described big dams as “the temples of modern India”. But what is hardly known is that in a very short time, he had recanted his views, only now to describe big dams as a “disease of gigantism.”

Even in Kerala, the discourse is only about building a new and bigger dam to replace the existing one.

The unprecedented social and ecological costs of the more than 45,000 large dams in the world are beginning to unravel. In India alone, big dams have displaced at least 40 million people. Invariably they tend to be those from the lowest tier of the social hierarchy like the indigenous people. The most alienating aspect of big dams is how it has taken decision-making out of the hands of the people who are most affected by it and placed it in centralized bureaucracies. Their voices are hardly heard in a water management system dominated by global financial institutions, big private corporations and powerful political interest groups. So we see the tragic sight of people in villages three kilometers from the dam pleading for their lives to the powers-that-be in New Delhi, 3,000 kilometers away.

The 2,500 residents of the village of Vallakadavu, the first point to be submerged if Mullaperiyar fails, wake up in the night even when leaves rustle, for they know that water from the dam would take only 50 seconds to reach them. Meanwhile, the nation’s institutions that could solve the crisis are in deep slumber, completely oblivious to something called human suffering.

This entry was posted on Thursday, December 22nd, 2011 at 7:35 am and is filed under India.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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