Despite assurances from the Centre that the Mullaperiyar dam is “safe,” the Supreme Court went ahead on Thursday to direct it to set up a special committee to exclusively prepare for disaster management in connection with the 122-year-old dam.
A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra also directed the States of Tamil Nadu, which owns the dam, and Kerala, where it is situated, to also set up special committees to prepare disaster management plans in the case of the dam.
The court directed that the three special committees would work in harmony.
The Bench said the step has been taken to allay the fears of thousands who live downstream or in the vicinity of the dam. The apex court clarified in its order that these special committees have nothing to do with lifespan or safety of the dam. Their brief is restricted to disaster management to prevent a disaster or contain the loss of life and damage to property in case a tragedy hits the dam.
The court noted that a committee has already been formed to cover the aspects of safety and lifespan of the dam as ordered by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in May 2014.
The order came on a petition to direct the government to appoint an international agency to study the longevity of the Mullaperiyar dam, a perennial source of water and controversy between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, built in 1895.
The petition filed by advocate Russell Joy, representing about three million people who live in the downstream area of the dam and fall in the direct line of a catastrophe that may arise from the imminent burst of the Mullaperiyar dam.
The petition said the dam was constructed, across the river Periyar, using “crude lime surky mortar, at a time when dam engineering was in its infancy as a composite gravity structure.”
The petition said the dam was built for 50 years, and has already survived for 122 years. “People live in fear. Do we require Bhopal gas disaster or an Ochki to understand what a disaster is? Kindly have ready an emergency plan. Please don’t wait for the structure to be broken to act. We have a right to life,” advocate Manoj George, for the petitioner, pleaded.
Mr. George said the Dam Safety Bill of 2010 has still not seen the light of the day and there is a legislative vacuum as far as dam disasters are concerned.
Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal submitted that the Centre is already aware of the dangers regarding dam disasters and has taken over the checks of 5000 dams across the country.
Mr. Venugopal submitted that a committee has already been constituted to keep a close watch on the safety of the Mullaiperiyar dam and recommend preventive measures in compliance with the 2014 SC judgment. The AG produced a letter from the Committee chairman Gulshan Raj in this context.
“But suppose there is heavy rains, water is released, what kind of disaster management has to be taken? We will ask for a special disaster management plan or scheme for Mullaiperiyar dam,” Chief Justice Misra orally remarked.
“The Centre is determined to see that the safety of the dam and provisions of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 are implemened in nature and spirit,” Mr. Venugopal submitted.
The dam is built on an elevated junction of 850 m and has a height of of 53.6 m (176 ft) from the foundation, and a length of 365.7 m (1,200 ft) for catering to the irrigational needs of Tamil Nadu.
The petition said that in case of a disaster, the “water will rush like a bullet” due to the steep hilly geographical features of the place to reach the 100 km away Arabian Sea, in less than one hour through the thickly populated areas downstream.