On Nov 5, Kerala granted Tamil Nadu permission to cut down 15 trees, but the decision was frozen two days later in the wake of fears that such a move would impair the interests of Kerala in the long-pending inter-state dispute.
A fresh row related to Mullaperiyar dam has erupted between Kerala, where the dam is situated, and Tamil Nadu, the custodian of the dam. The controversy is over felling of trees downstream the baby dam, which is part of the 126-year-old Mullaperiyar dam. On November 5, 2021, Kerala granted Tamil Nadu permission to cut down 15 trees, but the decision was frozen two days later in the wake of fears that such a move would impair the interests of Kerala in the long-pending inter-state dispute.
The baby dam
The Mullaperiyar dam comprises the main dam, a baby dam, an earthen dam and the spillway. While the length of the main dam is 1200 ft, the baby dam is 240 ft long. The full reservoir level of the dam is 152 ft while the maximum water level (as per design) is 155 ft. The baby dam was constructed to increase the water level from 118 ft. At present, the water level at the dam can be maintained at 142 ft as per a 2014 Supreme Court directive Pointing out the age of the dam and raising safety concerns, Kerala has been demanding that the water level be reduced to 136 ft.
Strengthening of baby dam
For Tamil Nadu, strengthening of the baby dam is crucial for increasing the water level from 142 ft to 152ft. That scheme has been part of Tamil Nadu’s various measures to make the dam safe and suitable for holding more water. Hence, Tamil Nadu has been raising the matter in the Supreme Court as well as during the inter-state discussions on the Mullaperiyar issue. Tamil Nadu has been seeking forest clearance, mainly permission for felling trees, from Kerala as part of carrying out measures to strengthen the dam. Although the dam is controlled by Tamil Nadu, the permission for felling trees has to be granted by Kerala, where the dam is situated.
Permission to cut trees
The Tamil Nadu Water Resources Department had urged Kerala to cut down 23 trees downstream of the baby dam. The Kerala Principal Chief Conservator of Forests & Chief Wildlife Warden issued an order a few days ago, on November 5, granting permission to cut down 15 trees. Next day, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin wrote to his Kerala counterpart, expressing gratitude for the step. “This long pending request was crucial to strengthen the baby dam and the earthen dam, and this permission would enable us to initiate steps for strengthening these structures,’’ a statement quoted Stalin as saying in the letter.
On November 7, Kerala Forest Minister A K Saseendran expressed his displeasure over the decision, which, according to him, was taken at bureaucratic level without consulting the ministers. As the Opposition alleged that the move would undermine the interests of Kerala in the dam issue, Saseendran defended saying the decision was taken keeping the Chief Minister and Ministers for Forest and Water Resources in the dark. On November 7 itself, the forest department froze the order, pointing out that cutting of trees from the Periyar Tiger Reserve is subject to the clearance by the Union Ministry of Environmental and Forests and other statutory bodies. Tamil Nadu, therefore, has to obtain approval from the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wild Life. Apart from that, permission is required as per the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. However, Tamil Nadu has not completed these mandatory steps before seeking permission to cut the trees.
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Why is Kerala against felling trees?
Felling of trees would enable Tamil Nadu to carry out steps to strengthen the baby dam. Kerala fears that allowing Tamil Nadu to carry out strengthening measures would weaken its demand for decommissioning the existing structure and constructing a new one. Citing safety of lakhs of people living downstream, Kerala has been advocating for a new dam with the campaign line: ”Water for Tamil Nadu, safety for Kerala”. By strengthening the baby dam and other structures, Tamil Nadu can play to hilt its demand that water level has to be raised to 152 ft.
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