The Kerala government has suspended the permission given to the Tamil Nadu government to fell 15 trees below the Mullaperiyar Baby dam area to strengthen it. The new political controversy brewing in Kerala is who gave this permission, which weakens the stand taken by Kerala on the Mullaperiyar issue till date? Neither the Chief Minister, who is in charge of the Inter-State Rivers Department, nor the head of the Forest Ministry which has the right to trees in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, have been informed apparently. They only found out when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K Stalin posted on social media! Thus, the government is trying hard to escape by washing its hands pointing fingers at the junior officials. It remains to be seen whether the bureaucrats have reached above the Chief Minister and ministers, or whether the administration itself was directly involved. If one takes the explanations of the Chief Minister and Forest & Wildlife Minister at face value, then they also have to explain how such irresponsible bureaucrats were left free to officiate such acts in the first place. Or, if the ministers are unaware of the issue, they will have to apologize for the mismanagement in their own offices. Either way, there was a serious fault on the part of the Kerala government.
Kerala is preparing to build a new dam at Mullaperiyar citing the security threat posed by the 126-year-old dam. Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu has started a legal battle with the Supreme Court seeking the repeal of the Dam Safety Act passed by the Kerala Legislative Assembly. This was announced by Tamil Nadu Water Resources Minister Durai Murugan who visited Mullaperiyar on Friday. Tamil Nadu has found that by using the strengthening of the Baby dam area as a proxy,they can overcome the Kerala argument that the Mullaperiyar dam is a security threat. Earlier, when the water level was 136 feet, Kerala, which had approached the Supreme Court, suffered a major setback.
In 2014, the court ruled that the highest water level could be maintained at 142 feet. Next Thursday, the case will be heard by the Supreme Court. It is during this crucial juncture, that Tamil Nadu has been granted permission by the Kerala government to fell trees. The Baby dam area, which is 240 meters long and 54 meters high, was earlier described by the Chief Engineer, who came to inspect the dam, as the 'masonry' of the main dam. The danger caused by a weak Baby dam is the main threat at Mullaperiyar. Tamil Nadu is of the view that concerns over rising water levels in the main dam can be allayed and water extraction can continue unabated if the Baby dam area is dealt with. The Tamil Nadu government had sanctioned Rs 7.89 crore for this two years ago. This will be a permanent setback for Kerala's plea to build a new dam to replace the existing one. That is why Kerala opposes Tamil Nadu's move to push through strengthening measures for the baby dam area.
The 8000 acres of forest land around the Mullaperiyar Dam and its environs are under the jurisdiction of Tamil Nadu under the Periyar Lease Agreement. However, the ownership of trees in the Periyar Tiger Reserve is vested in the State Forest Department. On Friday, the Tamil Nadu minister had said that if they were to request Kerala to fell trees then the request would be processed through the Forest Department who then said the matter lay with the reserve forest officials. But then it cannot be described as a coincidence that the order of the forest department was issued on the same day. It is said that the order was issued by Bennichan Thomas, the Chief Conservator of Forests, without the knowledge of the Minister. However, Bennichan Thomas has said that the decision was taken at a meeting presided over by Water Resources Additional Chief Secretary T.K. Jose.
That T.K Jose is the only representative of Kerala in the Mullaperiyar Monitoring Committee is another joke. The forest minister says that Central government permission is required to fell trees within the limits of the tiger sanctuary. However, a justification has been filed that the timber permit was sought in the area notified by the Forest Department as a buffer zone which is considered unregulated in the reserve itself and the necessary procedures were followed. It is very clear that the circumstances surrounding the decision are very murky. Therefore, the government has an obligation to investigate and release the details. The order which freezes the move to chop down trees also smacks of ambiguity. With the case coming up in the Supreme Court again, the Pinarayi government has resorted to cutting the very branch they sit on, violating it by issuing a sanction order that has weakened Kerala's position in the matter. Therefore, follow-up action is needed to clarify where the government stands in this regard.