The Kerala government, which is facing the heat from the Opposition over the alleged grant of permission to Tamil Nadu to clear 15 trees in the downstream of the baby dam at Mullaperiyar Dam, is yet to present a clear story on the matter.
While the Tamil Nadu government insists on getting a permission to cut the trees from the Kerala forest department, the Kerala government has refused the same, stating that the order was revoked as Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was not aware of it and the decisions were taken at the bureaucrat-level. To prove its claims, the Tamil Nadu government on Tuesday released a copy of the purported order.
This has raised a flurry of questions – who took the decision to issue the order without the permission of Chief Minister Vijayan? And was it an error committed by concerned bureaucrats that was later corrected by the government?
The Opposition created a ruckus in the Assembly, seeking clarity on the matter. However, the explanations given by state forest minister AK Saseendran in the Assembly as well as those by CPI(M) leaders to the media leave a few questions unanswered.
The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden issued an order dated November 5, 2021 granting permission to fell 15 trees and clearing underwoods and saplings within an area of 40 cents near the baby dam in Mullaperiyar Dam (located in Kerala, but managed by Tamil Nadu). The whole controversy irrupted when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin on November 6 wrote to Vijayan, thanking him for granting the permission which would help strengthen the baby dam. The next day, the Kerala government revoked the order with the explanation that Chief Minister Vijayan was not in the know of the development as the decision was taken completely at the level of the concerned bureaucrats.
In response to a request for adjournment motion, AK Saseendran, the state minister for forest, informed the assembly that the government intervened as soon as it came to know about the matter and froze the order.
“Kerala’s stand is very clear. ‘Safety for Kerala and Water for Tamil Nadu’ is our slogan. The Government will not entertain anything that goes against the larger interest of the state. We are not in a position to approve the request made by Tamil Nadu to cut 23 trees on the premises of the baby dam. The case is still under the consideration of the Supreme Court and Kerala has given the affidavit on the matter. Kerala cannot take a decision on the felling of trees because this area lies in the Periyar tiger reserve,” he said.
According to the affidavit submitted by Kerala in the Supreme Court, felling of trees requires clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest as well as from the National Wild Life Board. The minister informed the Assembly that as Tamil Nadu has not produced these required permissions; Kerala is not in a position to grant the approval for felling of trees.
However, the documents accessed by The Federal show that this statement is not sufficient enough to explain the obscurity in the matter. The letter, dated September 3, sent from the Ministry of Water resources to the government of Kerala makes it apparently clear that the decision of felling the trees was taken by the Supervisory Committee on Mullaperiyar Dam appointed by the Supreme Court. The three-member committee consisting of the representatives of both the states and that of Central Water Commission took the decision to carry out a site inspection to identify the trees to be cut. According to the letter, the decision was taken by the supervisory committee in its 14th meeting and the inspection was carried out on June 11, 2021.
TK Jose, the Additional Chief Secretary of Kerala, also a member in the supervisory committee on Mullaperiyar Dam, had also participated in the discussions and subsequent correspondences between the states.
It is apparently clear that the felling of trees is not a decision taken solely by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, but is one approved by the Supervisory Committee on Mullaperiyar dam. Then how far it is rational to claim that the Kerala government had no prior knowledge on the matter?
Kerala has a reason for being reluctant to give approval to Tamil Nadu’s request to cut the trees. If Tamil Nadu goes ahead with the strengthening of the baby dam, the state will demand raising the water level to 152 feet. This would go against Kerala’s long term strategy of decommissioning Mullaperiyar Dam by constructing a new one. On the other hand, Kerala cannot openly take a position that they do not want the baby dam to be strengthened as well.
Developing mutual trust is the only permanent solution to this century-old dispute, say experts.
“‘Water for Tamil Nadu and safety for Kerala is a right slogan’, but what matters is Kerala’s ability to convince Tamil Nadu that they would continue getting uninterrupted supply of water. Not only water, but a joint ownership and shared control over the dam also needs to be ensured,” an officer in chief minister’s office told The Federal.