The dam is built on an elevated junction of 850m and has a height of of 53.6m (176ft.) from the foundation, and a length of 365.7m (1,200ft.) for catering to the irrigational needs of Tamil Nadu.

Despite assurances from the Union government that the 122-year-old Mullaiperiyar dam is “safe”, the Supreme Court on Thursday directed it to set up a special committee to exclusively prepare disaster management plans.

A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra also directed Tamil Nadu, which owns the dam, and Kerala, where it is situated, to set up similar committees. It said the three committees would work in harmony.

The Bench said the step was taken to allay the fears of thousands of people who live downstream or in the vicinity of the dam. It clarified in the order that the special committees have nothing to do with the lifespan or safety of the dam. Their brief is restricted to disaster management plans to prevent a calamity or contain the loss of life and damage to property in case a tragedy hits the dam.

Panel on dam’s safety, lifespan formed after court order in May 2014
The Bench noted that a committee had been formed to cover the aspects of safety and lifespan of the dam as ordered by a Constitution Bench of the 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 dam, a perennial source of water and controversy between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, built in 1895.

The petition is filed by advocate Russell Joy, who represents about three million people who live in the dam’s downstream area and fall in the direct line of a catastrophe that may arise from a “burst” of the dam.

The petition said the dam was constructed across the Periyar river, using “crude lime surkhi mortar, at a time when dam engineering was in its infancy as a composite gravity structure.”

“People live in fear”
The petition said the dam was built for 50 years and had already survived for 122 years. “People live in fear. Do we require the 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 had still not seen the light of the day and there was legislative vacuum as far as dam disasters are concerned.

Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal submitted that the Centre was aware of the dangers regarding dam disasters and had taken over checks of 5,000 dams across the country. A committee had been constituted to keep a close watch on the safety of the Mullaiperiyar dam and recommend preventive measures in compliance with the 2014 Supreme Court judgment.

Mr. Venugopal 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 remarked.

“The Centre is determined to see that the safety of the dam and provisions of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 are implemented in nature and spirit,” Mr. Venugopal said.

The dam is built on an elevated junction of 850 metres and has a height of of 53.6 metres (176 feet) from the foundation, and a length of 365.7 metres (1,200 feet) 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 cover the 100 km to the Arabian Sea in less than an hour through the thickly populated areas downstream.