When Deepak P, an engineer from Kochi, was studying at IIT Chennai in 2009,  he would occasionally switch on as many of the lights and fans in his dorm as he possibly could. This was his effort to extract revenge on Tamil Nadu for being able to draw water – unfairly, in his view – from the Mullaperiyar Dam located in his home state of Kerala.

For Annama Uthup, the conflict over the Mullaperiyar Dam between her home state of Kerala and neighbouring Tamil Nadu cost her a carefully tended business – and her faith in democracy.

Till December 5, 2011, Annama and her husband Joy had been running a restaurant in Tamil Nadu’s Kambam town, making a comfortable living. But then, Kerala and Tamil Nadu escalated their battle over the dam as negotiations in Delhi went sour. It sparked violence in which Annama’s Hotel Zubin was destroyed by Tamilians, forcing her to move back to Kerala and set up life afresh after 21 years away. In April, as 73.7% of the state’s population made their way to the polling booths, Annama chose not to join them. She did not think her vote mattered.

The 116-year-old Mullaperiyar Dam across the Periyar river that is causing this animosity is located in Kerala but is operated by Tamil Nadu. This is the result of a 999-year agreement signed in 1886 between the Maharaja of Travancore, in whose kingdom the limestone-and-burnt brick was built, and British-ruled Madras Presidency, which needed water to irrigate its fields.

The cause of their conflict is simple. While the government of Tamil Nadu wants to raise the height of the water collected in the dam reservoir so that it can increase agricultural production, Kerala contends that the dam is dilapidated and will endanger the lives of thousands of people unless it is rebuilt.

Supreme Court ruling

Kerala’s case took a beating earlier this month, when the Supreme Court denied its request to reconstruct the dam, ruling that the structure was not actually unsafe. The court also struck down a law Kerala had enacted in 2006 to circumvent a ruling that allowed Tamil Nadu to increase the height of the water in the reservoir.

On Wednesday, Joyce George, the MP from Kerala’s Idukki district, alleged at a press conference that the SC had only received documents favouring Tamil Nadu. Already, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his colleagues in the United Democratic Front have joined hands with the opposition leader VS Achuthanathand to frame a revised petition asking the SC to allow a new dam to be constructed.

But Kerala may have erred by failing to make a strong enough case to the five-member committee appointed by the court to study the issue of dam safety, said the state’s representative on the panel.

“Height of ignorance!” said Justice KT Thomas, who has since been branded a traitor by the press in the state. “When the empowered committee asked the government of Kerala to submit the report based on which they demand a new dam, they had no reliable report to show,” Thomas said. “They didn’t even do a proper study! The media in Kerala too are just fuelling the matter without studying it. And together by questioning the safety they are wreaking havoc in the minds of innocent people staying near the dam.”

Fears about the Mullaperiyar Dam have been expressed ever since the collapse of the Machchu Dam in Gujarat in 1979. In 2001, the Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvanathapuram produced a report saying that the Kerala dam was unsafe too, especially since it was located in a seismic zone. As a result, Tamil Nadu was forced to decrease the water level. But with this month’s SC verdict, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa hailed “sweet victory” for her state and said that the Mullaperiyar judgment was among her proudest achievements.

Framing review petition

As a result of the Supreme Court order, the level of the water in the dam will be raised to 142 feet from the present 136 feet under the supervision of a committee headed by the Central Water Commission chairman. Kerala and Tamil Nadu will contribute one member each. Though Tamil Nadu has already named its member, Kerala is yet to do so. Instead, the state is working to draft a review petition asking the Supreme Court to allow it to rebuild the dam.

“We are just in the process of drafting a new petition,” PJ Joseph, Kerala’s minister for water resources, told Scroll.in. “It is based on a study by IIT Roorkee in 2009, which affirmed that the dam is hydrologically and seismically unsafe.”

But there’s no telling if that study can withstand the secret weapon that Tamil Nadu will soon deploy. Rajnikanth’s next film, Lingaa, features the Tamil superstar in the role of the Mullaperiyaar Chief Engineer.  And that is no joke.