K Vijayachandran

[I wrote this untold story in December 2011, when a warlike situation was developing across Kerala-Tamilnadu border over the decades old Mullaperiyar dispute that got triggered some thirty-five years ago, during 1979 Monsoon season. It is being republished on the eve of the bandh called by the Kerala side to protest against the Supreme Court judgment of today (07-05-2014) over the issue]

There are over five thousand dams and reservoirs in our country: big and small, situated in various states, of different vintage, serving diverse objectives and built with all sorts of technologies. Central Water Commission (CWC) is a statutory authority that serves as the federal custodian of Indian dams and their safety. CWC does not have its state-level counterparts and its members are nominated by the Indian President.

India is a member of the International Convention On Large Dams (ICOLD) and CWC is in charge of our national membership. Design, construction and operation of Indian dams, thus, enjoy the safety umbrella provided by this professional network at the national and global level. Even the safety problems related to Mullaperiyar, despite its age, could seek solutions within this broader professional framework, national as well as international.

Our country is greatly respected by the international community, for its vast experience in the design, construction, operation and management of dams, and canal networks. With numerous tanks, dams, and millions of kilometers of man made as well as natural canals, crisscrossing the subcontinent, India is a world leader in traditional canal irrigation. The garland canal project of MN Dastur as well as the Ganga-Kaveri link proposed by KL Rao was examples for the grandiose dreams of Indian engineers during freedom struggles and after. Even Kerala had an extensive network of irrigation canals and waterways network: They turned mostly dysfunctional due to continued neglect and totally unplanned development of the region. Unlike Kerala, Tamilnadu has not only retained, but also improvised on their age old canal networks, by supplementing them with more efficient pipe systems with sprinkler and drip irrigation accessories. Grand Anicut and other dams and reservoirs on Kaveri, Vaigai and the associated irrigation networks are part of this centuries old Tamilnadu tradition.

Mullperiyar Dam was conceived and constructed in 1895 as an integral part of the Tamilnadu irrigation network that had evolved over several centuries. “It created a reservoir in a remote gorge of Periyar river situated 3,000 feet above the sea in dense and malarial jungle. From this reservoir, water flowed first through a deep cutting for about a mile and then through a tunnel, 5704 feet in length and later through another cutting on the other side of the watershed and into a natural ravine and so onto the Vaigai River which has been partly built up for a length of 86 miles, finally discharging 2000 cusecs of water for the arid rain shadow regions of Tamilnadu.” (ref. Wikipedia)

A large amount of manual labour was involved and worker mortality from malaria was high. It was claimed that had it not been for the medicinal effects of the native spirit called arrack, the dam might never have been finished. Close to 500 people died of diseases during the construction of this dam and were buried on-site in a cemetery just north of the dam. The dam construction involved the use of troops from the 1st and 4th battalions of the Madras Pioneers as well as Portuguese carpenters from Cochin, who were employed in the construction of the coffer-dams and other structures. A fairly large community of local people had struggled under the determined leadership of a British army officer for nine long years, to complete the dam and its associated structures.

The greatest challenge was the diversion of the river so that lower portions of the big dam ( 221,000 Cubic Meter) could be built. Temporary embankments and coffer-dams used to restrain the river waters were regularly swept away by floods and rains. Due to coffer dam failures, the British even stopped funding the project. Major Pennycuick, the British Officer in charge of the dam, raised funds by selling his wife’s jewelry to continue the work. In Madurai, his statue has been installed at the state PWD office and his photographs are found adorning walls in people’s homes and shops. In 2002, his great grandson was honored in Madurai, a function that was attended by thousands of people. According to the Wikipedia, the Periyar project, as it was then known, was widely considered well into the 20th Century as “one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering ever performed by man”. Even the present generations in the region have an emotional attachment to this century old structure.

Mullaperiyar Dam (MPD) is the only dam situated in one Indian state but owned and operated by another, for irrigating its farmlands. But, it has brought in economic benefits to Tamilnadu as well as Kerala, a fact often neglected or even suppressed by the Kerala side in the ongoing emotion charged debate. Apart from irrigating some 200,000 acres of Tamilnadu farmlands, MPD has brought to life the numerous tourism ventures of Thekkady, and also the world famous wildlife sanctuary around its reservoir, now forming part of the much larger National Park under the care of Central Government.

Economic gains of Kerala from these byproducts of MPD are commensurate with those of Tamilnadu, from irrigation and power generation on the other side of Sahyas. The wild life sanctuary is home for 62 different kinds of mammals, including several endangered species like the Silent Valley fame, the lion-tailed macaque. And, according to Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), the 700 square kilometer of national park surrounding is a biodiversity hot-spot, attracting over a lakh of tourists and thousands of academics and foreign research workers every year.

It is a win-win situation for Kerala as well as Tamilnadu, and then the country as a whole: MPD and the surrounding forest areas need to be seen as a major national asset and not a simple instrument for irrigating a few lakh acres of farmland. But, vested interests have developed around this valuable water-body thanks to the prolonged low water levels maintained, ever since the court order of 1979. Submerged area under the reservoir was 8591 acres when the water level used to touch the design value of 155 feet.

With water level getting restricted to 136 feet, the submerged area has nearly halved, releasing around 4000 acres of dry land. Dr. D. Ghosh, an environmental expert appointed by GOK, had reported in 2007: “… at least six conglomerations with human settlements had come up in areas that were under water, prior to 1979. Public institutions and commercial establishments have also grown. Raising of water level (once again) would mean displacement of large number of families along with their economic activities.”

These illegal occupiers of reservoir land have a vested interest against water level going up once again. They had, naturally, sought protection from GOK and formed a Mullaperiyar Samara Samithy with religious leaders as patrons. This forum had started a relay hunger strike at the dam site, five years ago in December 2006, soon after the Supreme Court judgment. This hunger strike continues even today with the blessings of GOK and ministers and other political leaders, who frequently visit them.

This forum was running a chauvinistic campaign against Tamils for the past five years, with all sorts of horror stories planted in the internet to start with, and then spreading them through campaigns through the print and visual media. They have succeeded in creating a fear psychosis among the people living in the neighborhood and downstream of MPD. Water level of MPD, like in all other dams of the region, reaches its annual peak during first half of November. Agitation at MPD site as well as media campaigns were intensified during this period, which also witnessed the release of a Hollywood horror film, with the controversial title of Dam-999.

Neither the media nor the political leaders, in and outside of Kerala Government, who organized and supported this systematic campaign, with chauvinistic overtones, had found no merit in seeking genuine professional opinions. Services of half-experts and academic institutions were hired for getting doctored views, for confusing the public and for spreading horror stories on dam bursts. Genuine professional opinions were never sought or encouraged. Minister KM Mani himself has stated that, GOK does not require any expert advice on the need for building a new dam.

This columnist, who had pleaded for Kerala accepting with grace, the Supreme Court verdict of 2006 on its merit, was considered an untouchable in media debates. Even the views of a reputed senior Malayalee engineer like Dr. Thomas, the former Chairman of Central Water Commission who had studied MPD in every detail, under instructions from Supreme Court, were not sought by Kerala media and politicians. Only the Kochi edition of Deccan Chronicle had showed the courage to publish his expert opinions, along with those of the spokesperson of GOK. This sort of chauvinistic intolerance against truth finally bombed out, with GOK and its Advocate General disowning each other in the Kerala High Court.

The prolonged low level operations of MPD had its obvious impact on the irrigation canal network and farmlands of Tamilnadu as well. They had estimated a farm income loss of Rs. 40,000 Crore for the period 1980-2005. This may be a lot exaggerated but, there is no denying that, pegging the reservoir level at 136 feet has virtually transformed MPD into a diversion dam from its designed status as a storage dam. Live storage of MPD at 136 feet was only around three million cubic meters according to CWC statistics. This is only small fraction of the net storage possible at the reservoir level of 155 feet.

The forced operation as a diversion dam, for long periods, had drastically changed and distorted the distribution pattern through the canal grid. Ground water storage and consumption in the upper ayacuts, as in Theni district, had increased substantially, at the cost the ayacuts at the outreach districts like Ramanathapuram or Thirunelveli, where farmlands where sold out at distress prices, during the eighties, following the Supreme Court verdict of 1979. Kerala investors made use of this grand opportunity by launching all sorts of plantation projects and innovative farms in these areas; many of them were, as turned out later, were nothing but speculative misadventures.

It is for the future historians to attempt a detailed mapping of the social and economic impacts of the past three decades of Supreme Court intervention on MPD operations. However, the main contours of this transformation are clear from emotion charged war-like situation that has emerged. On one side, is a large number of poor peasants fighting for their livelihood, and supported by almost all political parties of Tamilnadu. On the other side, is the emotionally charged people, living close to MPD, who keep asking the question: Why should they risk a water-bomb for irrigating the farmlands of Tamils? Vested interests, which have a big stake in the continued low level operation of MPD had played a crucial role in building up this fear psychosis, and they were inadvertently supported by diverse streams of opportunist politics within Kerala.

Let me conclude this by quoting from my column published exactly four years ago: “May be the century old dam could be there, for all centuries to come, like the great wall of China, as a living memory of Tamil-Malayalee friendship and cooperation, and serving the people of the region on both sides of the mountain divide…..We are sure to find surprisingly pleasant solutions, if we are prepared to pool the expertise of our great country, and seek the best of technological and aesthetic solutions under the sun, not only for ascertaining and ensuring the safety of the dam, but also for ensuring enough water for our farmers on the other side of the divide. Let us stop petty politicking, seek broader solutions outside the narrow legal framework, and start asking some of the more basic questions: How much water for the farmers and when? And, who is afraid of raising the water level and why?”

(written on 28-12-2011)