The Weekend Leader - Wild plans

Politicians encouraged illegal occupation of land, now encroachers want more

Sam Rajappa


Vol 2 | Issue 51

Tourism flourishes in Kerala, also known as God’s Own Country. Nature has endowed it richly with beautiful hills and dales, swift-flowing rivers that empty into the Arabian Sea, a string of lakes interconnected by backwaters and canals, abundant wild life and vast stretches of sandy beaches.

The tourism industry has already exploited fully the beach resort potential. House boats glide up and down the backwaters, carrying hordes of tourists from far and near.

Angry crowds in Tamil Nadu are demanding that Kerala drop its plan to decommission Mullaiperiyar dam (Photos: Nakkheeran)

Kerala entrepreneurs flush with petro-dollars earned in the Arabian Gulf countries have turned their attention to exploiting wildlife tourism. 

They had a foretaste of this potential when the waters of the Mullaiperiyar receded from 3,913 acres following lowering of its storage level from 152 ft to 136 ft to undertake renewal of the dam in 1979.

Though this land belonged to Tamil Nadu, Kerala politicians encouraged its illegal occupation by entrepreneurs and setting up of wild life tourist resorts and other enterprises. What better place than Thekkady with its wildlife sanctuary and the Periyar tiger reserve to set up wildlife resorts of international standards?

The only fly in the ointment is the remaining 4,678-acre water-spread of the Mullaiperiyar reservoir, owned and operated by the Tamil Nadu government on a 999-year Lease Deed entered into with the former Travancore Maharaja in 1886 to provide drinking and irrigation water to the drought-prone districts of Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapurm in the rain-shadow region of Tamil Nadu, east of the Western Ghats.

The only way to gain possession of this priceless piece of real-estate is to decommission the 116-year-old Mullaiperiyar dam, designed and built by Major John Pennycuick, partly with his own funds.

Even before the Gulf Malayalees cast their covetous eyes on Thekkady to develop wildlife and adventure resorts, Kerala politicians have been plotting ways and means of taking over the Mullaiperiyar dam.

Soon after independence when it was just Travancore-Cochin State, an attempt was made to declare the Lease Deed null and void. But the Constitution did not permit it. In 1970, long after the composite Kerala State was formed by annexing the entire Malabar region of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, Chief Minister C Achutha Menon approached the Tamil Nadu government for improving the terms of the 1885 lease agreement.

Tamil Nadu readily agreed. On 29 May, 1970, two supplementary agreements were entered into between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. One was to increase the annual lease rent from Rs.5 to Rs.30 per acre with a proviso to revise it every 30 years.

The second was to allow Tamil Nadu to generate hydroelectric power using Mullaiperiyar waters on payment of charges to Kerala based on quantum of electricity generated. Tamil Nadu also surrendered its fishing rights in the Mullaiperiyar reservoir to Kerala. Safety of the dam had never been an issue till then.

The Kerala government, after completing the 71-tmcft capacity Idukki dam in 1976 to generate 800 MW hydroelectric power found the dam was not getting filled as expected for two consecutive years during north-west monsoon or the south-east monsoon. It was after that Kerala raked up the safety issue of Mullaiperiyar for the first time in 1978.

‘Manufactured news’ was supplied to the media that age had withered the dam and that it was on the verge of collapsing and the resultant floods would drown 35 lakh people living in Idukki, Kottayam, Allapuzha and Ernakulam districts.

If only the Kerala journalists and newspaper editors relied on their common sense, they would have found out the government’s game plan, as it was common knowledge the entire waters of the 15 tmcft.-capacity Mullaiperiyar reservoir would flow into the mammoth Idukki reservoir, 45 km. downstream, which was not even half full.

The few townships in this sparsely populated, forested stretch between the two dams like Kumili, Elapara and the like are all located in higher altitudes than the Mullaiperiyar reservoir located at an altitude of 2,790 feet.

The two small villages on the banks of the Periyar, Chapath with 580 houses and Upputhura having 420 houses, are protected by 16 ft high retention walls. The possible drowning of 35 lakh people is nothing but a figment of imagination.

Nevertheless, the Tamil Nadu government agreed to Kerala’s request to lower the storage level of the Mullaiperiyar dam from 152 ft to 136 ft, thereby reducing the storage capacity from 15 tmcft to 10 tmcft, pending certain renovation works recommended by the Central Water Commission and on the clear understanding the storage level will be restored to its original height after the work was completed.

Kerala refused to honour its commitment. What is worse, the reclaimed land, part of the 8,591-acre water-spread under the 1886 Lease Deed, has been put to construction activities.

The Kerala assembly on 9 December passed a unanimous resolution to construct a new dam about half a kilometer down the Mullaiperiyar dam and to lower the storage level further from 136 ft to 120 ft. It is nothing but a strategy to retake the leased land piecemeal.

If the demand is conceded, Mullaiperiyar waters will recede from another 3,000-odd acres and the reclaimed land can be parcelled among wildlife tourism promoters waiting in the wings.

A Kerala government document on the new dam says: “There is a limit to the number of years one can keep dams in service through maintenance and strengthening measures. In the case of the Mullaiperiyar dam, it has to be there for another 884 years for diverting water to Tamil Nadu as per the Lease Deed. This is an impossible proposition. All over the world, safety of dams is being reviewed as per modern standards and hundreds of dams have already been dismantled considering the safety aspects of human life and property.”

Age is not the determinant factor on the safety of a dam. It is the maintenance. Kallanai (Grand Anicut) built across the Cauvery near the temple town of Srirangam in Tiruchirapali district, built by Karikala Cholan more than 1,900 years ago, is still in service, irrigating the entire delta region, considered the granary of Tamil Nadu.
Pennycuick chose the same materials the Chola Emperor used in Kallanai to construct the Mullaiperiyar dam. India has about 40 dams as old as, some even older than, the Mullaiperiyar dam, which are still functional.

The dams across the mighty Godavari and the Krishna, built by Arthur Cotton, another Britisher employed by the colonial rulers, are much older than the Mullaiperiyar dam but are still functional. The people of coastal Andhra, unlike their Kerala counterparts, are not living in constant fear of death by drowning.

The Mullaiperiyar issue threatens to spiral out of control in both States with Kerala politicians continuing to play on the fears of people that the dam will break  

The fear psychosis that has gripped the people of Idukki, Kottayam, Allapuzha and Ernakulam districts is the direct result of media management by the political class in Kerala which is very good at double think.

Even when the politicians know what they are saying is not true, they manage to believe it while they are saying it. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, has taught that a lie repeated over and over again will be accepted as true by the lumpen masses.

In Kerala, even the educated class has swallowed the propaganda hook, line and sinker. That the Mullaiperiyar dam is unsafe is a lie.

Repeated consistently since 1978, by the print media first, followed by the electronic media with graphics and gruesome simulated drowning scenes, and lastly by a feature film, have made the people of Kerala, particularly in the four districts mentioned earlier, live in constant fear of watery graves.

The Mullaiperiyar dam has been constantly strengthened by engineers of Tamil Nadu Public Works Department beginning 1930 when 80 holes were bored and 40 tonnes of cement solution injected to plug seepage. Complete grouting was done in 1933.

After the 1978 scare created by the spread of ‘manufactured news,’ a thick RCC capping structure was provided along the entire length of the dam which added 12,000tonnes weight to withstand pressure of water and tremors.

Using modern state-of-the-art technology, an elaborate retrofitting of the dam was carried by the Tamil Nadu government between 1980 and 1994.

For all practical purposes, Mullaiperiyar today is a 17-year-old dam, still in its teens and not a doddering 116-year-old dam, and the people of Kerala can rest assured that nothing untoward is likely to befall them.

Sam Rajappa is Consulting Editor of THE WEEKEND LEADER

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