The two lane road from Dindigul district in Tamil Nadu to Kumily, the border town in Kerala, is around 140 kms long. In this stretch, I could notice a marked difference from the barren lands which characterised most parts of the highway from Chennai till Dindigul. Paddy fields were visible all around on both sides of this rather narrow road. Halfway through this road, we entered Theni district which shares its border with Kerala. The variety of crops increased even further. Vast sugarcane fields, corn fields, vineyards, banana plantations and a myriad other cereals and millets, many of which I failed to identify.
Some glimpses of the prosperous Theni district
The rain poured intermittently. A bike trip spanning 600 Km one way, when the meteorology department had already given a prediction of ‘heavy rains all over south India for the next 48 hours’ , slightly bordered on the insane. It did not help matters either that we were travelling in a bike that was meant for short city rides only. But, this did provide us with the luxury of stopping at each of those fields and see for ourselves what is being cultivated and where the water was coming from. Yes, the water, flowing out from a dilapidated 115-year-old dam situated in another state.
An agricultural family near Dindigul
Corn fields in Cumbum, Theni district
The story of Mullaperiyar dam is now familiar to everyone. Or, so we think. In my interactions with random people in Chennai, I realized that the massiveness of this issue is confined to the borders of Kerala. Most of them were unaware of even the basic facts or believed the Sun TV version of it. They do not know the fact that the engineer who built the dam way back in 1895 gave it a life span of 50 years. They do not know that it was built with surki and that currently it has a crack running through its full span. They also do not know that it is situated in a highly seismic zone and a quake above 6.0 in the Richter scale can bring this dam down. And, it is this realization that led two of us to travel down to the place, study the issue and spread the message. Let’s get back to the journey.
Cumbum and Gudalur are the last villages on the Tamil Nadu side. After this, the road starts winding up. The air gets misty. Kerala is situated on the other side of these hills. As we neared the Kerala border, we came across the penstock pipes of a hydro electric power generation plant at lower camp. This is the Periyar power plant, where Tamil Nadu generates electricity using the Mullaperiyar water. The original deed was signed in 1895 with the agreement to use the water for irrigation purpose alone. And, here we have a full fledged power plant. Tamil Nadu had tried to get permission from Kerala for the power plant in the late 40s. But when they saw that support was hard to come by, they started work on the power station in 1955 without waiting for the permission. According to the data presented in Sasidharan Mangathil’s book on Mullaperiyar, Tamil Nadu is now generating 100 crores worth of electricity from Mullaperiyar, whereas Kerala is paid just 7.75 lakhs.
By the time we reached the border, it was well past 12 noon. The border check post was still hidden in the mist. We got into the first shop at the border to ask for directions. There, few people were discussing three small quakes (measuring around 3 on the Richter scale each) that happened near the dam that morning. According to the Kerala Government, the Mullaperiyar area has experienced 22 earthquakes of around 3.0 in the richter scale since July this year. The Tamil Nadu Government has alleged that this is a gross exaggeration and claimed the number to be not more than two. But I could see from the ground that these reports of earthquakes were not fake. These are people who experienced it firsthand. The tension in the atmosphere was palpable.
Our first aim was to visit the dam, the success of which we never truly believed in. After long talks with forest officials and calling up some others, we realized that getting anywhere near the dam is impossible. And so, we set out to visit the protest venue in Chappath and to meet the locals living in the areas close to the dam. A board hung in front of the protest venue read ‘1801’. The Mullaperiyar samara samithi (Mullaperiyar protest council) began its protest movement for a new dam exactly 1801 days back. It is an apolitical movement started by the people in the border villages of Idukki. Prof C.P.Roy, the man who started this movement says, “We are ready to give more than enough water for Tamil Nadu. We are just begging for our lives. We want a new dam here.” This sentiment is shared by most of the people in these areas.
A local farmer stands in front of the Mullaperiyar protest venue in Chappath. The board reads '1801', the number of days since the protests started
One thing that surprised me was the number of Tamilians sitting at the protest venue demanding a new dam. Curious to know their take on the issue, I started talking to some of them and surprisingly they had harsh words to convey to Jayalalithaa and Vaiko. Majority of those living in Peerumedu, Devikulam, Munnar etc are Tamils. “Jayalalitha says she cares for the lives of Tamils. So what about Tamilians like me living downstream this dangerous dam? What about our Malayali brothers and sisters? ,” asks S. Daniel, a supervisor at a corn estate in chappath village, one of the places that will be affected first if the Mullaperiyar dam breaks. Daniel’s father Selvaraj was one of the lakhs of Tamilians who migrated from different parts of Tamil Nadu and settled in the border district of Idukki many decades back.
One of the Tamilians whom we interviewed. He has been living in Idukki for the past many decades. He has harsh words for Jayalalithaa and Vaiko (with English subtitles)
There are no hate speeches or violent slogans here, only a populace living under constant fear of a massive flood. From tea shops to Government offices, the subject of discussion is just the same. Mini, a medical shop owner here says, “My daughter finds it hard to sleep at night. Elders in our locality take turns to sleep at night. Everyone is living under the fear of being washed away in sleep.” Her daughter celebrated her 6th birthday by joining the relay fast at the protest venue in Chappath.
There have been allegations from various quarters that the media and politicians in Kerala are creating a mass hysteria with ulterior motives. But the people in these areas refute any such suggestions. “We have been living under constant fear since the 1970s. Our voices started going outside only recently,” says Shaji Joseph, one of the protestors. The fears have also led to small scale migrations. According to an employee in a tea plantation here, some of his former co-workers have left this place after selling off their meagre properties.
The Mullaperiyar protestors speak..about their protests, about the history of the issue. (No subtitles...Too lazy to add!)
The protestors talk about migration from the area and other issues
Contrasting with this hysteria is the nonchalance or rather the lack of awareness about the problems related to the dam, in the border districts of Tamil Nadu. Even those who are aware see this as Kerala’s trick to deny them access to water. When asked about Kerala Government’s written promise to give same amount of water from the new dam, Murugan, a farmer in Theni said-“It is hard to trust such assurances from politicians. Our lives depend on that water.” It is true. Without this water, they will all starve to death and it’s natural that they react in anger when there is a question on their livelihood. It is up to the activists and politicians on either side to come together and educate the masses on the true situation of the dam. And then arrive at a solution that will save the lives of Keralites and at the same time safeguarding the livelihood of the Tamilians.
The water level indicator at the Thekkady side of the Mullaperiyar reservoir
As aspiring journalists, we are told to be balanced in whatever we report, even if it involves your personal interests. But, after studying the facts in this case I can see only a lopsided balance, which is not because of the conflict of interest of being a Malayali myself, but because the realities of this case are so. Besides Mullaperiyar, Kerala is giving water to Tamil Nadu through many other dams like Siruvani, Neyyar, Parambikkulam etc. Even when the decibel levels rose on the Mullaperiyar issue, for not once did Kerala think of cutting off water from these dams.
Some voices from the streets of Chappath, Idukki district
According to the precautionary principle, in any given scenario when lives are stake any decision taken should be to save those lives. This should take precedence over all other factors. But even considering all these facts, the construction of new dam is not going to be an easy task (even if Tamil Nadu agrees to it) since the area is biodiversity hotspot consisting of the Periyar tiger reserve.
PS- The situation has grown worse in the two weeks since I made this visit. The border districts on both sides are simmering with angry protests. And, some sections of the media are trying to milk this situation by planting false stories like this, and some others (CNN IBN & NDTV) stoop down even further by spreading it without checking facts. The full page Ads in National newspapers by Jayalalithaa was severely criticised by Supreme Court yesterday. Both states were also asked to be restrained in their opinions related to the dam. Hope better sense prevails and both states reach a settlement for a new dam.