Deep distrust

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

In Tamil Nadu, protests and rallies mark people's opposition to the Kerala government's stand on the Mullaperiyar dam.

in Theni & Madurai

KUDIRAI PANCHA PARAI is a craggy hill on the Tamil Nadu side of the border with Kerala. At a distance is the narrow bed of a dry stream, lined with scrub jungles on both sides, and barren landscape thereafter. Driving along it from Thevaram village in Theni district, one could see a group of people carefully climbing down the hill ranges of the Western Ghats on December 15. One of them was Kasammal, a physically challenged woman in her thirties. She used a stick to support her weight and was helped by her mother, Chinnathai, to negotiate the downhill slope. We left Udumbancholai in Kerala around 11 a.m. We crossed two hills and thick jungles and walked for more than four hours to reach this place, said Kasammal. At Kudirai Pancha Parai, Sub-Inspector P. Sounderarajan and his men from Thevaram police station waited to receive them and drive them to the village, 6 km away.

Kasammal and family were among the group of 23 Tamils, including 11 women, working in a cardamom estate in Udumbancholai in Idukki district of Kerala and fleeing their homes there after violence broke out over the Mullaperiyar dam dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Vehicular movement across the border on either side through Kumily had been blocked for more than 10 days, and they had to trek 16 km to reach Tamil Nadu.

All of us belong to the Kamakshi Vilasam estate, said Mayakka, an elderly woman. Although we were safe within the estate, which is 2 km from Udumbancholai town, Tamils were being attacked in the neighbouring area. Buses are not plying between the two States. So we walked for four hours to reach this place, she said.

There have been spontaneous rallies in several towns in Theni district to protest against the Kerala government's stand on the safety of the Mullaperiyar dam ever since the stand-off between Tamil Nadu and Kerala over the dam erupted again this November. The Mullaperiyar dam, fed by the Periyar river, is situated in Kerala, and its waters irrigate the five districts of Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu. Using the dam's waters that flow through a main canal and 18 sub-canals into Tamil Nadu, farmers in the five districts cultivate paddy, sugarcane, banana, grapes, coconut, vegetables, a variety of pulses and cotton. The dam also supplies drinking water to people in these districts.

Rallies held every day in Theni, Upparpatti, Chinnamanur, Uthamapalayam, Cumbum, Thevaram, Kombai, Gudalur, Lower Camp, Bodinaickanur, all situated in Theni district, were attended by 20,000 to 80,000 people. Their demands were that the Kerala government should give up its proposal to build a new dam downstream and demolish the Mullaperiyar dam; the Centre should deploy the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel to provide security to the dam; Kerala should allow the Tamil Nadu government to raise the water level in the dam from the current 136 feet (41.45 metres) to 142 feet (43 m) according to the Supreme Court's ruling on February 27, 2006; the Centre should attach the Peerumedu taluk in Kerala, where the dam is situated, and the nearby Devikulam taluk to Tamil Nadu; and that the State government should impose an economic embargo on Kerala.

The Tamil Nadu police lathi-charged the rallyists on December 12 and 13 near the Lower Camp area to prevent them from storming Kerala territory as prohibitory orders were in force on the Kerala side.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu organised protests against the Kerala government's stand. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) organised a human chain on December 14 at Theni. Its leader and former Deputy Chief Minister M.K. Stalin wanted the Centre to intervene in the Mullaperiyar issue without being lethargic as it was, according to him, on other issues. At a demonstration in the town the same day, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam founder Vijayakant demanded that the Centre take control of the dam and hand it over to the Army for protection. He warned that the Centre's silence will ultimately ruin the country's integrity.

On December 15, Congress workers led by J.M. Haroon, Lok Sabha member representing the Theni constituency, took out a rally in Theni town. On December 16, D. Pandian, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the party's cadre went on a day-long fast in Theni. The same day, defying prohibitory orders, volunteers of the Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi (Dalit Panthers) led by Thol. Thirumavalavan took out a rally in Theni town. An estimated 50,000 people took out a three-kilometre rally, from Nandagopala Swamy temple to the General Hospital, in Cumbum town. About 20,000 people organised another rally from Kombai to Lower Camp.

On December 21, responding to a call given by Vaiko, general secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), for an economic blockade of Kerala by sealing 13 roads that led to Kerala from Tamil Nadu in Theni, Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts, thousands of people gathered in Cumbum and Gudalur. As the crowd tried to march towards Kumily and violence erupted, the police fired tear-gas canisters and used lathis to disperse them.

MDMK cadre blocked traffic in Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts at the entry points to Kerala. Lorries, trucks and autorickshaws kept off the roads, and lawyers struck work in many towns. On December 22, all business and trade establishments in the five districts remained closed. Vaiko said the Kerala government should realise that the agitation had transformed into a people's movement.

Meanwhile, on December 20, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking him to withdraw an office memorandum of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) led by him, dated December 12, setting up a team of experts to prepare a contingency response plan for the Mullaperiyar dam in case of earthquakes and floods. This amounted to succumbing to the subterfuge of the Kerala government and presenting a fait accompli to the Supreme Court and the Empowered Committee set up by it to go into the dam's safety, she said. In February 2006, the Supreme Court, after considering the reports of various experts, had said that the dam was safe and permitted the Tamil Nadu government to initially raise the dam's water level to 142 feet.

Livelihood concerns

Mullaperiyar dam is our lifeline and we will not allow Kerala to demolish it has become the refrain of the people in the five districts. It is a do-or-die battle for us, said M. Bojarajan, a landowner from Upparpatti Vilakku village, who was taking part in a day-long fast organised by its residents on December 15 on the Theni-Uthamapalayam highway. People including wealthy landlords, mill workers, women farm workers and schoolchildren attended the fast. Bojarajan added: The Periyar river is jeevaadharam [what sustains life] of the people of Theni, Dindi, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts. The Kerala government is playing with the livelihood of the people of these districts.

B. Thilagar, an elderly landowner, said they would fight till the last for justice. It is a question of existence for us, he said. P. Rajathi, president of the Upparpatti village panchayat, wanted the Kerala government to implement the Supreme Court's order to raise the water level in the Mullaperiyar dam.

S. Mariappan, superviser of Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) at Cumbum, asserted, We will not give up our fight till we get a favourable ruling in the Mullaperiyar issue. We cannot exist without water.

N. Murugan, who owns a tailoring shop in Cumbum, said all the shops in the town were closed from December 2 to December 16. This is Christmas season and business has been affected. There are 50 units in the Cumbum region making readymade clothes, which are sold in Kottayam and Ernakulam [where a lot of Christians live]. They are closed, he said.

S. Ramamurthy is a farmer who owns coconut and banana groves at Kottur between Veeravandi and Theni. Without the Mullaperiyar dam, nobody can subsist here, he said.

If Theni presents a picture of lush green fields, it is in full measure due to the water from the dam and the incessant hard work of the people of the district. People here virtually worship Major John Pennycuick of the Madras Regiment, who sold his property in England to build the Mullaperiyar dam in 1895, which changed their lives for the better. In the main street of the Cumbum town is Velavan Iddli Shop, whose proprietor K. Paramasivam has got a portrait of Pennycuick painted on the name board. Inside, there is a hoarding with the picture of the Mullaperiyar dam and a portrait of Pennycuick. There are several Pennycuick Nagars and Pennycuick Colonies in the district. Infants are named Pennycuick in the region.

Arguments, counter-arguments

At the heart of the current conflict between Tamil Nadu and Kerala is the safety of the Mullaperiyar dam. The Kerala government says that the Mullaperiyar dam is weak and will collapse if a powerful temblor rocks Idukki district, but the Tamil Nadu government argues that the dam is strong. In support of its contention, Tamil Nadu cites the Supreme Court ruling of February 2006 that there is no report to suggest that the safety of the dam would be jeopardised if the water level is raised for the present to 142 feet. The report is to the contrary.

Kerala says it will provide the same quantity of water to Tamil Nadu as now from the new dam it proposes to build downstream of the existing one. But Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa has dismissed Kerala's offer of water from the new dam as an act of deception. She told the State Assembly on December 15 that the Kerala government, in its detailed project report (DPR) on the new dam, had said that its full reservoir level (FRL) was 136 feet and that 1.1 tmc ft of water would be used as ecological flows. So the claim that the Mullaperiyar dam has become weak is only a step aimed at not providing water to Tamil Nadu, she said.

The Assembly unanimously passed a resolution on December 15 asking the Kerala government to amend the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006, to enable the water level in the dam to be raised to 142 feet. (The Act prohibited raising the water level in the Mullaperiyar dam beyond 136 feet by placing it in the Schedule of Endangered Dams.) The resolution, moved by the Chief Minister, wanted the Kerala government not to create hurdles for Tamil Nadu for doing the remaining strengthening measures of the dam to eventually raise its water level to 152 feet (FRL).

Jayalalithaa said there was a suspicion that the Kerala government was doing a mischievous propaganda about the dam's safety for generating electricity from the Idukki dam, situated 50 km downstream of the Mullaperiyar dam. About 780 MWe was to be generated from the Idukki hydel reservoir. It could not be done because the reservoir did not get enough water. If there is no Mullaperiyar dam, the entire water will reach Idukki, she said.

Be it farmers' association leaders, retired Tamil Nadu PWD chief engineers, small peasants or businessmen, nobody believes that Kerala will provide water to Tamil Nadu from the new dam. K.M. Abbas, former president of the Periyar-Vaigai Farmers' Association, said that not a drop of water will flow to Tamil Nadu from the new dam that Kerala proposes to build. The total height of the Mullaperiyar dam is 155 feet (47.24m) and it is situated 2,889 feet (880.57 m) above mean sea level, he said. Its dead storage is 104 feet (31.7 m).

The tunnel, which brings water to Tamil Nadu, is situated at a height of 104 feet. If the water level goes below that, water will not flow to Tamil Nadu. But the proposed dam's FRL is 136 feet and it will come up at 2,229 feet (679.4 m) above MSL. The new dam will be built 336 metres below the centre of the existing dam. So the new dam's dead storage will be around 120 to 126 feet and there will be no room for a drop of water to flow from there to Tamil Nadu, argued 77-year-old Abbas, who has been fighting Tamil Nadu's cause for the past 30 years in the Mullaperiyar issue.

He pointed to the Supreme Court's observation in its ruling on February 27, 2006, which says, It is the case of State of Kerala that despite the copious rain', the Idukki reservoir is not filled to its capacity [and] while the capacity of the reservoir is 70.500 tmc, it was filled only to the extent of 57.365 tmc. So the water from the new dam will flow only to the Idukki reservoir for electricity generation and not to Tamil Nadu, Abbas asserted.

According to him, water from the Mullaperiyar dam catered for the cultivation of a variety of crops on more than 13 lakh acres and not an ayacut of 2.20 lakh acres as claimed by the Tamil Nadu government. Paddy alone was raised on 2.20 lakh acres twice a year, he said. Besides, sugarcane, banana, coconut, vegetables and pulses were grown in several lakhs of acres.

Abbas refuted the Kerala government's claim that 35 lakh people in the five districts of Idukki, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta would be affected if the dam were to burst. Other than Idukki, the other four districts have nothing to do with the Mullaperiyar dam, he said.

The villages or towns that lay between the Mullaperiyar dam and the Idukki reservoir are Pulmedu, Vallakadavu, Vandiperiyar, Sengarai, Thengaikal, Upputhurai, Chappathu, Marykulam and Idukki. Of these, only Upputhurai and Chappathu settlements, with about 450 dwellings, would be affected if the dam were to burst, he said. Besides, Kerala's Advocate-General had gone on record before the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court that in case of any eventuality, the Idukki reservoir and the Kulamavu and Cheruthoni dams would receive the waters from the Mullaperiyar dam, Abbas pointed out.

M. Puthisigamani, president of the Periyar-Vaigai Water Users' Association, Madurai, also argued that since the new dam's FRL would be only 136 feet, Tamil Nadu will not definitely receive any water. On the suggestions of the Central Water Commission (CWC) in 1979, Tamil Nadu had strengthened the dam, using modern technology, at a cost of more than Rs.26 crore. All the strengthening measures were done from 1980 to 1994. So it is a young dam of 17 years. It is not a 116-year-old dam, said Puthisigamani, who is also the joint secretary of the Consortium of Indian Farmers' Associations, Tamil Nadu.

Bojarajan said there was no need to build a new dam when the Mullaperiyar dam had been strengthened already and the CWC, a neutral party, had testified to the dam's safety and the Supreme Court had given a ruling that it was safe. Why does the Kerala government not understand all this? he asked. The Centre is keeping quiet on the issue. This is politics. They are playing with the livelihood of the people of five districts.

What infuriated people in Theni district was also reports of humiliation of Ayyappa devotees from Tamil Nadu and women workers from the State in cardamom estates in Kerala. More violence erupted in Kerala against Tamils there after the Supreme Court ruled on December 13 that there is nothing serious, grave or emergent about the safety of the Mullaperiyar dam, warranting our interference at this stage. A five-member Constitution Bench dismissed as not pressed Kerala's application for reducing the water level in the dam from the current 136 feet to 120 feet.

The Empowered Committee, headed by former Chief Justice of India A.S. Anand, was looking into various aspects of the dam's safety and no order was necessary at this stage, observed the Bench, comprising Justices D.K. Jain, R.M. Lodha, C.K. Prasad, Deepak Varma and Anil R. Dave. The Bench, however, said Kerala's apprehensions over the dam's safety could not be brushed aside since the water level in the dam had gone up beyond 136 feet on four days from November 26 to December 2 and there were earthquakes.

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