Fallout of fear

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

Fringe elements get a free rein in the border areas near the Mullaperiyar dam.

in Thiruvananthapuram

BELLIGERENCE and one-upmanship over a sensitive problem affecting millions of people is an assured way to invite trouble, which then shifts the focus from core issues of public concern, as some parties of the ruling coalition in Kerala demonstrated in early December.

A series of mild tremors and heavy rain in Idukki district from mid-November had given rise to widespread fears in the State about a possible failure of the 116-year-old Mullaperiyar dam. It also generated much anxiety in Kerala about the forthcoming case in the Supreme Court, in which Tamil Nadu had been maintaining that the reinforced dam was fully safe and that the reservoir storage level should in fact be raised from 136 feet (41.45 metres) to 142 ft (43 m) so that more water would be available for irrigation (and power generation) in five of its southern districts.

All it took for wild rumours to spread were an initial attempt by a regional party, the Kerala Congress (M), to stir up passions over the issue, and, in turn, by other mainstream parties in Kerala, including the Congress, to consolidate public opinion around it; and a few stray instances of provocation by their regional cadre, such as stone-throwing and attempts to march into structures regulating water flow from the reservoir to Tamil Nadu.

There were reports that people from Tamil Nadu, including hundreds of Sabarimala pilgrims, were being targeted in Kerala and that Tamil labourers were being forced to flee plantations in Idukki district and women among them were ill-treated. Such reports though immediately denied by the Kerala government along with unprecedented demonstrations in Kerala, including silent marches, hunger strikes, hartals and human walls' expressing alarm at the state of the dam and demanding that the storage level be reduced to 120 ft, invariably proved to be a potent mix for rousing passions in Tamil Nadu too.

The result: across the border, the concerns regarding the dam, as leaders in Kerala sought to explain them, were brushed aside as mere propaganda, and statements made by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, scotching provocative rumours, were treated with incredulity.

For several days from December 6, prohibitory orders were imposed at the border towns of Kumily and Kambamettu, following stone-throwing and provocative posturing by groups of people on the two sides of the inter-State check post and nearby areas. Several groups of people under the banner of various Tamil organisations were prevented from marching up to the Kerala border by the Tamil Nadu Police, also adding to the tension.

A grave situation ensued, with fringe elements getting a free rein in the border areas near the dam, where rumours had spread that Kerala's proposal for a new dam was but part of a strategy to deny water to Tamil Nadu. (Heightened tensions and related stories, Frontline, December 30.)

With mainstream parties in Tamil Nadu also unable to keep away from such a sensitive and passionate regional issue with livelihood implications for farmers, it was easy for fringe groups to create trouble by indulging in retaliatory attacks against farms, shops, hotels and other business establishments and vehicles owned by people from Kerala and blocking the movement of goods and vegetables into Kerala. Normal life was disrupted for days in the border areas in Idukki, especially after unidentified groups of people initially sought to cross over to Kerala through forest routes, and isolated attacks against residents and subsequent combined action by police forces of the two States were reported.

Hartals, human walls and other demonstrations demanding that the water level at Mullaperiyar dam should in fact be raised to 142 ft as per an earlier Supreme Court order were organised in Tamil Nadu. And, in the wake of some MPs from Tamil Nadu meeting the Prime Minister with a demand for merging Kerala's Idukki district with Tamil Nadu, a group of nearly 150 people, reportedly of Tamil origin, took out a march at Munnar town in the district, raising slogans supporting the claim. The event served to rekindle interest in repeated police and intelligence reports about the activities of cadre of terrorist/extremist groups among the Tamil population in Idukki district and their potential for stoking chauvinistic fervour using such controversies as a pretext.

People's plight

Ultimately, ordinary people of the two States who had been living in symbiotic harmony suffered. In the first fortnight since the troubles began, there had been reports of extensive damage to vehicles and property in Tamil Nadu, a drastic fall in tourist arrivals in both the States, loss of revenue of several crores of rupees from tea and cardamom estates in Idukki that experienced a severe shortage of daily labourers from Tamil Nadu, loss of wages because of lack of work, blockade of goods and vegetables moving into Kerala, and consequent losses to farmers and traders in Tamil Nadu. Interestingly, a large number of such plantations in Idukki are owned by natives of Tamil Nadu. There are reports that many such owners have abstained from coming across to Kerala.

Movement of vehicles across the check post at Walayar in Palakkad district to Tirupur, Coimbatore and Erode and beyond in Tamil Nadu, too, was disrupted on several occasions after incidents of stone-throwing, damage to transport buses and road blockades. State transport buses plied only up to certain points near the border from where passengers (including students from Kerala studying in a string of self-financing institutions in Tamil Nadu) had to walk across to the other side to continue their journey.

However, but for isolated incidents near the border areas, other parts of Kerala remained peaceful throughout, with free movement of pilgrims, tourists, vehicles and goods from Tamil Nadu, and no incident of attack or intimidation being reported from anywhere else. Fortunately, better sense prevailed and before rumour mongering and retaliation based on perceived threats could lead to counter attacks in Kerala, political parties decided to tone down or suspend their agitations. An appeal made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to an all-party delegation from the State that met him in New Delhi also helped.

In a letter written to his counterpart in Tamil Nadu J. Jayalalithaa on December 18, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, whose restrained statements proved to be a big help in defusing the initial tense atmosphere in Kerala, said: There are highly disturbing news about several instances of attacks on Keralites in Tamil Nadu.... Instances of vandalism and attacks have also been reported. In Kerala we have taken every possible step to ensure that no person from Tamil Nadu is attacked. Police presence at Kumily and other sensitive areas have been strengthened. However, there is a widespread misinformation campaign which needs to be addressed immediately. A report about Tamil labourers fleeing Kerala and a camp being opened for them in Theni is one such case of misinformation. Tamil labourers work in Kerala in large numbers, particularly in the plantation sector, and their contribution to Kerala's economy is valuable. Other stories like women labourers being molested are also being falsely circulated to inflame passion among the people of Tamil Nadu. Labourers and women from Tamil Nadu are safe in Kerala and we shall ensure their protection.

Seeking Jayalalithaa's intervention in providing a sense of protection and confidence to the people of both the States, and expressing his willingness to issue a joint statement with her in this regard, Chandy further said: You will share with me the concern and consequences of such misleading campaigns. The sense of insecurity that false information could spread needs to be curbed urgently. Certain sections of the media in Tamil Nadu are whipping up passions by repeatedly projecting totally irrelevant and misleading images. I request you to kindly intervene and take possible corrective action to prevent the propagation of such calculated misinformation.

In an appeal titled Water for Tamil Nadu and Safety for Kerala, published in several newspapers in Tamil Nadu on the same day, Chandy also sought to dispel the allegation that his State was trying to deny water to Tamil Nadu. Among other things, he said in the appeal: Mullaperiyar Dam and its safety is a cause of concern for Kerala. It is also the source of water to five districts of Tamil Nadu. The Kerala Legislative Assembly in its Resolution on 9th December, 2011, has unanimously resolved that Tamil Nadu will continue to receive the same quantity of water from the new Dam as it receives today. Kerala has always reiterated the stand that we are committed to provide water from Mullaperiyar to Tamil Nadu. This stand has been unambiguously conveyed to the Honob'le Supreme Court, The Honb'le Empowered Committee (of the Supreme Court), Government of Tamil Nadu and Government of India. There need not be any apprehension about our intention. A new Dam is the only solution by which continued supply of water to Tamil Nadu can be ensured and the safety concerns of Kerala could be addressed. It is a solution where both sides win. It ensures water for Tamil Nadu and safety for Kerala.

Nearly a week earlier, full-page advertisements were published in major newspapers in Kerala, by the AIADMK government as an appeal to the people of Kerala by Jayalalithaa, and by the opposition DMK as a resolution, which, it said, was provoked by the unjustifiable efforts of Kerala government to reduce water level and construct a new dam and actions of workers of political parties and certain anti-social elements of Kerala who have been indulging in violence for the last few days, attacking vehicles going from Tamil Nadu.

In her appeal, explaining Tamil Nadu's arguments, especially on the concerns about the dam's safety, Jayalalithaa said: There is no valid reason to believe that the Mullai Periyar Dam is unsafe. It is unfortunate that a fear psychosis among the people of Kerala is being built up. As the Mullai Periyar Dam is fully safe and as good as new, the people of Kerala should see through the machinations of vested interests and should feel secure that the retrofitted Mullai Periyar Dam is as good as new and therefore not a threat to the lives and properties of the people of the region. I appeal to the People of Kerala not to succumb to any divisive forces in the interest of both the States as we are both committed to maintaining and cherishing cordial relations.

Newspaper campaigns

Such newspaper campaigns too were a novel facet of the water dispute between the two States, which the media promptly termed as an ad war. But, all through, it was clear that the real war was being fought not in the streets or the newspapers, but in the Supreme Court, with the five-member Empowered Committee appointed by the court expected to submit its report only by February 2012. The committee headed by the former Chief Justice of India, A.S. Anand, was appointed by the court in February 2010 to study all issues relating to the Mullaperiyar dam, including technical details and claims raised by the two States about its safety and safe storage level.

Even though Kerala was pressing for a meeting of the two States to be convened by the Centre to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement in the context of earthquakes posing an immediate threat to the dam, Tamil Nadu refused to agree to a discussion on the issue with Kerala. During a series of hearings before the Supreme Court it stuck to its stand that a discussion was possible only after the Empowered Committee submitted its report.

The technical members of the committee, C.D. Thatte, former Secretary to the Ministry of Water Sources, and D.K. Mehta, a retired Chief Engineer of the Central Water Commission, were scheduled to start their inspection of the Mullaperiyar and Idukki dams on December 22, even though Kerala had requested that all the five members of the committee be involved in the inspection process.

Kerala had also filed an application before the Empowered Committee seeking a direction to the Tamil Nadu government to lower the storage level from 136 ft to 120 ft as it had become absolutely necessary in the wake of over 26 tremors in the vicinity of the dam and heavy rains in the catchment areas that saw the water level rising beyond 136 ft a demand which was, no doubt, challenged by Tamil Nadu.

(Tamil Nadu had been insisting that there were only four tremors in the region this year. Scientists at the Centre for Earth Science Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, however, told Frontline that all the 26 low-intensity tremors recorded in and around Idukki would not have been recorded by instruments located elsewhere.)

The technical members are expected to submit their report to the Empowered Committee chairman on December 26 and the five-member committee is to start hearing arguments of the two States in January.

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