Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dam Business

Dr.Rajan Gurukkal, Vice Chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University recently stated that politics improves the intellectual level of a person. Well, after whipping up emotions and creating a near panic situation in the dispute with Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar Dam, the Kerala UDF leaders have called off their agitation. The Communists and BJP who have become practically their political partners are to continue the fight. The by-election to the Kerala Assembly from Piravom is around the corner and they are hoping to get a few more votes with this show. 

The Mullaperiyar Dam was built 116 years back at a height of about 3000 feet above sea level by the British in what is now the Idukki District of Kerala. The purpose was to supply water to the barren districts of Tamil Nadu adjoining the Western Ghats. This is done through watershed cutting and tunnels and pipes. Subsequently, power generation from the diverted water was also taken up.

Actually it was one man’s dedication that made the dam a reality – Major John Pennycuick whom the Madras Presidency Governor had put in charge of the project. But after two coffer dam failures the government withdrew financial support to the plan.

Pennycuick did not give up though. It is said that he sold his estate in England and his wife’s jewellery to fund the construction of the dam. One product that flowed without water then was the local hooch, arrack, which the workers consumed to keep away malaria. In spite of that hundreds of them died of the disease.

When completed, the dam was considered to be one of the great engineering feats performed by man. A large area of Tamil Nadu – Theni, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts - started receiving ample supply of water. That changed the lives of the people of those places and Pennycuick became a god to them.

By Jayeshj. Published under

By Captain. Published under

At least one temple was dedicated to the Englishman. Pongal is celebrated for him in some areas. His portrait is revered in many homes and shops. Children are named after him. There is also a place called Pennycuick Peravai. The government put up Pennycuick’s statue in Madurai. When this engineer’s great grandson visited the area in 2002, thousands gathered to welcome and honour him. The people of Tamil Nadu have a deep attachment to Mullaperiyar Dam and Pennycuick. One has to be sensitive to that affection.

In 1886 the Travancore Sate and the British signed a 999 year lease agreement for giving the latter 8000 acres of land for the reservoir and 100 acres for the dam for rent of Rs.40000 per year. This contract became void when India attained independence. After years of negotiation, a new agreement was signed between Kerala and Tamil Nadu in 1970. In that the lease rates were increased to Rs.1 million. Kerala now wants this agreement to be modified.

Kerala’s concern is that the old dam made using stone rubble masonry has weakened mainly because of age and the earthquakes in the area and might burst. If that happens there would be colossal loss of human lives and existing development in Kerala. The movie Dam 999 (which is banned in TN) I believe (haven’t seen it) shows the havoc a dam burst can cause. We know that during World War II the British developed a special type of bomb to demolish two German dams so that the industries downstream would be washed away. The famous 1955 British movie, The Dam Busters shows the details.

Fears about the safety of Mullaperiyar Dam arose in Kerala in 1979 when Macchu – 2 Dam near Morvi town in Gujarat burst due to incessant rains. It is estimated that about 15000 to 25000 people died in that tragedy. From 1990 there have been several earthquakes in Idukki District which could have affected the strength of the dam. Kerala says there have been twenty two earthquakes. According to TN, there have been only four. But the Central Government states that there have been sixteen tremors and the dam is in earthquake prone area.

What Kerala wants is to construct a new dam downstream and till that is completed to reduce the storage level at Mullaperiyar to 120 feet from the present 136 feet. Kerala also promises to provide TN as much water as they are getting now, from the new dam. But what the price of water would be and how the new structure is to be financed and managed is not clear. The present dam, though it is in Kerala is operated and maintained by TN.

Kerala Government is absolutely justified in its concern for the safety of its people. But the way the present government has gone about it is counter productive. The antics and one-upmanship by the Kerala parties over the issue have provoked the Tamilians. Keralites are at the losing end and further problems could arise for people living in Kerala and those Keralites in TN. Going into details would make this a long essay. As the Supreme Court said, “Both parties, instead of dousing the fire, are adding fuel to it.”

This sort of matters should have been discussed quietly and a reasonable agreement reached before publicising it. Perhaps negotiations should have started in 1990. What is the solution now? The Supreme Court? The Prime Minister or the President?

Somebody should put across to TN one basic point. A dam burst would be a one time tragedy for Kerala. But all the areas in TN which have prospered with water from Mullaperiyar would become barren again.
Click on the photos to enlarge.
All pictures from Wikimedia Commons. 

Also please see Remembering grandfather. There may be a connection..


Happy Kitten said...

but I am very sure that if this dam was in TN, it would have been decommissioned many years back and a new one built....

Sadly, the politicians in Kerala may never rise up to the situation.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Happy Kitten, thank you.

You are right. Actually, the Kerala politicians have made a mess of the matter. The estimate is that there are 3.5 million Malayalees staying in TN. Many of them have heavy investment or good jobs. They are in trouble now.

Nebu said...

The Kerala Congress leaders under the false impression that if they agitate and build a new dam at Mullaperiyar all the people of Idukki District would join them, Ignited passions and then when Keralites got hammered and their
properties destroyed in Tamilnadu ran for cover.

Not to be out done it was the game of one-up-man-ship that pulled the other political parties too into the vortex.

Had the national and regional parties showed maturity and
restraint they would have been spared of the egg that has fallen on the face of Kerala Congress.

It was rather strange that the usually militant left cadres too turned a blind eye when Tamilians started to vent their fury.

Kerala and Keralites have learned their lesson the hard way, that they need the Tamilians and Tamilnadu more than they need Kerala and Keralites.

Boldness and heroism of Keralites
stop at the Kerala boarders.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Good comment, Nebu. But I don't know whether you are right in saying Kerala and Keralites have learned their lesson. I doubt whether they will ever learn.

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Bijumon Thomas said...

Any Structural Expert will tell you if the structure has inherent weakness will come down with or without any notice the next day if not the next moment. It does not need an iota of assumptions & presumptions either positive or negative from a layman or even of an expert IITian. Why our politicians do not understand this as a basic problem with a fundamental entities in a business of serving the people. There are many structures older than this. Also suppose, age of a patient even by the best of the Global Doctor's be assessed and defines as say 25years for any reason, it does not mean he should leave this beautiful world at the end of 25th year because of his certification. But by appropriate medication and strengthening the same its likely, his chance to survive more can always be exploited.. If the Doctor wants and insist to hang for certifying his certificate then it's a different case..