Thursday, 9 April 2015

Mullaperiyar water war: My moment of epiphany

During the several road trips that I took to Kumily and various other parts of Idukki, Madurai and Theni districts to interview people for this book, one particular incident that took place while driving alone in Idukki district on a warm summer evening put this entire effort into perspective. Until then, I was trying to conceal my skepticism at the prospects of writing a book on an ageing dam by mindlessly running around collecting data and interviewing people.

After visiting Fr. Joy Nirappel, chairman of the Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti at his office in Upputhara and visiting the six-month long relay protest venue at Chappathu, I was driving back to my hotel in Kumily along a steep, winding road that runs parallel to the Periyar River Valley with the sunset behind me. The road was almost empty except for the occasional jeep that sped past me transporting casual labourers from Theni district who worked in the cardamom estates here.  On one side of the road was a deep valley at the bottom of which the Periyar that had now been reduced to a trickle flowed.  Steep slopes covered with tall, green grass and wild plants accompanied me on the other. 
Giant pen stock pipes that transfer water from the Periyar reservoir to TN

I was driving past Anavilasam, one of the many tiny hamlets dotting the landscape that is identical to every other village I had passed along the road with a teashop, a provisions shop, a barbershop and an auto rickshaw stand at the centre of the village where a few men get together, smoke beedis and discuss politics after a long day’s work when a huge bug flew inside the car through the driver’s side window and I lost control of the vehicle. 

The sudden appearance of a giant beetle, almost the size of my palm, on the steering wheel of the car shocked me to such an extent that I almost drove into the valley.   With the car perched just a few inches away from steep slope, I applied hand brakes and jumped out of the car. The beetle bluish black in colour with a coarse exterior was larger than any insect I had ever seen and seemed to have sprouted out of prehistoric times. The bug that was as scared as I was kept ramming on the glass pane in the front trying to escape. 

After I gained a little more confidence, I took my out my notepad and gently shoved the beetle out of the car through the open window. Later, I stepped outside, lit a cigarette and sat on rock facing the valley to give time for my heartbeat to settle down to a rhythm. 

As sunlight disappeared from the valley with every passing minute engulfing the dense jungles in darkness, I felt like I was not in Kerala but in the middle of a Jurassic Park movie somewhere deep inside an uninhabited tropical island. The deep valley surrounded by thick, impenetrable jungles; the tall trees that grew along the slopes and reached the top of the hills valley whose thick barks and branches seemed hundreds of years old; and the giant creepers that spread almost everywhere with the leaves that were almost the size of banana leaves seemed like a perfect home for such creatures as the beetle that sneaked into my car. Within a few minutes, the noisy buzz of crickets and all other kinds of insects filled the valley and for a minute, I pondered over how inhospitable this region must have been a hundred years ago when there was no electricity, no tar roads, no homes or any semblance of civilization of any kind anywhere in the surrounding area. 

The magnitude of the effort required to construct the Mullaperiyar dam in Idukki district, Kerala is impossible to comprehend for anyone who has not visited the thick jungles and the inhospitable terrain. A hundred and ten years ago, even bustling cities like Coimbatore were spread across just a few square kilometers with a vast stretch of wilderness all around. To take up such an endeavour and finish it successfully is nothing short of wonder. 

To imagine a few White engineers and hundreds of workers and coolies fighting their way through this impenetrable jungle and build a world class dam cannot but be inspirational. The retelling of the construction of the dam is a blend of that overwhelming feeling with the factual data on the construction of the dam available through reports and documents.

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