Thursday, 30 April 2015

The longest relay protest venue in the world: Chappathu, Idukky district

The drive between the Vallakadavu and the Idukki dam along a stretch of around 40 kilometers through narrow winding roads that passes through steep hills and valleys is breathtaking. On one side are thick, dense jungles with tall, ancient trees and evergreen foliage interspersed by colourful flowering parts and little front yard gardens while on the other is the steep, deceiving valley of the Periyar. On rainy days, the river unleashes its full fury with a deafening, constant roar. 

Along this beautiful stretch of road lie the villages of Vandiperiyar, Keerikara, Mlamala, Chappathu, Parappu, Uppukara and Ayyapankoil. The proponents for constructing a new dam at the Mullaperiyar strongly believe that if the existing dam breaks, flood waters would gush from the Periyar dam towards the Idukki dam located more than 40 kilometers downstream the Periyar wiping away all the villages on its way.  Assuming that the Idukki dam is also full at the time of the collapse of Mullaperiyar, the extra 5 tmc water would not be withstood by the more modern Idukki arch dam resulting in the release of 70 tmc of water that could wash a significant portion of the state of Kerala including some top towns such as Kochi. 

While a multi-dam failure could be considered as stretching the probability theory a little too far, the fact that the villages between Vallakadavu and Idukki dam would be wiped away if the Mullaperiyar dam gives away is a plausible scenario. 

While the protests against TN and its stand on the Mullaperiyar dam row have always garnered the full support of people from all these villages, the quiet, nondescript village of Chappathu, about 25 kilometers away from the Mullaperiyar dam has been the epicenter of these protests. 

For the last 6 years, a relay protest has been continuing in a permanent shelter put by the members of the Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti along the banks of the Periyar in Chappathu village where at least a couple of men or women come every day and observe a token protest from 9 am to 5 pm.  This protest has been going on since 2006 and is symbolic of the persistence of its organizers in never giving up their demand for a new dam. 

When I went to the protest pandal, at around 4.45 pm sometime in mid May 2012, two to three men who had sat in protest through the day were getting ready to call up the fast only to continue the next day. A police inspector, a jeep and a few constables have also been permanently posted at the pandal and guard the venue round the clock. The river bed adjacent to the protest site was almost dry barring a few thin streams piercing through the cracks of huge, curvy boulders that resembled giant eggs and lay underneath a concrete road over bridge.  On the other side of the bridge, another narrow winding road led to interior parts of Chappathu. 

Chairman of the Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti Father Joy Nirappel, who is also the Uppukara head of the Roman Catholic Diocese, had accompanied me to the permanent protest shelter at Chappathu in my car that evening. Fr. Joy is a short, stout man with a graying goatie beard and a deep, mellow voice which he has learnt to modulate perfectly over years of public speaking.  He was one of those few persons who was friendly and forthcoming to give an interview unlike many of the leaders of protest groups connected to the Mullaperiyar dam. He seemed to be in command of the village and its people until we reached close to the venue. 

‘I don’t know what these people might say if they see both of us travelling in a car with a Tamil Nadu registration,’ he said. 

‘Why?’  I asked, ‘Is there a problem?’ 

‘No, no… nothing like that. It’s just that so many rumours make rounds around here that people are so confused and could be easily misled,’ he said and looked at me reassuringly. 

As soon as we reached the venue, Fr. Joy and I got out of the car and went to the protestors and greeted them. ‘This is Pradeep Damodaran, a Malayali journalist from Thalassery. He had come to interview me about the Mullaperiyar dam and our protests,’ he said introducing me to the handful of people seated at the pandal. I shook hands with them and clarified that although my native place was Thalassery, I was working in Coimbatore and had come from Coimbatore to do the book. After few minutes of uncomfortable silence, I decided to leave the place after clicking a few pictures of the historic protest site as Fr. Joy looked relieved. (to be continued)

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