Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The longest relay protest in the world: Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti

(contd from previous post)

The Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti was formed in the year 2006 at a meeting held in Karol Plaza, Upputhara on 03 March 2006. At that time, there was another organization fighting for the rights of people living downstream the Periyar called the Periyar Valley Protection Movement headed by late A.T. Thomas. The Samara Samiti was mainly formed following the 2006 verdict by the Supreme Court of India granting TN rights to raise the water level in Mullaperiyar dam to 142 feet. 

Public resentment over the S C verdict in response to two petitions filed by the Mullaperiyar Environment Protection Forum and Subramanya Swamy allowing TN to raise the water level to 142 feet that was delivered on 27 February 2006 became the inspiring force behind this relay strike that has reached historic 
proportions and has been continuing for over 6 years now. 

Just a few days after the verdict, members of the Periyar Valley Protection Movement, the organization that was spearheading the campaign for decommissioning the Mullaperiyar dam, head by A. T. Thomas convened a meeting at Karol Plaza in Upputhara on 03 March 2006. ‘Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti was formed on that day to carry forward our fight for a new dam and I was appointed as chairman of this committee,’ Fr. Joy said.

The protests were organized in three phases. ‘The first phase was one of aggression. It was the need of the hour at the time. Our fight for the safety of the people living here was going out of our hands and we wanted to bring it to the notice of the state government. From 03 March, he held protest marches, formed human chains on road, blocked roads, blocked national highways, sent hundreds of letters to the prime minster and so many other things,’ Fr. Joy said.

More than 10,000 people marched to the venue of protests every day from Vallakadavu, Vandiperiyar and the surrounding areas to participate in the protest meets that gathered momentum with every passing day. The Samiti members also organized a march to the state secretariat besides conducting state-wide rail roko exercises.

‘The protests were a great success for the Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti. All the print and visual media were here and covered the protests round the clock. Six to seven MLAs, several MPs and ministers visited the protests and expressed their support. Eventually, the state government that was desperate to silence the protestors, had passed the amendment to the Irrigation Act restricting the water level to 136 feet and prevented TN from implementing the SC verdict. The matter went back to the courts and following that success, our protests moved into its second phase of a relay-protest,’ the Uppukara head priest said. As he spoke of the protests and their success, Fr. Joy’s voice rose to the level of public speaking and he seemed to enjoy listening to it as much as I did.

A permanent venue for the relay protest was chosen at Chappathu on the banks of the Periyar. A shelter was erected temporarily using poles and tent material and was inaugurated on 25 December 2006. With the setting up of the permanent shelter, the Mullaperiyar dam became a part of the psyche of the people who live in this village and surrounding areas constantly reminding the public of the government’s lack of concern for their plight and their need to unite and fight against TN.

For six long years, the permanent shelter has endured sun and rain, LDF and UDF, and several other forces of nature making a statement  on the resolve of the locals here and their campaign for a new dam.  While sporadic incidents of violence have been repeatedly recorded as a fallout of these protests in the form of attacks against TN registration vehicles, etc., the protest as such has been an excellent exercise in expressing the democratic right of an individual or a group of people to protest against the state and the Central government.

There is probably no other venue in the world where so many different protests have taken place, according to Fr. Nirappel. ‘We have conducted protests by lying inside a coffin, by holding our breath and drowning inside water, human chains, our members have stood on one leg and protested, some of them have stood upside down for hours together, etc. We have boycotted public events, boycotted football matches and so many other forms of protests. I can boldly say that there  is probably no other venue in the world where so many different protests have taken place over the last six years of our existence,’ he said.

A large number of Tamils living in Idukki district have also been active participants in the protests and have been fiercely campaigning for a new dam for decades. Unlike any other part of Kerala, Idukki district is probably the only district in the state with a large Tamil population. Tamil families have been living here for several decades now and many of the settlements are even older than the Keralites who began moving up to the hills only during the mid 1900s.

While the region that is now called the Periyar Tiger Reserve where the Mullaperiyar dam is located, and its surrounding areas were thick, uninhabited jungles at the time of construction of the dam, around the same period of time several cardamom and other plantations started coming up the hills that required a large number of casual labourers. The nearest and most accessible source of labour was from Madurai and Theni districts from where thousands of families of Tamilians moved to the upper slopes of the hills and lived and worked in the plantations and tea estates. For generations, these families have been living here and are as much Keralites as they are Tamil.

Until the 1950s, not many Malayalis were living in Idukki district mainly due to the more prosperous coastal belt. ‘When famines and unemployment levels rose in the plains, quite a few families moved up the hills to make a new life for themselves. Upputhara was one of the first few villages that came up on the banks of the Periyar where I know people who have lived for more than 75 years,’ Fr. Nirappel said.

But large scale migration of Malayalis took place only post 1950s, when the politicians at the time felt that there was a big imbalance between the ratio of Tamils to Malayalis in Idukki district. During that period, many people who were not very successful in the plains were encouraged to move to the Periyar Valley in Idukki district and were given up to five acres of land for a cheap rate to cultivate crops and be self-sufficient. The population in many of the villages bordering Periyar River Valley swelled during this period and the church plays an active role in community activities and has a good rapport among residents as is evident in the role it has played in the long life of Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti.

Even as the second and longest phase of the protest, i.e., the relay protests had been going on, certain events that took place in November 2011 once again altered the phase of the protests.

Between 1 November 2011 and 20 November 2011, minor tremors were experienced in several parts of Idukki district; many of which were not even recorded by geologists. But, the residents living along the Periyar Valley were terrified at the prospect of a larger quake at a time when the dam was almost filled to its permitted capacity. Soon, word spread around and the permanent protest shelter built by the Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti at Chappathu once again began to gather crowds, most of whom were angry.

‘Our third phase of protests began on November 27, 2011 with the announcement of an indefinite strike as a result of public outcry following the recent earthquakes,’ Fr. Joy said. ‘This phase of the protests was more potent and drew more crowds than ever before. Keralites from Kasargod to Trivandrum participated and joined in the fight for safeguarding our lives.’

As with every other earlier occasion when the protests gathered momentum, an array of politicians ranging from local MLAs to MPs to state and central ministers visited Chappathu and expressed their solidarity with the cause of the protestors. Every day, thousands of people participated in hunger strikes, road rokos and other forms of protest.  By early December that year, protests began to spill over to the streets as buses plying to TN were scribbled with abusive, vulgar messages and sporadic incidents of attacks on vehicles with TN registration were being reported in interior parts of Idukki district.

Although, coordinates of the Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti officially abhorred violence and claimed that they practised only protests following Gandhian principles, fringe elements within the group did form small groups and organized protests.  Dozens of vehicles bound for TN were stoned and attacked with wooden logs. Soon, the attacks were retaliated from across the border and the issue escalated into a full-fledged riot in a matter of days.

According to Fr. Joy, the third phase of protests lasted 53 days and was a grand success. ‘The support we received from Keralites not just in the state but also from the Middle East and even the United  States was overwhelming. The protests peaked in December and reached a point when the attention of the entire country was diverted to the Mullaperiyar dam and the safety of thousands of people who live downstream. When things reached a climax, we decided to pull down the veracity of our protests from January 17, 2012,’ he said.

Some of the main reasons that were cited for drumming down the tempo were that the empowered committee was expected to present their report during early February 2012 and the matter would go to the courts again for trial. ‘So we decided to wait and watch. The protests returned to the longer, less intensive phase and we are still continuing with our relay protests,’ he said.

At the time of visiting Chappathu, the venue had seen 1969 days of protests and the Samiti members were planning for bigger events when the protest completed 2000 days.

The Mullaperiyar Samara Samiti has laid down clear conditions to the governments of Kerala and TN for them to give up their indefinite strike. 

They include:

(i)            Inviting an international agency to test the safety of the dam and allow them to conduct their test independently without any intervention from the CW C or the TN engineers.  The Samiti members claimed that they have lost faith in the CWC and that the public will not believe any tests conducted by any Indian agency. If the international agency states that the dam is safe, then the Samiti is willing to let go of its demand for a new dam, 

(ii)           Completely rewriting the lease deed of 1886 signed between Maharaja of Travancore and Madras Presidency and change the term of lease to a much lesser period. The Samiti pointed out that the lease deed had to completely rewritten as even if a new dam was constructed using the same lease deed, again similar protests would erupt 100 years later as the term of lease is for 1000 years,

(iii)          Ensure that the State of Kerala is adequately compensated for the water supplied to TN and the power that is generated at the Periyar hydro-electric project. The present financial terms of agreement are unfair and need to be revised,

(iv)         Attempt an out-of-court settlement between Kerala and TN in resolving the issue amicably by attempting to solve the earlier mentioned issues.

Until a permanent solution is arrived over the issue, the Samara Samiti has also issued a set of safety measures to be taken up by the Kerala government to ensure that loss of life is minimized in the event of a disaster.

‘We have asked for installations of sirens in every village to give an alarm to public on when they need to run out, setting up a mobile phone alert facility where messages could be sent to all cell phone users, installation of solar streetlights, permanently stationing a fire service team and mobile ambulance team, constructing permanent shelters at higher elevations to move injured and sick persons along with women and children, provide disaster management training to all the residents and counseling for our children to deal with the fear psychosis among other demands,’ said Fr. Joy as he read out from a long list neatly typed and filed in one of the dozens of files neatly arranged in his table.

While a few of the measures have been taken up such as installation of sirens at Vallakadavu, most other demands of the Samiti continue to remain only on paper and the protestors seem to be clear that the protests would continue as long as their demands or not met and people can feel safe living in their neighbourhood.
‘As of now, the protests are going through a smooth phase, we will enhance its vigour as and when we feel that the government is failing us and the Mullaperiyar Dam issue will once again became national headlines,’ Fr. Joy said. 

As dusk set in, the protestors along with Fr. Joy left the venue and moved on different directions. A few chairs remained strewn around inside the pandal while the lone police inspector and constables stood around the police jeep and engaged in chitchat.

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