In Terror of a Dam

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The fear of Mullaperiyar bursting open and the hysteria it has generated

IDUKKI ~ On 18 February, Sumayya turns eight years old. Right now, she is a seven-year-ten-month-old activist sitting on a satyagraha in Vallakkadvu, a village in Kerala’s Idukki district located 4.5 km downstream the Mullaperiyar dam. Like other children in Vallakkadvu, she displays a reluctance to go to school, but not for the usual reasons. The children want to be with their parents when the ‘water bomb’ falls. By ‘water bomb’, they mean the Mullaperiyar dam cracking open to wash away the border villages below in a flash flood of fearsome ferocity. “I am scared,” Sumayya says, “I don’t know if I will be here to cut my cake this birthday.”

It’s a misplaced fear. She will almost certainly be there to cut the cake. The probability of a dam burst over the next one month is negligible. But when a child awaits death with such conviction, it deserves more than passing attention. There is the undisputed fact that the Mullaperiyar dam, a 116-year-old structure in the Western Ghats built by the British to keep the Periyar River from flowing directly into the Arabian Sea, is located in a seismic area that has recently witnessed a series of tremors. There is the media in Kerala that projects on a daily basis the image of a looming dam collapse by putting out graphic—if speculative—descriptions of an impending disaster. There is Tamil Nadu’s unrelenting position that there exists no danger; that the dam is fine; and that it should keep diverting some of the Periyar’s water to Tamil farms, as it has always done. There is Kerala’s unrelenting position that the dam is a catastrophe waiting to happen; that it is listed as ‘endangered’ under the Kerala Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006; and that a replacement dam must be built straightaway.

On both sides of the border, the air is thick with rumours of attacks by Tamils on migrant Malayalees and Malayalees on migrant Tamils. “We have not slept for long,” is a common refrain across the villages in the dam’s shadow. Even the noise of a truck passing through wakes them up in a cold sweat, but they know it’s a pointless reaction. If the flood does happen, there is nothing to do but be swept away.

From 26 July to 10 December, there have been 27 tremors in Idukki with magnitudes between 0.7 and 3.5 on the Richter scale. A tremor by itself is not enough to break the dam. “If the water level in the reservoir is low,” says Dr John Mathai, a scientist with the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), “tremors below 6 in magnitude are harmless. If the level is high, even a tremor of 5 can make cracks in the dam. It also depends on the proximity of the epicentre to the dam or the depth at which the quake happens.” Human beings can feel tremors above 1.5 Richter. Of the 27 tremors, 18 were above 1.5. People therefore have been living in trepidation. “That is the reason for the public outcry,” says Dr Mathai.

On the other hand, the CESS does not discount the possibility of stronger tremors, an apprehension that has led to a maelstrom of wild rumours ever since it got out. In Chappat, the village at the heart of a mass movement for a new dam to replace the old structure, we find locals convinced that an earthquake would strike exactly three days later—on 26 December. Told that science has not developed any way to predict the exact time and place of an earthquake, no one would listen. (It didn’t happen. But they have perhaps come up with new dates by now.)

“Such campaigns are unfortunate,” sighs Dr Mathai. Unfounded forecasts of the havoc that the disaster-to-come will wreak are even scarier. These include: 3.5 million people washed off, five districts totally submerged, and the six-storey building of the High Court of Kerala engulfed with water. The paranoia has spread to such far off districts as Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Kottayam. “A disaster on the scale of five districts being washed off would happen only if something happened to Idukki dam too,” reassures Dr Mathai, referring to a bigger dam 58 km northwest of Mullaperiyar, a structure that is said to have the capacity to stop any great gush of water released by Mullaperiyar’s bursting open. The Idukki dam’s reservoir can hold 70 tmcft of water, in contrast with Mullapperiyar’s 11.3 tmcft. But yes, Dr Mathai adds, that still leaves the 15,000–20,000 families settled in between the two dams to the potential fury of a flash flood. But how probable is such a disaster?

The plain truth is that no expert can accurately predict a quake. Idukki is not a place with a high level of seismicity, say CESS experts (some of whose observations on the subject touched off the panic in the first place). The earthquake zoning map of India divides the country into four distinct seismic zones (named Zone 2, 3, 4 and 5), with Zone 5 displaying the worst level of seismicity. As it happens, Idukki falls in Zone 3, where seismologists expect only moderate tremors, a fact that the Kerala and Tamil media both ignore, even if for divergent reasons.

The standoff between the two states is serious. Kerala is insistent on a new dam. Tamil Nadu suspects that, since it would have to be built lower down the Ghats than the old dam, it would imply a loss of the irrigation water that Mullaperiyar’s diversion canals have supplied the state for well over a century. Though Kerala promises its neighbour the same level of water supply, its slogan—‘Water for Tamil Nadu and Safety for Kerala’—is derided by the Tamil media as an excuse to deny Tamil Nadu its legitimate share of water. The Kerala Chief Minister recently issued an appeal to its neighbouring state via Tamil newspapers, but these papers were burnt in a public display of rejectionism, not to mention the Malayalee-owned shops, factories and crops that have been subjected to mob violence in Tamil Nadu. So riven is the atmosphere that many Malayalees have fled the state, leaving their property behind. One English newspaper reported that 500 Tamil women were being held hostage in Kerala, some even sexually assaulted; though there was no word of it in the same newspaper’s Kerala edition, and the district collector of Theni in Tamil Nadu, who was quoted in the dubious report, admits that he could not confirm the hostage crisis, it was enough to set off ‘reprisal’ violence against Malayalees in the state.

At Vallakkadvu, everyday life has come to a standstill. Students studying professional courses in Tamil Nadu districts along Kerala’s border are staying put in their homes after the holidays. They are scared of being attacked, having found themselves under threat the moment the issue flared up. “The hostel authorities, scared of attacks, instructed Malayalee students not to leave the campus. We were literally locked up. We ran away from the hostel without their permission,” says Mahesh, an engineering student in Trichi (from Vallakkadvu). But probe him further, and he cannot cite any sure incident of violence. “We’ve heard there had been some incidents in nearby colleges,” he says, disillusioned by the “insensitivity” of his Tamil friends. “Even students from Tamil Nadu’s southern districts, who don’t know anything about the dam, keep saying that Kerala’s fear is baseless. I am living right under the [sweep] of the dam. How do they know better than me?”

On the day that colleges here reopen after holidays, we meet Durga, a final-year engineering student pursuing a BTech in a private engineering college in Thirunelveli. Durga is terrified, but wants to go back. She has to prepare for her semester exams next month, but cannot go because no Kerala registration vehicle can cross the border safely.

There have been reports of violence on both sides. Kerala’s Idukki district has seen 49 cases registered of assault, with Tamils and the police as victims. In Tamil Nadu, though, the violence seems markedly more organised and larger in scale: 105 cases of mob violence have been registered in the state’s Theni and Kambam taluks. According to the police superintendent of Theni, there have been 15 cases of arson, involving the burning of houses, business centres, vehicles and crops owned by Malayalees. In Kambam, one pig farm was attacked and a cashew factory looted and set aflame. Coir factories, private banks and jewellers have also been targets.

All this over an event that is yet to occur, if at all it ever does. “The dam may or may not collapse one day, but everyday life has become hell,” says Kunjumon, who is active in the agitation for a new dam. Shaji Joseph, an office bearer of the action committee demanding a new dam, says children are not willing to go to school. It’s so bad that the fear is even clouding marriage prospects. “No outsider is ready to marry a girl or boy of this village,” he reports, “Land prices have come down. Our relatives in other districts are asking us to sell our property and flee, but nobody wants to buy the land.”

Danger zones in the area have already been marked out. In the woods of a hill in front of Beena’s house, the trees bear arrows painted in red. These are supposed to indicate the possible water level in case of a dam failure and the route that survivors can take up the hill to safe ground. It was done by a team of CESS experts. But like many others in the village, Beena, a mother of two, dismisses the arrows with a laugh. “Will the water stop on seeing the mark?” she asks with sarcasm. “The water will know that it should not flow through the route marked by these experts... It will definitely take a deviation.”

Beena’s mother Bharati is 74 years old and knows she can neither run nor climb up the hill if the area were to get flooded. “Such safety measures,” she says, “are not meant for people like me.” On her part, Beena does not think she has it in her to scamper off leaving her old mother behind. The only option, she believes, is to die together.

Santhosh, an Idukki native who works as a taxi driver, invites us to his village on the top of a hill that divides Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Like those living downstream of Mullaperiyar, his fellow villagers have been suffering sleepless nights as well. A dam burst will not flood their hilltop village, they know, but they are worried about being attacked by Tamils from the other side of the border. We witness men and cops maintain a midnight vigil to pre-empt any such turn of events. Policemen can be spotted across the border too, posted there to prevent violence.

The local economy, meanwhile, is turning into shambles. Tourism has been badly hit. “In this peak season, the number of tourists has come down by 30 per cent. Big hotels have suffered around 50 per cent cancellation of rooms,” says a Tourism Police officer.

It does not help that stances are hardening on both sides of the dispute. Kerala brooks no discussion on an alternative to a new big dam. CP Roy, who backed out from the demand of a new dam, was ousted from his position as chairman of Mullaperiyar Action Council. He had suggested a new tunnel at a height of 15 metres (to replace the current tunnel at a height of 32 metres) that would keep the water level in the reservoir under 37 metres. He was alleged to have been bribed by the Tamil Nadu government for weakening the demand for a new reservoir.

More recently, Kerala boycotted a meeting held by a high-level committee appointed by the Centre to resolve the dispute. In Kerala’s view, the committee was biased in Tamil Nadu’s favour from the very start, something that its dismissal of the need for a new dam seems to confirm.

While tempers flare, what remains unanswered is the feasibility of another big dam in a seismic zone that is not rated very stable. A new dam would be made of concrete, but, even with a modern engineering blueprint, there is no certainty that this would withstand quakes significantly better than the limestone-and-surkhi (a mixture of crushed brick, sugar and quicklime) that the Mullaperiyar is built of. A quake is a quake and a dam is a dam. But then, with so much anger in the air, few are in any mood to exercise their rational faculties.