KOCHI: Mullaperiyar dam, an engineering marvel and a lifeline for five arid districts of Tamil Nadu, will complete 125 years of existence on Saturday. More than 3,000 workers had toiled for eight years, braving cold weather, incessant rain, wild animals and deadly diseases like cholera and malaria to build the 175-ft-high dam. It was the great Madras famine of 1876-78 that prompted the then British regime to construct a dam across Periyar so that the water could be diverted to the Vaigai river for irrigating the farm lands of Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts in Tamil Nadu.
An agreement was signed in October 1886 between the Maharaja of Travancore and then Madras Presidency, by which 8,100 acres of land were leased out for constructing the dam. The works began under the leadership of Scottish Major John Pennycuick in September 1887. The dam changed the lives of the residents of Theni who started worshipping Pennycuick as a demigod. However, as years passed, the dam was caught in an interstate dispute with Kerala raising concerns about its strength and demanding the construction of a new dam. Tamil Nadu opposed, paving the way for a prolonged legal battle and animosity between the two states.
The dispute began in 1998. Tamil Nadu wanted to raise the height of the permitted water level in the dam, but Kerala opposed the move. In February, 2006, the Supreme Court allowed Tamil Nadu to raise the water level to 142ft. In response, the Kerala government enacted the Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006, which was struck down by the apex court.
Meanwhile, people living in the downstream areas of the dam formed the Mullaperiyar Samrakshana Samithi (MSS) and launched an agitation in 2006. They argued that in the event of a dam breach, the water will wash away five districts in Kerala and snuff out 35 lakh lives. The protests that continued till 2014 fizzled out as Kerala accepted the SC verdict and declared the dam safe.
However, the 2018 flood and tremors in 2020 have revived residents’ fears. “Around 35 tremors were reported in the region in 2011. There were repeated tremors from February 27 to May this year. The Geological Survey of India identified Cumbum valley as an active fault zone which makes the dam more vulnerable. As the lives of lakhs of people are at stake, an international agency should be roped in to study the strength of the dam,” said Fr Joy Nirappel, who led the protests as the MSS patron.
“During the 2018 flood, water level in Mullaperiyar rose dangerously and there was a mudslide near the earthen baby dam. This triggered rumours and people started fleeing the area. My mother went missing in the chaos but was found three days later,” said MSS vice-chairman Shaji P Joseph.