The Mullaiperiyar dam, which was given a fresh lease of life by the Supreme Court order on Wednesday, was an architectural and engineering marvel, built more by passion. But for the legendary British engineer, John Pennycuick’s ‘never say die’ attitude, the plans of the dam would have been washed away long ago in the flood waters of River Periyar, across which it has been standing tall for 119 years.
Located within Kerala in Idukki district deep in the forests, it catches the gushing waters of Periyar, preventing it from emptying into the Arabian Sea, creates a reservoir and then turns it towards arid pockets in Tamil Nadu’s Theni, Dindigul, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts.
That region would have become a desert more than a century ago had Pennycuick had fought against all odds to complete the dam’s construction that was entrusted with him by the British government in 1888. Towards the end, when the British gave up on the project, citing delay in its construction, Pennycuick is said to have gone back to England to sell his wife’s jewels to fund the last stages of dam building.
So, if Pennycuick is an icon among the farmers in the area, irrigated by the Mullaiperiyar water, with many houses having his portrait in their homes even now, it is not without a valid reason. For, the dam’s construction had been bogged down with one problem after another ever since the British government signed an agreement in 1886 with the then Maharaja of Travancore, in whose kingdom the jungle fell, to lease out 8,000 acres of land for a period of 999 years.
First they could not find labour to travel into the dense forest, which led to the project being handed over the army, thus bringing Major Pennycuick into the picture. Then work started with some Portugese men, who had landed in Kochi, and also masons from the far away Bay of Kutch. But transportation of construction material was always a huge task. Several innovative methods were adopted to carry the estimated 80,000 tonnes of limestone that went into the construction of the dam to the work spot. One route was using a wire rope way from Gudalur hills to Thekady and the other was a ropeway the linked the site itself. Then, bunds were raised across another river Mulliya Panjan that flows into Periyar and boats were plied on the stagnant stretch of water.
But the real sacrifice came from officers and workers who died in harness. Between 1892 and 1895 alone, 483 people died of diseases in the hospitals near the dam site. That includes children, as young as two years, of Britishers who were staying there. A cemetery stands there in testimony of the sacrifice of the Britishers. For those who survived, too, work was not easy. At nights they had stood as human walls inside gushing waters to prevent the newly constructed structures from being washed away by floods. The human wall would then be covered with mud to form a bund and the men pulled out, according to documents, detailing the nightmarish events.