With 20 small and big dams in the neighbourhood, residents of Idukki district in Kerala can by and large be dubbed a dam-friendly lot. That is all the more reason why no one can pinpoint the exact moment the 116-year-old Mullaperiyar became the most damned dam or a dam thulayatte (Malayalam for menace).
What the tea plantation workers of Chappathu, 30 km from Mullaperiyar, do recall is how the area experienced several tremors since June. Though mostly of low intensity— between 3.4 and 3.6 on the Richter scale—these tremors were accompanied at times by loud sounds, and some houses developed cracks.
Unease turned to concern last week after state irrigation minister PJ Joseph made a statement about losing sleep over the Mullaperiyar dam. And when local media published reports of the Tamil Nadu government banning Dam 999, a film about a dam built during colonial rule that is cracking, the floodgates opened and concern became a full-blown fear.
The Mullaperiyar dam was built under an agreement signed in 1886 between the royals of Travancore and the British administration. While the dam is located in Kerala, its waters serve Tamil Nadu. In recent years, Tamil Nadu has demanded that the dam's storage capacity be raised to meet the increasing demand of water for irrigation. While Kerala has been demanding a new dam, Tamil Nadu has been vehemently opposing it.
Posters and banners screaming ‘We Will Give You Water, Return Our Lives' and 'How Can An Amma Sacrifice Lakhs Of Her Children’, dot the hilly region. Two legislators, ES Bijimol (CPI) and Roshi Augustine (Kerala Congress), are on an indefinite fast. They are seeking decommissioning of the old dam.
Many fear that any damage to Mullaperiyar will result in chain bursts affecting others like Idukki dam, the largest arch-dam of the country, endangering the lives of millions of people living downstream.
For most of the school students in the area it is time to skip classes and march to the dharna venue at Chappathu. Narrow rubberised roads of this district, famous for its spices, are clogged with protesters.
“Even a small sound makes us nervous at night. We have no idea how long we will have to live like this,” says Manivarnan, who is staying at Vallakadu, the human settlement closest to the much-feared dam.