History: When cultivation along the Mampuzha depended on a dam

(A weekly column on the region’s past culled from historical documents.)

Mampuzha is still news, though not for healthy reasons. The river’s struggle to breathe amidst encroachment and pollution has made a telling tale. History’s pages also mention Mampuzha, a perennial river that courses through parts of Kozhikode. The past, though, evokes a robust Mampuzha with Makaram crops flourishing on its banks and boatmen taking travellers across it.

The reason for its presence in the archives is the “dam” across the river in Irangallur. “Dam” today stirs up mammoth images, but the time being talked about is 1905. The term was meant for constructions in mud or stone and it took just a monsoon to wash it away. Interestingly, “encroachment” too finds its way through in these letters. The file is packed with many letters in Malayalam from the natives.

At the centre of the Mampuzha issue is a conflict of interests. In his letter to the tahsildhar, the revenue inspector talks about it. There are two groups and two petitions in fray. Both boast the strength of numbers. The petitions, one by P.P. Kunhi Raman Menon and 80 others and another by A. Choyi and 100 others, “relate to the repair of the Iringachira dam in Mampuzha river which flows through Olavanna, Iringallur and other amsoms.”

Dam construction is almost an annual feature in the lives of the cultivators. A dam saved the Makaram crop in the wetlands by stopping the inflow of salt water. “It is predictably of no use during rainy season when the water in the river is hardly saltish (sic),” writes the inspector. The dam is usually constructed in November by the jenmis who raised crops. The inspector visits the locality and gathers history. “The work of constructing the dam was done by the Iringallur adhikari sometime ago. For the last 15 or 20 years, this work was done by one or the other of the jenmis,” he finds.

With conflicts and petitions, a community activity suddenly acquires a different colour. The inspector brings in a government angle too. “It is not clear whether the adhikari of Iringallur was doing the work with the sanction of the government or in his capacity as a cultivator,” he writes.

The inspector explains the conflict. Kunhi Raman Menon and his group wants the dam to be built “annually as of old with mud under the supervision of the adhikari or some other government servants with the cost being contributed by local cultivators.” A. Choyi and his men, instead, wants a permanent dam constructed of stone with a provision to regulate the water flow.

The inspector claims to have found greater acceptance to Kunhi Raman Menon’s proposal as it is “practical” and “shuts out salt water from wet lands.” The pressing question, says the inspector, is whether the government should interfere in this matter at all. He, nevertheless, agrees that wetlands are inundated by salt water and putting a dam across is the only solution.

He stresses the need to have “an agency for carrying out the work properly every year.” Apparently, there were allegations against the previous years’ construction. He writes, “A. Choyi who put up the dam for the last few years appears to have allowed salt water to go up the dam for the benefit of his coir which he soaks there and hence the complaint that the dam was not properly put up.”

Burden of the boatmen

There is another group adversely affected by the dam– the boat men. The tahsildhar, who advises the Collector against interfering in the matter, mentions the boatmen. While their path is clear during the monsoons when the dam is anyway washed away, it becomes a problem for the boatmen in the other months. “Obstruction of boat is caused for almost 4-5 months. During this time the boats are unloaded at the dam and dragged over it,” he writes. The tahsildhar, instead, backs a permanent dam. The inconvenience to the boatmen could be “avoided if a dam is built of stone with a lock which may cost about Rs. 4,000,” he suggests.

Seeing these letters, the Collector asks for a sketch of the region and so also the number of acres that will be affected if a dam is not in place. He is more worried about issues of encroachment. He writes, “The proposal to recognise what may in time be recognised as a permanent right of encroachment on the river bed needs detailed enquiry.” He wonders too if the government should “erect the dam and charge a water rate of some kind.”

The district officer, however, pitches in and says, “It does not appear that the rules relating to water rate apply to this case as no water is taken from a government source of supply.” About 350 acres of crop will be in peril in the absence of the dam, he is told. The district officer endorses the adhikari being given the supervision of dam construction.

After studying the matter, A.R. Knapp, the Acting Collector, decides against interference. He instead suggests amicable solution. “I see no reason to interfere … One man has as much right to take salt water to his coir as another to keep the salt water off his fields. It is a matter that must be regulated by mutual arrangement,” he writes. He also rings in a warning. “It should be made clear that the annual erection of the dam may be stopped by government at any time.” He also advises that the dam should not be a bother to the boatmen. The search for a solution finally comes up to naught.

Source: Regional Archives Kozhikode

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