Rise in water level in the Idukki dam, pushing the State close to opening the shutters of the dam, has had an unexpected outcome: it has exposed the large-scale encroachment downstream, almost giving rise to the impression that the pressure on authorities not to open the dam shutters may have to do with the encroachments.
Details of the encroachments came to light when the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) released the map of the areas that would be submerged or flooded if water from the dam is released. In 1992, when the dam was opened for more than a week, it had resulted in many houses, especially in Vazhathoppu and Mariyapuram grama panchayats, getting submerged.
The first town where water from the dam would reach is Cheruthoni, where large-scale illegal constructions have come up over the years. Idukki Collector had issued an order last year banning all new constructions in Cheruthoni town, but with little effect. The level of encroachment, for both farming and cultivation purposes, is so huge that even a low-level discharge of water from the dam would causing flooding in the entire town.
“In the 21 years since the last release of water from the dam, the area has seen large-scale encroachments in the area. If the dam shutters are opened, it will expose the vast areas of encroachments,’’ Raju Xavier, environmentalist and local resident, said.
According to him, there was clear political pressure from the local business lobby against opening the dam even after the water level reached one-and-a-half feet short of the total reservoir capacity of 2,403 ft on Sunday. Last time, the dam was opened in 1992 when the water level was 2,401.44 ft. The level had reached 2,401.68 ft on Sunday.
Residents of Kuthirakkallu, the first village in the path of water as it moves downstream, told The Hindu that their houses were flooded for over a week when the dam waters were discharged the last time. The number of houses on the riverbanks downstream had multiplied over the years. The downstream areas also have large stretches with long-term crops, they pointed out.
C.P. Roy, environmentalist and former chairman of the Mullaperiyar Agitation Council, said it is clear that there was a ‘political’ decision not to open the dam even if the water in the dam reached the full reservoir level. The Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) should reveal the financials of its decision to go in for maximum power generation at a time when there is virtually no demand from the Central pool or from other States now, he said.
The encroachments that had continued unabated were a clear pointer towards the political clout enjoyed by the encroachers, he said.
A top KSEB official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the present crisis could have been avoided had all the generators were put on maximum production when the government was purchasing power at a very high rate from outside. The Revenue Department and the local bodies concerned should also have tried to protect the river areas so that there could be a smooth flow if and when water is released.
The KSEB official said the board had clearly marked the areas likely to be submerged if and when the five shutters of the dam are opened. It had given notice to the authorities to clear constructions and occupants there nearly six years ago, but instead of initiating any action on it, the encroachment continued resulting in the present crisis, he said.
K.R. Gopalakrishnan, who was the deputy director of the KSEB at Cheruthoni when the dam was opened last, said the Canadian company had designed the dam with long-term perspective. The five shutters are there to release a high volume of water with the 1962 flood situation as the point of reference. The flood of 1962 can recur in the future as well.
“The town has been developed without a master plan. There was a check-dam and a garden constructed after the formation of the Idukki Development Authority spending crores of rupees. The check-dam was for arranging boat facilities for tourists. However, the place where the garden stood is now the mofussil bus stand, which too has not official sanction,” said Manoj Galaxy, a local resident.
The main obstacle to release of water was the check-dam, which might cause diversion of water to the town area. When the shutters of the dam were opened last, the town bridge was submerged for days. If more water is released, its impact would be unpredictable as the watercourse has got altered over the last two decades with illegal constructions and farming operations, he said.