Peace is just in name not in life, say residents of Idukki’s Shanthipalam in Kerala

A view of Chappathu, one of the towns in the downstream of Mullaperiyar dam, on the banks of the Periyar in Idukki district.   | Photo Credit: Giji K Raman

The very name of the place means the ‘bridge of peace’. However, people in this small village town on the banks of the Periyar undergo turbulent days and nights with the arrival of every monsoon. For over four decades, the people of the village lost their peaceful life.

“Imagine that at the dead of night you have to rush away from your house leaving everything there. You do not know what will remain in the house. You are not even sure that your house will be there or not,” says Rajesh, a resident at Shanthipalam.

Things became worse in August 2018. The water level was above the danger mark in the Periyar. At night, a loudspeaker announcement from the authorities of the Revenue Department voiced asking the people to leave the house as Mullaperiyar dam would be opened soon. Leaving everything including the cattle and livestock, people rushed out, taking with them children and aged people.

It was aching to see the remains of a cattle shed on a treetop near the river, school bags of children, pots and chairs lying abandoned on the river banks, after the water receded. With these, one could understand the gravity of the situation and the extent of trauma undergone by the people who live close to the banks of the river from Vallakadavu to Upputhara. The main towns on the river bank included Vandiperiyar, Chappathu and Upputhara, in addition to the villages of the farmers who have settled there for generations.

“This year, it’s more than ten times since the start of the monsoon that the spillway shutters of Mullaperiyar dam were opened. Many a time, they opened the shutters during night, that too with short notices. Is there no one to consider the plight of hundreds of people who live downstream the Mullaperiyar dam”? asks Santhosh, a resident at Cementpalam.

“In 2018, Chappathu town was flooded and since then, the town becomes flooded though not as intense as it was in 2018. I had to shift items from inside the shop many times. Now, I won’t do it. Let it go,” says a desperate Sijan who runs an ayurveda shop at Chappathu, where one of the longest agitations for a new dam at Mullaperiyar took place. The shed where the agitation pandal remains is a parking place for taxis now.

The agitation, in which the main leaders of all major political parties addressed the people demanding the new dam, ended on a painful note.

Sijan says the leaders of the agitation council were either bribed by those powerful who did not want a new dam or they did not bother about the lives of people here. Those who addressed the people kept silent and the crowds that thronged here disappeared like a crowd in a festival ground, he says.

Depression, trauma and inability were writ large on the faces of many whom this correspondent spoke to.

“There is a situation that youth are finding it difficult to get brides if they live in Chappathu. No one wanted to buy a property here and one cannot move out even if he/she wanted. We feel trapped,” said James at Chappathu. “Now, we won’t bother to leave the house even if a loudspeaker announcement is aired. We will face whatever comes,” he adds.

Imagine the trauma undergone by the children and the aged people who were to be taken out to live at temporary camps for a few days every year.

Many people say the century-old dam is not safe. However, they do not have a solution. Rehabilitation of hundreds of families from Vallakadavu to Ayyappancoil where the Periyar merges with Idukki reservoir is a huge task.

The four spillway shutters of the Mullaperiyar dam were opened at 3.30 a.m. on Tuesday and another two by 5 a.m. when the water reached 142 ft. A very high volume of water was released by 8 a.m. through all the opened shutters.

“We don’t remember how many times this monsoon the spillway shutters were opened. The sleepless nights when the water starts bulging in the Periyar river begins with every monsoon. Living with the fear of a dam burst and rushing away during the dead night should be experienced to know it,” says P. N Sebastian at Vallakadavu, the first residential area downstream of Mullaperiyar dam.

“One cannot even enter the river, take bath or wash clothes as it is unpredictable when the water in the river will overflow and when the dam shutters will be raised or closed”, he adds.

The Periyar was witnessing the highest flood this year today due to the highest volume of water released from the Mullaperiyar starting from the wee hour, he says. “Irrigation motors, ladders kept outside the houses, chairs and other household items washed away when we woke up. We had received no information prior to the dam opening and we thought it wouldn’t be opened as the rain was relatively less,” Sebastian says. Tamil Nadu released an additional volume of water to the Periyar by 7 a.m. on Tuesday, he adds. A recorded announcement from the loudspeaker in a jeep was made at 9 a.m. after releasing a high volume of water from 3.30 a.m., “How long can we go like this? I don’t know,: he says.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 6:17:42 PM |

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