Siruvani row Tamil Nadu

A dam and its discontents

The Bhavanisagar dam - Photo: M. Periasamy  

By the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border stands a village — Mankarai. Located there is a building that was abandoned after the foundation was laid nearly a decade ago. It stands testimony to the fact that the colonisation of elephant corridors by institutions of learning could actually be stopped.

In the 1980s, a waterfall was Mankarai’s prominent feature. Now, about 40 brick kilns jostle for space. In 2003, the village was brought under the Hill Area Conservation Authority which prohibited construction and prevented further colonisation of the hills.

On every such road that leads from Coimbatore to the Western Ghats, institutions of learning block about 27 elephant corridors that have probably existed from the times the animals began roaming these ghats.

Further on, the forest has visibly degraded. In between the dry, thorny bushes are farms, mostly coconut and banana. These farms are mostly owned by Tamils, who began settling in eastern Attappady, through which the Siruvani river flows in Kerala, from the 1940s.

“In 1945, during a time of famine, my forefathers drove their cattle down from the upper Bhavani and settled here,” says Rajan, a farmer in Kottathara. He sits in his coconut grove, on the land that has been in his family for three generations now.

“Back then, there was a wave of migration as residents from Ooty, Coimbatore and Avinashi settled here,” he adds, knowing well that any new dam could affect the farm owners like him in the future. However, the four intervening decades between Kerala’s proposal and its renewal have emboldened him. “Kerala may never build a dam. It looks more like a trick to me,” he says.

Rapid decline

A little ahead, up the Siruvani river that looks more like a big stream, lies a tribal hamlet. Here, 48-year-old Marutha is nursing his 5-year-old grandson Manu, who fractured his hand recently. “We were the kings of this forest,” says Marutha, an Irula tribal and descendant of the original inhabitants of the Attappady valley. The tribals comprised 95 per cent of the population before Independence. In the years since, the tribals here — numbering about 40,000 — are restricted to 192 hamlets in the hills.

“I don’t own any land,” he says. So, he sustains his family by working as a farm hand twice or thrice a week. They all have good houses courtesy the Attappady Wasteland Comprehensive Environmental Project that began in the mid-1990s with Japanese assistance.

“Attappady signifies a paradoxical representation of poverty amidst abundance – reads the first sentence of the project’s brochure being implemented by Attappady Hills Area Development Society (AHADS). It indeed is. Marutha says the majority of the tribals do not own land. “They were all taken away. We were all cheated during my father's time,” he charges.

That’s when Vellingiri steps in, to set the record straight. “I do own land. Ten acres of it. It just lies there though. I have no money to buy a pumpset. Without water, it is a wasteland,” he says. He also works as a farm hand and says whatever money he earns is just enough to feed the family. He says he is willing to give us the land documents if we give him the money he needs to irrigate. Perhaps, this trusting desperation was just how his ancestors lost their homeland to the settlers.

Atop the houses sit satellite dishes. Vellingiri watches the news keenly. Every day. “You know, they are going to build a dam. If they build it, we will all have to starve. I don’t know for whom they are damming and diverting the water,” he says. Obviously, they think once the dam comes up, water won’t flow beyond that.

Further upstream, there already exists a dam across the Siruvani that was built in the 1960s to cater to the needs of Coimbatore city. Back then, Kerala agreed to give drinking water to Tamil Nadu. Now, it wants to build a dam downstream for its own people – arguably the most impoverished in the State.

An AHADS official says the Tamils have settled in the eastern area, and the Malayalis in western Attappady. In essence, the colonisation is more or less complete. Once the dam is up, it may bring more settlers.

Many a loss

Up there in the Attappady’s deprived hills, Radhakrishnan, who works on a quasi-government project, also has his doubts over the proposed dam. He says the Siruvani river, along the settlements, had thick bamboo cover on its banks till the 1970s. “The forest wealth has been lost,” he laments.

“The tribals have lost their community wisdom,” says Seema Bhaskaran, National Mission Manager, National Rural Livelihoods Mission of the Union Ministry of Rural Development. She is leading a pilot project — Kudumbashree Mission — which the Centre plans to upscale in tribal areas in the country. “To improve the livelihood of the tribals [of Attappady], a huge effort is required,” she says. When we meet her in a Laurie Baker-designed office in Agali, she says that her mission itself was being opposed as it exclusively targeted the tribals leaving out the middlemen and the contractors.

“If you are an honest officer fighting corruption anywhere in Attapady, then you will be shifted out soon,” she says. Also, she says the programmes implemented so far were not organically linked to the lives of the tribals. “The designs were flawed. The schemes were not beneficial to them,” she says, advocating the “exclusively tribal” approach. Now, the tribals are being told that they should count education, health and marketing minor forest produce among their entitlements, as well as rights.

“Instead of focusing on an integrated approach, the various departments worked in isolation and the tribal community suffered as funds got diverted,” she says. There are quite a number of dilapidated group houses — all abandoned — dotting the landscape, showcasing the truth behind her claim. “The tribals are also farmers — not in the Kerala way with coconut or arecanut farms but more like Tamils, producing millets,” she says. The valley is rich in medicinal plants and the community wisdom that was nearly lost, is being restored slowly.

In his farm, Rajan shows many plants to prove that the valley is indeed rich in medical herbs. One leaf helps deal with diabetics, another cures skin allergies and so on. “The herbs are one reason the water of the Siruvani has a unique, almost sour taste,” he says.

Water woes

For long, Coimbatoreans have grown up drinking the Siruvani waters and that now threatens to become a memory for a sizable population of the city. Meanwhile, the city too has expanded dramatically. So has Tirupur that also depends on the water.

The Tamil Nadu government dams the Siruvani river and other tributaries joining the Bhavani river at Pilloor.

From here, the two schemes — Pilloor I and II — cater to the drinking water needs of Coimbatore and Tirupur. Plans are afoot for Pilloor III.

“There is a misconception that the Siruvani dam is a farmers’ issue. People don’t realise that Coimbatore may not get drinking water in the future if the dam is built,” says C.R. Jayaprakash, who teaches journalism at PSG Arts and Science College in Coimbatore. The groundwater table in the city limits has hit rock bottom and is close to unusable.

“With the lakes vanishing or getting increasingly polluted, things will only become worse in the future,” he rues.

Meanwhile, Tamil Nadu PWD officials claim that their Kerala counterparts have not given them any details on the proposed dam.

“Two years ago, when a Chief Engineer went across the border to conduct an inspection, they detained him. The police had to go and rescue him,” says an official. After that, they just stopped going.

They have, however, gathered information but are not sure if it’s reliable.

“The existing Siruvani dam can be taken as the start of the river. It flows for 31 km before joining Siruvani. They are building the gravity dam at the 15th kilometre. From what we hear, they plan to have channels for 60 km to the west and 40 km to the east,” says an official, requesting anonymity. “It is an inter-State river issue, you know.”

Whither schemes?

On Friday, the PWD closed down the Bhavanisagar dam for irrigation. “The rainfall this year seems to be the lowest,” says another official. With no water flowing through the Lower Bhavani Project (LBP) canal that irrigates about 2 lakh acres, officials acknowledge that even drinking water schemes could be hit if the new dam comes up.

“Do they teach you in journalism school, the difference between cusecs, mcft and tmc?” asks a technical officer. Punching his calculator, he says, “Coimbatore alone may need 9 tmc for drinking water in future.” This is in about five years.

That is more than twice the water that would be dammed by the Kerala government’s plans to tap and divert, going by the information available in the public domain. According to the Cauvery Tribunal’s final order, the neighbouring State is entitled to 2.87 tmc from the Bhavani basin. PWD officials expect at least two fillings.

Bleak future

For the farmers of the area, the future looks bleak. Muthusamy is a farmers’ leader in Sathyamangalam who has led various agitations. He is also the president of the flower merchants association. With no water from the LBP and no rains, the wells along the canal have also gone dry. “A few years ago, I brought water tankers to save the jasmine. A jasmine farm takes 15 years of work. I couldn’t let it die. So I spent over Rs. 1 lakh for the tankers and saved it,” he recalls.

Sona Naicker has been a bit lucky on that account. He has no well. And, so no risk. About 50,000 acres have no well irrigation and so are directly dependent on the LBP. No water along the canal means no crop this year. On Friday, the rain was playing hide and seek.

“It hasn’t rained at all. If there is a good monsoon, there is no problem. If the monsoon fails, then we will suffer,” he says.

Officials are clear about one thing. In distress years, drinking water gets priority. “Even farmers need water to drink first,” reasons an officer.

Most affected

The farmers who cultivate down the river seem to be the most affected this year. Initially, when water was released, hope floated. And so, they invested. Now, there is no water, and the crops are most likely to die. The loss is estimated at about Rs. 20,000 per acre. And, there are about 30,000 acres. “The PWD got it wrong. They should have got the math right,” says Muthusamy.

In protest against the proposed dam, the farmers of Sathyamangalam have decided to organise a total bandh in the town on September 16. All parties, except the ruling AIADMK, will be participating.

With all three neighbouring States planning dams across various rivers, much to the dismay of farmers, the PWD officials here want to tell Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to revive the Pandiyar–Punnapuzha scheme.

“The Siruvani dam is only 4 tmc. Pandiyaru scheme is above 20 tmc. All that we need is a tunnel to connect the dammed water to Moyar,” says a senior official.

This project may never take off as it too has grave ecological implications. As tunnelling will have to be carried out in and around the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, it could fracture the elephant habitat and endanger wildlife. PWD officials, however, have professionally cultivated a single-track mind: They think only in terms of water. And, they have another strange problem.

No one knows who, or how they will tell the Chief Minister.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 1:11:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/A-dam-and-its-discontents/article14634829.ece

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