Today is October 10. This day marks the 125th anniversary of completion of Mullaperiyar dam, which still remains a bone of contention between the two states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
An engineering marvel, Mullaperiyar dam was constructed across Periyar River during 1887-1895. The dam commissioned in 1895. The dam is situated at Vallakkadavu in Peerumedu taluk of Idukki district and is located 881 m (2,890 ft) above mean sea level. Though the dam is situated on Kerala side, built at the confluence of Mullayar and Periyar rivers, Tamil Nadu operates and maintains it as part of an agreement signed decades back. However, the catchment area lies entirely in the state of Kerala
The 175 feet high dam was built after the great Madras famine of 1876-78. This prompted then British regime to build a dam across Periyar so that the water could be diverted to the Vaigai River for irrigating farm lands of Theni, Madurai, Dindigul, Ramanathapuram and Sivaganga districts in Tamil Nadu.
The design and construction of the dame was done by British engineer Captain John Pennycuick. More than 3,000 workers toiled for eight years, braving incessant rain, cold weather, deadly diseases and wild animals to build the dam. The work on the dam started in 1882.
The dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu began in 1998. This began after Tamil Nadu wanted to raise the height of the permitted water level in the dam and Kerala opposing it. In 2006, the Supreme Court allowed Tamil Nadu to raise the water level to 142ft. The Kerala government in response to this enacted the Irrigation and Water Conservation (Amendment) Act, 2006, which was struck down by the apex court. Meanwhile, people living in the downstream areas of the dam formed the Mullaperiyar Samrakshana Samithi (MSS) and launched an agitation in 2006. They said that the water will wash away five districts in Kerala in case of a dam breach. They said that the dam was not strong enough to hold that much water.
Mullaperiyar is a gravity dam. It is made with concrete prepared from limestone and “surkhi” (burnt brick powder). Gravity dams use their weight and the force of gravity to support the reservoir. The main dam has a maximum height of 176 ft and length of 1,200 ft. Its crest is 12 ft wide and the base has a width of 138 ft. The reservoir can withhold 443,230,000 m3 (359,332 acre⋅ft) of water.
The idea of harnessing the waters of Periyar River and diverting it to the eastward flowing Vaigai River was first explored in 1789 by Pradani Muthirulappa Pillai, a minister of the Ramnad king Muthuramalinga Sethupathy. However, the idea was given up as it was found to be expensive. The location of the dam was first scouted by Captain J L Caldwell of Madras Engineers in 1808. He had brought up the idea of providing water from the Periyar River to Madurai by a tunnel through the mountains. However, this was also abandoned. Though the idea was given up, several proposals were submitted in the later years. The Madras regime at last decided to go ahead with the dam construction in 1882 and they appointed John Pennycuik in charge to prepare a revised project and estimate. The plan was approved in 1884. As part of this, a lease agreement for 999 years was made between the Travancore King Visakham Thirunal Rama Varma and the British on October 29, 1886.
The construction of the dam began in 1887. The construction involved the use of troops from the 1st and 4th battalions of the Madras pioneers as well as Portuguese carpenters from Kochi who were employed in the construction of the coffer-dams and other structures.
In between, the construction of the dam was stopped by the British after the coffer dam failed. However, Pennycuick raised funds by selling his wife’s jewellery to continue the work. The great engineer is still remembered in many households in Madurai for realising the dam. His statue is installed at the state PWD office and his photographs are found adorning walls in homes and shops. His great grandson was honoured in Madurai in 2002.