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Season of Southern Discontent

Last updated on: December 21, 2011 20:36 IST

Delhi, Mumbai, and Kochi are the three cities that I know best. But come this time of the year and it is a third city that demands my allegiance, Chennai.

If you love Carnatic music there is really nothing like the Chennai Music Season -- often called simply 'the Season' -- one of the world's great cultural events, over a thousand concerts organised in the span of a month or so.

For me personally the Season is one of the much-anticipated highlights of the year, a blessed relief to get away from the pollution -- literal and spiritual alike -- of Delhi. While it is scarcely possible to spend the entire season in Chennai, believe me even ten days to a fortnight do a world of good.

Sadly, politics has a way of intruding even into this sacred space. When I arrived in Chennai the talk was all of Saiskala's fall from grace after having been J Jayalalithaa's confidante for so long. But, inevitably I suppose, given that I am a Keralite, the conversation would shift briskly to the Mullaperiyar issue.

Equally inevitably given the times in which we live, there seemed to be an undercurrent of religious antagonism. More than one person seemed to think that it was a Christian conspiracy to deprive the Hindus of Tamil Nadu.

The Kerala Congress admittedly draws its support from the Christian community in Kerala, but it is hard to believe that the fears in Kerala about the safety of the Mullaperiyar dam are inspired by priests of any one faith.

As far as I can tell the concerns over the integrity of the 116-year-old structure -- natural or manufactured -- cut across community lines in Kerala.

How did this particular rumour spread in Tamil Nadu?

Part of the reason seems to be the fate of pilgrims from the state that were going on the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimalai. There were reports from Aryankavu that Tamilian devotees had been threatened.

This news reportedly led to as many as 300 buses being stranded on the Tamil Nadu side of the border because both the drivers and the passengers feared violence. Some pilgrims then proceeded to complete their devotions at temples in Cumbum, at Suruli, or in Madurai, all of which are, of course in Tamil Nadu, rather than in Sabarimalai.

Rumours, as was only to be expected, took the actual reports and magnified them. This is how the poisonous communal undertone came into play.

Obviously, there are many people in Chennai that are too sensible to accept this. But even they seem to be convinced that the people of Kerala do not understand the fears of the people of Tamil Nadu.

The heart of the problem is something that no public figure from Tamil Nadu dares to admit in public, namely the fact that the state's claims are purely legalistic. That is to say, Tamil Nadu has no moral or environmental claim to the waters of the Periyar, whose natural course is westward, to the Arabian Sea, not across the mountains to Tamil Nadu. And the legal agreement upon which Tamil Nadu stands is of dubious morality since the princely state of Travancore signed only under duress from the British in 1886, having resisted it for 24 years.

The British tended to favour their own provinces over the princely states. It is a common grouse in Karnataka that princely Mysore was 'unfairly deprived' of its rights over the Kaveri because the sovereign power preferred British Madras.

And in Telangana people are still agitated over not getting their 'fair share' of the Godavari waters, while Arthur Cotton is still a hero in Coastal Andhra, which too was part of the erstwhile Madras.

The essential unfairness notwithstanding, Tamil Nadu clings on to the legal agreement. The simple fact is that in the past 116 years farmers in Tamil Nadu have grown used to taking water from Kerala's Periyar. Four districts -- Madurai, Theni, Ramanathapuram, and Sivaganga -- think of the Mullaperiyar water as their lifeline.

This is what P Chidambaram was recently moved to say about the Mullaperiyar controversy: 'It is an unnecessary fear. It is not even a temporary or a permanent fear. It is only a bypoll fear.' A by-election is scheduled for the assembly constituency of Piravom in Kerala.

Was he speaking as the Union home minister, or as the Lok Sabha MP for Sivaganga?

The great fear in Tamil Nadu is what might happen if the Mullaperiyar Dam is brought down either by an earthquake or by an act of man. Would Kerala then agree to supply the same quantum of water?

If there is indeed a massive quake, nobody in Kerala would submit to building a dam. That goes without saying.

Tamil Nadu, however, is equally afraid of what might happen if the old dam is brought down for safety concerns, with a view to being reconstructed. After the 1886 agreement it took Colonel John Pennycuick's team seven years to build the dam, between 1887 and 1895.

Let us assume that engineering techniques have improved since then, and that a new dam may be built much faster. Even so, construction will take several years.

What happens in that period to the people -- the farmers, specifically -- of Madurai, Theni, Ramanathapuram, and Sivaganga?

As I understood it, Tamil Nadu is not as interested in the storage height of the Mullaperiyar Dam, whether 142 feet, 136 feet, or 120 feet, as it is in the quantum of water that it receives. How many cusecs (cubic feet per second) will it get? On what basis shall the waters of the Periyar be shared if a new dam is built?

The most pessimistic wonder if the river's bounty shall be shared at all.

All of Tamil Nadu's fears may be warranted, but does anyone in the state understand Kerala's fears? Positions have hardened so far that the chief minister of Tamil Nadu is now objecting even to the National Disaster Management Authority forming a team of experts to draw contingency plans for the Mullaperiyar Dam.

In a letter to the prime minister, J Jayalalithaa has condemned it as 'succumbing to the subterfuge of the government of Kerala.'

At this point I am more pessimistic than ever that any amicable solution to the problem is possible. Neither state is prepared to accept that its neighbour might have legitimate fears, of a dam collapse in Kerala and of water famine in Tamil Nadu.

This, sadly, is one Season when what I am hearing in Chennai is definitely not music to my ears.

T V R Sheony