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The temple and the dam

By T P Sreenivasan
May 14, 2014 10:53 IST
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Padmanabha Swami templeTwo decisions handed down by the Supreme Court have spread gloom in Kerala as they have shaken two basic faiths of a majority of the people in the state, says T P Sreenivasan.

Unseasonal and devastating rain is not the only challenge that Kerala is facing these days. Two decisions handed down by the Supreme Court have spread gloom in Kerala as they have shaken two basic faiths of a majority of the people in the state.

The faith in the presiding deity of Thiruvananthapuram, Padmanabha Swamy, is inextricably linked with the former ruling family of Travancore, whose integrity, honesty and humility have earned them respect and adoration even without any trappings of power.

Excluding the family from the administration of the temple, even temporarily has wounded the people's feelings. In addition, there is a sense that Padmanabha Swami himself may disapprove of such steps and express his displeasure in various ways.

The Mullapperiyar dam, built on a river, which originates and flows entirely through Kerala, should be under the total control of the state, but on the basis of a generous gesture to its neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu has virtually monopolised it under a Supreme Court order.

The dam, built more than a hundred years ago with mud and lime, was declared unsafe since 1962 and Kerala has been wanting to rebuild it to ensure safety for its own people.

As an interim measure, the state was also seeking to restrict the water level of the dam up to a point. Kerala, having lost its case on both counts, feels not only humiliated, but also vulnerable to loss of life and property.

In the case of the temple, what led to the action by the Supreme Court was the charge that the temple administration was lax and employees may have smuggled out valuables. But the shocking fact is that some of the people, who had remained close to the palace, alleged that the royal family itself might have been involved.

To accuse the very people, who accumulated the wealth and protected it over the years, of stealing it is patently unfair, particularly since there is no shred of evidence to support the charge. Allegations and insinuations have come either from the leftist parties or disgruntled bureaucrats seeking glory for them.

One of the early rulers of Travancore, Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, in an unprecedented act of loyalty to the deity, had surrendered his wealth, himself and the members of his family, including succeeding generations to Padmanabha Swami and ruled the kingdom as 'slaves' of the deity.

Moreover, they are such devotees of Padmanabha Swami that their conscience would not allow them to take back anything that they had willingly surrendered to the Lord.

The tragedy is not that the temple administration was entrusted to a new group, but the implication that the needle of suspicion has been pointed to the very protectors of the temple.

No one but cynics and hard-core anti-royalists will believe these allegations. The family has, however, gracefully welcomed the new administration and any investigation.

The appointment of the former Comptroller and Auditor General, Vinod Rai, to look into the temple affairs was indeed a masterstroke, as no one will challenge his integrity. As a Kerala cadre officer, he must be aware of the traditions of the temple as well as the impeccable reputation of the royal family.

It is incumbent on the public not to jump to conclusions or even cast aspersions on the family. It is going through a difficult transition from one generation to another after the loss of its 92 years old head.

In the case of the Mullaperiyar Dam, the Court decision is even more bewildering. It has decreed not only that the situation does not demand replacement of the dam, but also that the water level could be raised to heights considered dangerous by experts.

Dams, even those built with the most modern technology, can burst, causing inestimable damage to lives, property and entire ecosystem. Some say that these water bombs are more lethal than nuclear weapons. For any court to sit in judgment on the safety of an old dam and not to allow Kerala to build a new dam in place of Mullaperiyar appears unthinkable.

The only reason for them to do this is that the Tamil Nadu government has opposed the replacement of the dam for fear of losing the privileges they have enjoyed over the years.

A logical solution would be to insist that Tamil Nadu would enjoy the privileges even after the new dam is built. In such cases, the normal tendency is to err on the side of caution. The precautionary principle, considered significant in environmental matters, appears to have been ignored.

The people in the area live in mortal fear of the dam bursting and engulfing them and carrying them to the sea. The fear is palpable for many years and the latest verdict of the court is seen as having sealed their fate.

They will feel relieved only if a new dam is built. No amount of assurance by any authority will have any credibility with the affected population. The only ray of hope, which remains is a committee constituted with representatives of Kerala and Tamil Nadu to find an acceptable solution. But Kerala has a sense of defeat, aggravated further by the victory celebrations in Tamil Nadu.

Keralites tend to consume huge amounts of alcohol when they are glad and when they are sad. This time, that pleasure is also denied to some, as 418 bars remain closed on account of lack of the required facilities. The debate has highlighted the dilemma of the government, which is committed to discourage consumption of alcohol, but needs the revenue to sustain the government.

As Kerala waits breathlessly for the election results, Kerala has nothing much to smile about. Whether the election results will bring cheer to Kerala is yet to be seen. Since all the candidates expect victory, at least half of them will be even gloomier next week.

Image: The Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Kind courtesy

T P Sreenivasan (Indian Foreign Service, 1967) is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency; Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council; and Director General, Kerala International Centre.

You can read Ambassador Sreenivasan's earlier columns here.

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T P Sreenivasan