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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Episode 2/Chapter 16: What, If Our Dreams Come True!

Chapter 16

A couple of months passed by and they were some of the gloomy months of our life. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion and we had no choice than to go with the flow of life – slow or fast.

During these months, I discovered William’s growing anxiety about the dam project. More than anyone in our camp, he believed in the dam project becoming a reality. I found him writing letters to his friends in England about the project, with great enthusiasm. When I probed him, I found him quite serious about his promise to give away all the money from the sale of his estate for the dam project. He appeared to love this place and his company with us and genuinely wanted to do something that would benefit the people here at large. He found the Podhigai hills very peaceful and rejuvenating for his body and mind. He found it difficult to hold back his tears when he repeatedly heard the stories of the people who suffered in the last flash floods. He was a true friend in our group and resourceful too. Some of his friends back home were willing to take the message among the larger public in England and help mobilize funds for the dam project, if the government approved it.

‘We were small fries and would we be in a position to raise money for a large project like this?’ We were skeptical.

The weather and climate change over time. That is a certainty anywhere on earth. Slowly, our fortunes too changed.

Devendran was visiting Tirunelveli, the district headquarters on the banks of Tamirabarani. He stayed in one of the lodges along the Sri Nellaiappar High Road. This lodge was very famous those days and many leading personalities in politics, film world and business stayed there, on their visits to Nellai –a fondly shortened name for Tirunelveli. He sent word for us to meet in Nellai.

With rising expectations again, we rushed to Nellai and our meeting with Devendran could take place only in the midnight, after he returned from a public meeting in Vagaiyadimukku, a popular junction in the town, around the main Nellaiappar temple. 

He looked fresh while we looked tired out of anxiety.

Another businessman from Sivakasi was with him when he entered his room.

“What do you say, Muthuvel? Here are the people wanting to sell the estate. Talk to them!” He told the accompanying businessman, then lay down on his bed and closed his eyes.

Muthuvel was direct and businesslike. William explained in brief about the estate and in all honesty, told him about the problems in the documentation. Muthuvel didn’t appear to be perturbed about the documents part and quoted a price. We were taken aback. The price was way below what William had hoped to receive. We were not sure whether Devendran had slept or not, and we wondered how to proceed with the discussions.

There was silence in the room. Some fifteen minutes passed and none of us wanted to disturb Devendran, as we all thought he was sleeping.

Suddenly, he opened his eyes and said, ‘Muthuvel, pay them two hundred and fifty thousand rupees for the estate. I think that would be fair for you and for them. As you know, that Englishman is going to donate the entire money for constructing a dam across Tamirabarani in the upper hills. What do you say?”

He then turned to William and asked him, ‘Do you still want to give that money to the project?’

‘Of course!’ shot William.

Muthuvel thought for a second and agreed to proceed with the purchase of the estate. We were very pleased that we were able to strike a deal. During the next two months, the papers were signed and the money was deposited in the State Bank of India in Tirunelveli. Simultaneously, another account in the name of “Nellai Citizen Endeavor for Hill Dam Project” was opened as advised by Devendran. We organized a ceremony in the Vaagaiyadimukku junction in Nellai town and a cheque for two hundred and fifty thousand rupees was presented by William to Devendran for the dam project. The volunteers went around, spreading out a ‘dhoti’ (a common practice among political parties to collect donations) and collected another ten thousand rupees as a donation. Ours was one of the first ever known self-help projects that was floated and funded by the community and its people. The local government could still not fund the project, but it had no objection to it if the community was able to mobilize the funds.

There was euphoria all around in our camp. We all felt that we had taken a great leap in implementing our dream. Things really moved fast from that stage.

Lakshmana Iyer proved to be particularly helpful, with his students. More than five thousand hand written appeals were prepared by his students, adding a personal touch to our appeal for donations and were sent out to many prominent citizens all over India.

The Prime Minister sent a personal cheque for five thousand rupees blessing the project as a very novel attempt. Devendran really moved many in the government and every day we received cheques from different parts of the southern states and from many prominent people in politics, industry and the government. Several philanthropists too sent in donations for the project in small and big amounts.

It was the year 1920. Mr. Brooke, an English commander, was sent to Palayamkottai to suppress the freedom struggle and overpower extremist groups hiding in the Podhigai hills. He was very successful with similar operations in Darjeeling hills, the year before. He was known to be ruthless with rioters and very loyal to the Queen. Ever since he moved into Ambasamudram from Palayamkottai, the rioters were forced to shift their base constantly. Brooke chased them into the hills, but didn’t succeed in capturing any of them. The search operations were carried out with a vengeance and the extremist group also retaliated with great force from time to time.

His wife, Mrs. Romela, was pregnant and stayed back at Palayamkottai. She was a childhood friend of British Queen herself and she automatically enjoyed many privileges. Brooke visited her on all the weekend and the couple was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the baby during the next few weeks. A Gujarathi nanny was with her, twenty four hours, and a reputed local maid was going to be the midwife.

Brooke was passionate about hunting and frequented the nearby forests and hills. The place was known for wild animals that frequently entered many villages at the foot of the hills. He captured many of them while hunting and displayed their skeleton remains in his residence, with great pride.
As Romela approached the delivery date, she was haunted by horror dreams about her husband. She insisted on either Brooke returning to Palayamkottai or her joining him at Ambasamudram. The former was completely out of the question and so against all his wishes, she moved into Brooke’s residence at Ambasamudram, along with her nanny and maid. She felt better being with Brookes, though Brooke did not. He worried for her safety. He knew that the terrorist group was after terminating him. Because of Romela’s connections, even the Queen of England took a special interest in her safe delivery and their safety.

One day, he had received information about the hideout of a small terrorist outfit near Kalakkad hills, a place he had frequented for hunting. He set out with a team, to capture those people. No one knows to this date if it was a trap, but he never returned from Kalakkad hills – only his blood-stained outfit was found in the forests and there was no trace of him.

On the very same day, Romela went into labor and the delivery developed complications. While the army waited to transport her to Palayamkottai, all of a sudden, in the darkness of night, Brooke’s residence was attacked by powerful bombs and fire broke out. A few guards were killed in the crossfire. A group of two terrorists rushed to the upper floor where Romela was rested for her child delivery. They carried guns and torches setting everything to fire. The Gujarati nanny and the maid fell at their feet and pleaded with them to spare Romela. Romela watched everything helplessly. The youth who were about to kill Romela, suddenly changed their mind. They not only spared her, but helped her move safely outside to the garden where she delivered a boy. Wishing Romela and the baby well, the boys ran away to join the fight. The entire revolutionary group including those boys who saved Romela was finally killed in the fight.

Romela returned to England at the earliest opportunity and she lived somewhere in Southern London. Her son George was a frequent visitor to the Queen’s palace. Eventually George studied with William when they were growing up and one of our appeals for help landed in the hands of George who took that in all earnestness to the Queen and showed it to her.

So, when we received an envelope bearing the seal “On her Majesty’s Services”, we were most pleasantly surprised to find a cheque for one thousand British pounds, from the British Queen herself from her personal accounts, for the dam project.

Devendran was quite young, dynamic, forthright, and honest. When it came to politics, he was very ambitious. He believed that in a democracy one could achieve a lot only if you were in politics and that too in power. He played his cards very skillfully and he rose in power and popularity. He moved between central and state leaders spreading his influence and soon came to be recognized as a principal opinion maker, very astute negotiator, and even a king-maker. His words carried a lot of weight and at his behest a special fund for dam projects across Tamirabarani was floated. The fund sought contributions from the public, though, not much contribution came in.

During those days, the country needed a strong international ally, but was suspicious of the Americans. India was attracted to the socialistic models of governance and naturally leaned towards Soviet Russia that was more willing to take India’s side on many international issues and help India financially and technologically so that they could tilt the power scales in their own struggle for supremacy with Americans. We needed to import a lot of heavy equipment, fertilizers, arms and ammunitions, military hardware, aircrafts and a host of things that needed substantial foreign currencies. We were strapped for American dollars which remained the principal trading currency worldwide and Russia was amenable to rupee transactions for trade with India. They were ready to send their engineers and provide us the technology. We came to know that Devendran was already talking to a few powerful officials in Soviet Russia about his dream projects to build several dams in Southern India.

Rathnam, the former jamindar had an excellent rapport with the labor force and he went around several villages in and around Tirunelveli and enlisted a large work force for the construction of dams, in exchange for food for their family. Ours was one of the earliest public projects assuring food for work. Most people along the banks of Tamirabarani were agrarian and didn’t have work, round the year. Agriculture depended on rains which played ‘hide and seek’ all the time. The river supported them partially through a number of smaller canals built by several, over many centuries.

Easwaran and Lakshmana Iyer became our spiritual centers providing the much needed psychological and motivational support, helping everyone believe that the project would become a reality soon, through regular prayers and chanting of religious hymns in the temple. 

In between, William went back to England to solicit further support for the project and he came back after six months with a bagful of cheques and bank demand drafts. He also brought a list of names of several specialist engineers who were willing to provide technical consultancy for constructing dams. William favored engaging British Engineers whom he considered far more competent than Russian engineers. There were tension and conflict in our camp between the protagonists of the British and the Russian engineering teams, each side claiming supremacy.

In and around Tirunelveli, across Tamirabarani many check dams had been built over millennia by the rulers of those days. I decided to study them in detail in the meantime. Sudalai arranged a bullock cart for me and we took a detailed tour along Tamirabarani, over the next several months. When I returned, I was fully equipped with sufficient information about dams and water reservoirs. To me it appeared that check dams were the best option under the given circumstances and that we should not mind using our ancient indigenous technology and wisdom in building dams. I also made a quick visit to Anicut otherwise known as ‘Kallanai’, a check dam across Cauvery river, built by Karikala Chozhan who ruled Chozha empire during the 2nd century C.E in Tamilnadu. It still stood the test of time and the design was later adopted by the legendary British irrigation engineer Arthur Cotton, who went on to build various irrigation structures across our country, in the nineteenth century.

Check dams were eco-friendly because they did not submerge nearby farms and property. They also helped recharge groundwater in aquifers and nearby wells. They allowed more percolation of monsoon rains into the soil. Thus, it increased moisture in soil and vegetation. Erosion of soil was controlled and thus flooding too. To the contrary, bigger dams resulted in environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. People got displaced while building big dams. More significantly, I came to know that the rare plants that were unique to Podhigai hills might disappear if big dams were built.

People around me supported my ideas on check dams. They all agreed that check dams would be more efficient for supporting irrigation for agriculture, than bigger dams. Besides, the nationalist feelings were still running high and we had only recently suffered the commercial exploitation of the country’s resources by foreign powers. So we needed to convince the authorities to use our ancient indigenous technology that even the British had used during their rule across our country, rather than seeking foreign collaboration.

We went through several rounds of discussions with the government representatives. We met roadblocks on several issues. Hoping that Devendran would support us, we went ahead and pressed our claims. We told the government that inasmuch as the major part of the money for the construction of the dam is raised by us, we should have a say in every matter relating to the dam. The land belonged to no one in particular and so it belonged to the society. We had the labor ready to proceed with the work. We had with us a number of independent retired engineers who were familiar with our indigenous technology in constructing dams. Materials required for construction were locally available. All that was required, was a government stamp of approval, cooperation, and support with whatever resources they may have.

The government didn’t agree with many of our stipulations that we considered important for us to have a hold on the project. The government insisted that they would ultimately execute the project once the money was ready with us and that they would have the upper hand in making decisions about various issues relating to the project. They wanted us to deposit the entire money into the government accounts from where they would make it available periodically for the project, as work progressed. We stoutly objected many conditions imposed on us by the government, even while we were cautiously aware that the project wouldn’t come up without the support of the government. We tried to use as much leverage available with us as possible. In the process, the coming up of the dam was getting delayed and we were growing nervous and anxious. At times, we came to suspect the motive and the sincerity of the government in implementing the project.

William gave excellent support to us and I was constantly educated on several issues relating to project planning and execution. His contacts in England and the British engineering team were constantly in touch with us. However, it was a tedious process of writing to them, hoping to get replies from them, waiting for the reply and again getting in touch with them with more questions when we got replies. We educated each other about the kind of peculiar problems of our terrain and the choice of solutions available.
We made several presentations to Devendran who appreciated our concern, but due to several legal technicalities, couldn’t alter government’s stand. However, we pursued with our claim.

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