One night, we all huddled into the temple and burnt the midnight oil. Our strategy was drawn and we all committed ourselves to the cause of constructing the dam. We were growing confident by our swelling kitty and the continuous flow of money for the project. Now, money seemed to be the lesser of our concerns. The world was full of noble-minded people, willing to support genuine causes.
In the next several days, one could regularly see labor colonies springing up near three dam sites we identified. Yes, we decided to construct not just one big dam, but three smaller check dams across Tamirabarani, which would hold water in good days and also provide water for agriculture. We were convinced that check dams would meet the requirement of the region better than big dams. Flash floods would become a thing of the past, we were repeatedly assured by Mr. Krishnamoorthy. He had had his engineering degree at a prestigious university from England and had worked both in England and in India, for the British. He was one of our important brains and he was actively involved in planning for the dam. Lakshmana Iyer was the one to initially contact Mr. Krishnamoorthy through one of his students who was distantly related to him. Nearly three thousand laborers moved into these colonies located at different places up the hill. Forest clearances could not be avoided, but we kept it to the minimum so that some of the wild animals for whom the hills were the regular habitats were not disturbed.
Everything went on silently. One day, the Government woke up and was surprised at the massive accumulation of labor at the dam sites. They came down heavily and slapped a notice on us that we were indulging in unlawful occupation of government owned land and that we should vacate within a week. We were equally adamant in not vacating the place until the construction work for the dam started. We came to know later on that a few politicians who were very jealous of Devendran and his growing popularity were at work, determined to scuttle our dam project.
A week later, a strong police force landed in all the sites and they issued an ultimatum for vacating the place. At the same time, a negotiating team from the government too landed at our place, to avert any serious confrontation, especially when such a massive build up of the labor force had taken place at the dam sites. We decided to make a tactical retreat. We felt we had made the first impact. We woke up the government. We vacated the camps near the dam sites and some in the government thought we had buckled under the pressure.
But we decided to surprise them the next day. Five thousand workers and their families were assembled in front of the office of the District Collector in Tirunelveli and went on a mass hunger strike. We declared to fast unto death. It was a massive show of solidarity. A popular daily newspaper covered our Movement very widely and news flashed all over Tamilnadu the very next day. The Collector of Tirunelveli was in a fix. Our protest was ‘satvik’, peaceful and silent. There were reports and comments for and against the project as well as our pressure tactics to force the government to our way of thinking. A section of public thought anarchy would reign in if everyone resorted to such tactics to force the government to take decisions and that there would be no government at all. Many others commented that it was a people’s project and they had every right to have a say in this project. But soon our project and our struggle caught nationwide attention and the government started feeling the heat. They were frantic to find an end to the problem, but without giving up their conditions on a number of issues.
Devendran shuttled between the higher-ups in the government and our management team. He was caught in a dilemma and he used all his might in convincing both about the need to have a compromise. Our fast entered the eighth day without much progress. Many frail participants were forcibly removed to hospitals as they fell terribly ill and there was a fear of contagion and infection among the remaining.
I was becoming restless, as summer heat started scorching everyone, adding to our woes.
“Oh, Lord Siva, you brought me here. What are you doing now?” I cried out, one night, in silence.
His answer came in the next twenty-four hours.
The very next day, the Sun disappeared in the early morning in the sky covered completely by gray clouds. It was mid-May during what is known as ‘Agni Nakshatram’ period (In Sanskrit, Agni is fire and Nakshatram means a star). It is usually unbearably hot for about three weeks every year during this time, as summer peaks out in South India. But that day, the Sun decided to play hide and seek and as the day progressed, reports started flowing in about heavy cloud formations in Southern Tamil Nadu over the Western Ghats and specifically those areas around Podhigai hills. By the early evening, it started drizzling in scattered areas over the hills and by the early night, it turned into rain. Then it continued into whole night and became torrential, before the next morning. River Tamirabarani swelled and breached almost every bank on the way.
When it rained, a few smaller rivers that were tributaries to Tamirabarani in the upstream flowed down the slopes with tremendous force, carrying with it heavy soil and rocks, uprooting trees and plants on the way. When they joined the mainstream of Tamirabarani, they inundated lands, fields, gardens, villages and towns. There were flash floods in the entire Tirunelveli district. Not many check dams were there on its path and even the few existing ones were poorly maintained.
The government was in shock, caught unaware and completely unprepared to meet the devastations. Several thousand acres of paddy fields went under water and the crops were damaged, several huts and houses were washed away along the banks of the river, cattle and birds reportedly floated along the river. For the first time, water entered several towns even. The people were panicky and feared a repeat of earlier calamities.
The only miracle was if that was any solace, no human loss was reported anywhere. It was unbelievable but was true. It appeared Lord Siva decided to spare humans this time.
The District Collector of Tirunelveli came to us, with folded hands and requested us to withdraw the hunger strike that we were determined to continue despite the flood situation. He promised action in the next few days. Realization dawned at least at his level about the urgent need to have smaller dams - as many as possible – to effectively divert flood water through a number of channels. He exhorted us to support the administration’s flood relief efforts.
There was a sudden upheaval all over the country, about the lackadaisical attitude and the approach of the government towards public woes. The government was under tremendous pressure. The Central Government decided to intervene and called all parties for urgent consultation.
We decided to temporarily withdraw our agitation, to afford the government a chance to calmly think and come to a fast conclusion. Surprisingly, the Government decided to give in to our demands.
Some of the important conclusions arrived at were:
Firstly, there would be three check dams as proposed by us.
Secondly, there would be a Citizen Committee who would oversee the implementation of the dam project.
This committee would be headed by Krishnamoorthy and include local citizen recommended by us.
Thirdly, the committee would have substantial powers over the finances for the project.
Fourthly, on our suggestion, a special independent audit team of professionals and a few prominent local citizen would conduct a financial and social audit during the entire period of implementation of the project.
Fifthly, for the first time since the World War II, a technical team consisting of both English and Russian engineers would work together to implement a project. They would combine the older technologies of ancient Southern India along with the modern technology.
Finally and most importantly, the government would bridge any gap in financial arrangements, if there were any.
We couldn’t ask for more. Work on the project started in all earnestness in the next three months. Details were sorted out. The committed labor force moved back to the project site. Old and new technologies melded together and over the next about three years, stone by stone, brick by brick and inch by inch, the check dams emerged at three places over the upper regions of Tamirabarani.
The families and children of the labor force too moved into the site. For the first time, a self-contained society came up there, where everyone supported everyone else mutually. Schools for the children, hospital, post office, banks, playgrounds, gardens, transport, markets and every other facility sprang up around the project sites. This was a tremendous achievement for the people.
On the day the three dams finally got inaugurated by Devendran, I walked alone, all the way to Papanasam, to pay my gratitude to Lord Siva, for the first time in all my seven years of stay in this region. I knew people were searching for me for the inaugural function. But here I was, alone with the Lord at Papanasam. He sat inside the magnificent temple on the banks of Tamirabarani down the slope. I went down the twenty and odd steep steps to the river and stood in the water. As the cool water washed my feet, a large swamp of green colored fishes surrounded my feet. I remembered to bring a bag full of ‘rice pori’ for them. As more fishes joined, I sat on a small rock nearby, listening to the tantalizing music coming from the gushing water, tearing down on its way the small and big rocks.
‘Don’t thank me. Thank Lord Siva for sparing you and your species in the process of building dams across the river?’ I seemed to be telling the fishes.
I happily fed those fishes with more and more of ‘Rice Pori’. A sudden flash of memory reminded me about the visions I had in the dark cave at Courtallam and it struck me that those visions were, in fact showing me the things that lay ahead for me. And I lost myself, sitting on the small rock surrounded by gushing river water.
Thirdly, the committee would have substantial powers over the finances for the project.