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Armageddon at Hand

Armageddon is at hand. At least it looks like being at hand. It is more tempting to believe that it will break out the day after than to hope that all will be well with the world tomorrow. Armageddon is not exactly the end of the world. The biblical experience is the devastating end of a war between good and evil. We don’t quite know whether the end would come with a whimper or following the final deluge or conflagration.

My respondents are divided. Some like Rajendran Namboodiri prefer death by water, some others opt for a fiery end or a Koyna-like quake as recalled by Mukundan Menon. My good friend Ravindran Nayar will have none of this. It is all an overstated fear, a hypochondric response to the studies on the submergence of the earth or the sinking of New York. Who knows, he may be right, “don’t worry, it may not happen.” That it may well happen is what we generally like to fear. As unregenerate journalists say, bad news is good news, no news is bad news.

The quake in Koyna may be taken as a frame of reference. Whether it was due to the tremors in the earth’s womb or the pressures on its bosom is an unending debate. If something like that happens in Mullapperiyar, most of us may not be around to compile an inventory of the loss. V S Achuthanandan was the unremitting leader who set fire to the debate on the safety of the dam. Maybe because he is not exactly well, the damn dam debate has been all but forgotten.

Long before he blew up a pall of fear and gloom, precisely in 1979, there was a Periyar scare. Our paper celebrated it with an eight-column headline. What will not happen and who will survive if the dam built by Col Pennyquick with his own money over a century ago? I put the bland question to K C Thomas, Water Commission chairman. He was relaxed, not a whit overawed. He had been witness to a recrudescence of the report of an impending catastrophe from time to time. Yet he had all mandatory checks done and heaved an amused sigh of relief. It passed with no bad news.

That was not what our undying scare-mongers expected of the Water Commission boss. As Achuthanandan picked up the burning thread of debate, everyone, yes, everyone praised him, his bravery, his crusade. It seemed disheartening to see the scare being proved repeatedly unwarranted. I was writing a weekly column in a popular paper and wanted to raise the case of the wrong alarm.  If the dam breaks, the victims will not be merely the people living on the banks of the river. Its furious flow will wash away a good part of Kerala. Such a calamity, if seriously feared, must generate a flurry of activity, inspiring a mad rush of media to what might be a world event.

That did not happen. But my newspaper was cautious, shall we say, overcautious. A friendly editor told me it would be good to leave the subject unchecked. Readers who lived in constant  fear of a collapse would make a bonfire of the paper if it did not tell them what they wanted to hear. And they wanted to believe the armageddon was at hand. I told myself, “you fool, let sleeping dogs lie!” 

But they do not sleep. A television channel was getting ready a programme on Mullapperiyar, naturally focusing on the threat that faces and people's fears. When the innovative producer took a byte from me in a great act of condescension, I took a view there was no need to scare the people on the banks of the river or around the dam. The producer was concerned but did not confide in me. He wanted to scare his viewers and needed me only to say his views and concerns. I am grateful words I had not spoken were not put into my mouth, though words I spoke were not telecast.

Such scare was not what delayed and rendered controversial the Idamalayar project. If facts about the past and the future of Idamalayar had been fed to people in advance, and if a voluble Achuthanandan had been around with his vitriolic harangues, it might not have even got off the ground. Its gestation period could have been a record in the annals of construction. There was no aspect of it free from criticism and calumny. But no one knew that Idamalayar was ab initio an unsafe project.

Not a word is now spoken about geological experts disfavouring the proposal for a dam across Idamalayar to feed huge turbines. Its prospective benefits were eloquently presented by committed civil engineers but one man, V S Krishnaswamy Iyer, stood his ground. He pointed out, anxiety choking him, that Idamalayar lay in the shear zone of an earthquake with Coimbatore as the epicentre that had happened in 1900. The quake had its impact upto Sri Lanka.

I remember looking up Krishnaswamy’s report, slender and dusty  but explosive, quietly given to me by a chief engineer, M P Bharathan. Krishnaswamy later rose to be the director general of the Geological Survey of India. It is not without regret that I feel I should have followed up the report. As a concession to the doves of the electricity pantheon, it was decided to have no concrete dam as originally proposed. Some munificence this, concrete dam was replaced by masonry dam. Spare the earth, if possible.

Soon scare was to spread with Kothamangalam as the epicentre. R Balakrishna Pillai, a volatile minister, was correcting time and again in terms of its deadline. After several several postponements, project managers took a crucial step one evening. They had a trial run of the turbines, releasing water to them through a pretty long tunnel. And they were constrained to close it instantly.

One of those rare do-gooders rang me up after nightfall to report hush-hush that there was a leak in the tunnel warranting immediate corrective action. It was a leak in the audit tunnel, not the main water course. Ganesha Pillai, a technical member of the electricity board, was as perturbed as surprised when  I asked him for details. He did not know. He sought to be excused to rush to the project site. K M Mani, deputizing for Pillai in the Assembly next day, had little more information than what my morning paper revealed.

Then the season of scare started. Colourful and startling stories of the leak, its murky backdrop and future implications, adorned newspaper columns. Outwitting all rivals, one of them blared that the crack in the dam was serious, perhaps worsening. Competitive extremism in reporting an impending calamity was at its peak. Unnikrishnan, PRO of Hindustan Construction Company, which had built the dam, rang me up to convey his anguish. If the dam broke, he said, more in amusement than agitation, that a good part of middle Kerala would be drowned. Thank heavens, the dam was not cracking. A golden opportunity to instill fear and anxiety was forfeited.

My friend Ravi has seen all this happening, scare mounting and, then, its source drying up. “Don’t worry, it may not happen,” is a biblical writing on the wall on Parliament Street which comforted me in moments of pique and tension. But such reassuring counsel is not often available. And, even when it is available, it looks suspect. There is an anonymous Sanskrit sloka, famously translated by A R Raja Raja Varma, that marks my mood, my fear and hope and solicitude: Night will soon end, morning shine, sun rise, and this lotus will blossom in good time--as the bee in the bud was lost in this reverie, who knows god’s mind, an elephant pulled off that lotus.


More by :  K Govindan Kutty

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