As one travels to Cumbom valley west of the Western Ghats, there is a statue of John Pennycuik at lower Periyar in addition to many other memorials to him. On his birthday and during the sowing season, many pay floral tributes at the memorials.
It was Pennycuik who changed the course of the Periyar – diverting the west-flowing river to the east water-starved fields of Cumbom valley, now dotted with paddy fields, vineyards, vegetable and coconut plantations, and flower gardens.
The Mullaperiyar dam turns 125 on Saturday and the British engineer tasked by the Madras presidency for its construction is worshipped as a hero by farmers in the four districts of southern Tamil Nadu, where water from the dam meets the drinking water needs and irrigates thousands of hectares.
Details of the dam construction are available in official British documents, Madurai Manual (AD 1800s) and reports of the Reuters news agency based at Chennai (1890-95).
The dam was constructed surmounting many odds, with malaria and thick jungles taking a toll on workers. It was a huge challenge before him to construct the dam and divert the river course.
Pennycuik sowed the seeds of river interlinking to bring barren and rain-starved areas under cultivation. The road from Cumbom to Kumily, now part of the Kollam-Theni national highway, was constructed for bullock carts to move equipment to the dam site.
The first ropeway was also constructed there, which was later shifted to Munnar.
An agreement between the Pandya kings who ruled Madurai and the erstwhile Travancore kingdom was signed for water sharing, which is now a bone of contention between Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The Madras presidency under the British rule looked for diverting the Periyar as the Kingdom of Madurai was facing acute shortage of water with drought taking a toll on people and cattle. This was in addition to the loss suffered by the farm sector.
The ruler of Cochin State initially objected to the water-diversion scheme as it was feared that the dam would affect water flow and movement of goods and people through the Periyar to the Arabian sea, the Madurai Manual says.
“Cultivation would not have been possible had the British engineer not constructed the dam,” Selvakumar, a farmer at Cumbom, says.
“Had Pennycuik not arrived here, economic prosperity would not have been there,” he says.
K.M. Abbas, president of a farmers forum, has even written a book on Pennycuik. To fund dam construction, gold ornaments were donated by Chettiar families and farmers in Cumbom valley also gave their meagre savings to Pennycuik.
An official of the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department, which controls the Mullaperiyar dam, said Pennycuik even sold his ancestral property in Britain and spent the amount for completing the works of the dam when the expenses exceeded the allotted funds.
The British government endowed him with the ‘Companion of Star of India’, a high civilian honour. He died on March 9, 1911 at Frimley in Britain.
Though the 125-year-old dam brought prosperity to the eastern side, people on the western side downstream are living in fear, concerned about the safety of the dam.