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Fear, Safety and Livelihood: The Biopolitics of Mullaperiyar: T. T. Sreekumar

January 15, 2012

Guest post by T. T. SREEKUMAR

The Mullaperiyar Dam controversy  embodies a concrete and complex example of the imperial matrix of biopolitical legacy that post-colonial societies continually encounter even after decades of political independence.  More than a century ago, the British colonial Government administering Madras Presidency, which included parts of Tamil Nadu State, directed the erstwhile princely state of Travancore (which forms the southern districts of Kerala) to sign an agreement to divert water from the Periyar river in Travancore to the relatively arid zones adjoining the Western Ghats within the presidency, and to lease out a large tract of its territory for the construction of a Dam for a time span of 999 years.  In the post-independence period, two supplemental agreements to the original Lease Deed of 1886 have been signed between the Madras government and the Government of Kerala regarding fishing rights and generation of hydroelectric power, the former in favour of Kerala and latter favouring Tamil Nadu. The supplementary agreements negotiated and enhanced the annual lease rent and the rate of pay for the electrical energy generated.

The issues that emerge in the debate on the disputed dam have ramifications that go beyond the subtexts drawn by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back (London and New York: Routledge, 1989) when they argued that it is important to ask why the empire has to ‘write back’ to its centre in order to grasp the continued relevance of the issue of coloniality in post-colonial societies .The content of the biopolitics entrenched in the controversy over the safety, ownership rights, future governance and technical management of the dam are better understood within the particular contexts of and in continuation of colonial histories and imperial experiences of space, temporality, control and power where ‘writing back’ itself becomes a violent enterprise torn by divisive national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, political and sectarian intermediations.

It is well known that the small princely state of Travancore had to concede 8000 acres of its territory to the British Presidency of Madras to build a dam in Periyar River so that the British rule could resolve the water shortage in the relatively arid areas of Theni, Madhurai, Dindigul, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram in the Madras Presidency. The British were successfully dealing with a local governance issue in their Presidency by means of taking over the resources of a princely state that did not fall directly under their rule but was indirectly controlled through the Residency system. Under Residency as a mode of imperial governance the British Representatives permanently stationed in the princely states were authorized to control everyday governance and policies and intervene in both internal disputes and external affairs, while the degree of autonomy the indigenous rulers enjoyed depended heavily on how political exigencies were interpreted by the Residency.

Diverting the natural resources of Travancore helped the British handle the grievances of the farmers in the Presidency without being answerable to questions concerning the social and the environmental problems that it caused for the farmers and indigenous people residing in the adjacent regions. The biopolitics of this issue becomes historically significant in the context of enlightenment perspectives on natural resources, the solutions to questions arising from it and the micro and macro dimensions of the human–nature relationship. From the very beginning of the project, colonial bureaucracy persuasively advanced a discursive aggression that contrasted the acute water shortage in the arid zones of Theni-Madurai region with an imagined narrative of the over-abundance of water in Travancore. The contrast led to the construction of an imaginary precept of meaningful utilization of ‘wasted lifesaving water’ which in turn provided the spurious ethical premise for the legitimation of both water diversion and construction of the dam, signalling a pseudo- normative basis to the deceptively recuperative intervention on behalf of the disadvantaged farmers in the Madras presidency. Governmentality based on biopolitics invariably invokes alongside its managerial manoeuvring an imagined notion of ethical care, concern and futurism. Many of the examples that Georgio Agamben provides in his works can be read also as ethical paradoxes (Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

A strong example of this sort is found in the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases (July 14, 1933) passed by Hitler in 1934. Involving measures for the annihilation of ‘lower’ races and ‘weaker’ classes, the future and legitimization of nation building is premised on an ethical pressure to produce a healthy society. The law very specifically stated that “anyone suffering from a hereditary disease can be sterilized by a surgical operation if, according to the experience of medical science, there is a high probability that his offspring will suffer from serious physical or mental defects of a hereditary nature” and “once the Court has decided on sterilization, the operation must be carried out even against the will of the person to be sterilized”. The spurious ethical ideals that lie beneath every biopolitical project constitute an ideology of legitimation and a material force that in turn rationalizes the logic of governmentality. Civil society, in its opposition to the biopolitics of states and corporates, more often than not, is forced to succumb to the pressures of pseudo ethicality of welfare, progress and development that infinitely catechize the politics of the new social movements.

Is it merely a counter factual, counter intuitive, hypothetical, and perfunctory exercise to ask about the economic and environmental consequences and repercussions of diverting Periyar water to Theni? The question is by no means merely imagined. The British Government had already ruled out the question of ‘consequences for Travancore’ when the project’s pseudo ethical foundation was framed in terms of the ‘abundance’ of water in Travancore and benefits of using the excess wasted water from Periyar River for saving life and livelihood in Tamil Nadu. The Travancore state was from the very beginning aware that it would have to succumb to British pressures. Nevertheless, in a rare gesture of passive resistance to question the spurious ethicality that legitimized the project, Travancore initiated an unusual dialogue: a rudimentary rational communication on the terms and conditions upon which the project could be implemented. The most glorious moment in the dialogic resistance arrived when the then resident G.A. Ballad informed the Travancore government that such a dialogue itself was perhaps unwarranted since the water was wasted in Travancore and it would benefit farmers in Madras Presidency. While the Travancore state realized the futility of opposing a project that the colonial power wanted to undertake, they responded by appointing a committee to look into the ecological consequences of diverting Periyar water. This was an experiment in opposing the ethical power of the biopolitical ideology through rational engagement. The Travancore Government was well aware of the limitations of this experiment. The conclusions of the 1860 study on the ‘ecological consequences’ challenged the foundations of the ethical legitimacy put forth by the colonial biopolitics of the British Government. The most important of the findings was regarding the damage to agriculture on both banks of the river as it flowed westward. Most important was that the Travancore Government was sympathetic to the farmers struggle and accepted their many petitions. The report inter alia concluded that

“…During the monsoons it (Periyar) overflows its banks in several parts, especially in its lower courses leaving alluvial deposits.  Valuable plantations of coconut and arecanut trees are raised on its banks as  also paddy, sugarcane plantations and other products.  The river supplies new ground by forming islands and by filling up low-lying tracts of swamps beyond its margin.  An extensive tract of paddy land reclaimed from the backwaters of Parur receives annually a large quantity of alluvial deposits from the river which restores fertility to exhausted soil. …It was found that the large tracts of paddy land on each side of the river, which are irrigated by the overflowing of the river banks, must suffer to a considerable extent and would result in a decline of the yearly revenue of the government. Farmers and hill men were also of the same opinion.” (Travancore Government report on the Impact of Mullaperiyar Project, c. 1860)

The Mullaperiyar issue was thus perhaps one of the first instances where a rudimentary civil society emerged into a dialogic community of discourse around a ‘development’ question during the colonial period in Travancore as well as the Madras Presidency. The debate involved exploring the views and opinions of farmers and hill tribes. The Mullaperiyar dam and the debates in the 1860s thus registered a rare instance of an effort towards an informed development debate in pre-independent South Asia.The colonial government on their part, for reasons obvious to any student of colonial history, rejected these formative efforts for a rational critical dialogue. The colonial technology of governance was not limited to controlling territories through political subjugation but involved a biopolitics of constituting every individual and community as experimental sites of domination and control. Michael Foucault has identified the nineteenth century in Europe as a period of the transition of Territorial States into what he called the State of Population and the collective docile bodies – the population – emerged as both a subject, and an object of its governmentality (Michael Foucault, Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76 ( London: Allen Lane, 2003) .  The reluctance of the British Government to enter into rational dialogue has to be analyzed in this historical context. Power itself has been theorized by thinkers like Foucault and Agamben as not being entirely negative in the European context. Agamben famously quotes Foucault that the political technologies of the State of Population at once made it possible “both to protect life and to authorize a holocaust”.(Quoted in Giorgio Agamben op. cit., p.3). While diverting the Periyar water helped the British construct an image of a welfarist state in a region under its direct rule, it had clearly tossed aside the questions of the rights over natural resources of farmers and indigenous people in another territory that it controlled indirectly. Significantly, the Tamil Nadu government has recently announced setting up of a memorial for the British engineer Col. Penny Cuick who was one of leading figures involved in the construction of the dam. . The discourse on the ‘water abundance’ in Travancore worked as the pseudo ethical template for the colonial biopolitics that lay beneath its tactical manipulations. In other words, rather than being a strange case of Jekyll and Hyde, colonial bureaucracy faithfully reflected a general pattern of its transitional reconfiguration as a State of Population at home as well as in the colonies. The ecological and livelihood concerns of farmers and hill tribes in Travancore become irrelevant and the water shortage in Theni acquired a concern of immediacy with colonial bureaucracy, not only due to the difference in the relative acuteness of the two problems but also due to the fact that the structural underside of colonial governmentality was constrained to approach the issue from any other probable alternative perspective.

The contradiction involved here is evident considering the context in which Travancore was made to enter into a treaty that was to take away its water for the duration of 999 years. 999 is a number unheard of in treaties for sharing natural resources like water. What the British originally looked for was a perpetual lease for which apparently there was no legal provision. The insertion of the ‘digit’ 999 in the document was arbitrarily suggested by H. Wilson, then acting chief secretary of Madras state. The arbitrary duration of the original lease deed stipulated for 999 years indicates the callous manner in which colonial governmentality and its biopolitics regarded the ‘local’ residents’ rights over the natural resources in the colonies, presumably based on their assiduous belief that colonialism was a timeless enterprise. The Mullaperiyar water diversion had given rise to ecological and food security issues in Idukki, Kottayam and the coastal region of Travancore, the socio-cultural and political economy dimensions of which have not been appropriately scrutinised ever since. The nominal debates on the environmental consequences of the dam that occurred in the 1860s had raised some of these issues for a rational critical evaluation. Also worth noting is the geo-political backdrop of the correspondence between Travancore and Colonial officers which began immediately after 1857, following the suppression of the subcontinent-wide uprising and takeover of the administration by the British crown. The British had by the time outmanoeuvred rival European forces and indigenous rulers in the subcontinent, a particularly intimidating milieu that had prevented Travancore state from pressing for an open debate on the issue any further. The Mullaperiyar issue is thus a context to refresh our memory of a time when the colonial governmentality and biopolitics supressed voices of rebellion and moderation and stifled the spontaneities of an emergent civil society. The issue is now squarely within the liberal public sphere of postcolonial democratic India, and while it is still mired in the contradictions of colonial biopolitical legacies, it will be a serious political lapse if the compelling possibility of recapturing the lost moment of a rational critical communication is disregarded by the civil society and political parties and the state.

It is of concern that the debates on the issue in the public sphere are being deliberated in a manner that invokes the legacies of colonial bio-politics.The safety of the dam is being raised as a contentious issue more than a century after it was constructed, and since the region began to experience mild tremors in irregular intervals and with uneven intensities. A fear psychosis has been deliberately engendered in Kerala while an imperialist hysteria on the ‘rights’ over the territory and the dam has been unleashed in Tamil Nadu. Though the context of the fear and neglect is not a new one, that of the current panic is certainly new. While the political propaganda in Tamil Nadu perpetuates the fear that Kerala will stop the supply of water, the one in Kerala is about the impending doom of the dam bursting out in the wake of an earthquake. It is through this near hysterical fear-psychosis that political establishments hold back the public from a rational dialogue. The dynamics of this biopolitics is perhaps more minute and diffuse. The fear leads to projections in Tamil Nadu that Theni-Madurai will be turned into a desert with the construction of a new dam, and in Kerala any delay in building a dam is projected as a sure path to submerging four districts in water in an impending earthquake. The dam has been posited in the popular imagination in Kerala as a time-bomb that can explode at any moment. The fears about an earthquake compromising the security of the dam is dismissed by Tamil Nadu because of the sheer fear of losing control over water, derived through a colonial lease agreement. The only solution put forward by the Kerala political leadership is the construction of a new dam, while any move to construct a new dam or enter into a new contract is anathematic to the Tamil Nadu political leadership.

Although originally harking back to the 1970s, the idea of the new dam in Kerala was recently mooted by the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government that got ousted in the Legislative Assembly election in May 2011 and upheld by the new Ministry of the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) headed by leaders tainted by several corruption charges and allegations. The populist celebrity leader of CPI (M) in Kerala, V.S. Achuthanandan, who was recently expelled from the Polit-bureau of the party for inner party sectarianism, has been one of the most vitriolic voices from the Kerala side supporting the idea of the new dam. Playing to the gallery of his huge fan following within and without the party, he has declared that if the institutional processes default in providing permission to build a new dam, he will raise funds through the channels of the Left Democratic Front, which he leads in his capacity as the Leader of the opposition in the Kerala Assembly, to construct a new dam. The hate speech with overtly imperialist undertones is led on the Tamil Nadu side by both Chief Minister Jayalalitha and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi, who have demanded that Devikulam and Peerumedu Taluks-regions adjoining the Mullaperiyar dam- should be made part of Tamil Nadu state. BJP and smaller political formations within the respective states have taken opportunistic stands uncritically supporting their big brothers or ridiculously critiquing what they call pacifism and moderation in the views and plan of action of bigger parties. The reassurance by V.S. Achuthandandan that the Left front will definitely construct a new dam if the Congress led Government in Kerala fails to accomplish it, and the combined vitriol of the Tamil Nadu leadership against the new dam as well as a new agreement are part of the same visceral biopolitics of fear, panic and insinuations of death and threat to livelihood that get reinforced through indefinitely echoing discourses of imperialist undertones. As Gayatri Spivak famously argued, “there is something Eurocentric about assuming that imperialism began in Europe.” (Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p.37).

The issue invites us to focus our attention on three focal points. First, the dam is 116 years old and it is time that we devised a policy regarding the decommissioning of such dams ( http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/dam%20safety%20bill%202010.pdf) . Most surprisingly, the National Dam Safety Bill, 2010, does not even mention anything about decommissioning of dams . Second, 999 years is clearly not a meaningful timeframe for democratic governments to negotiate resource sharing. It was the product of colonial callousness and biopolitical mediation towards subjugated territories and hence the lease agreement should be revised within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Third, while negotiating a new agreement the concern cannot entirely be based on an agenda of ‘water for Tamil Nadu and safety for Kerala’ as suggested by the Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. On the other hand, the negotiation should take into account the aspirations of farmers, indigenous people and common people on both sides. ‘Water for Tamil Nadu and Kerala and safety for the dam and protection of life and livelihood in both states’ should be the central concern that informs a new rational critical dialogue that the postcolonial liberal democratic Indian state has made possible for the civil and political societies to pursue. A new dam is not a practical, viable or timely solution, and certainly not one that post-development Kerala society can accept. Beginning in 1970s, post-development politics has engendered several grassroots movements spread across Kerala articulating opposition to neo liberal developmental projects that lead to the marginalization and displacement of the poor, buttressed up through brazen right-wing populism espoused by the successive coalition governments in the state. The demand for a new dam needs to be opposed on post-developmental grounds and prevented at any cost, irrespective of the enormous political support the slogan has already been able to galvanise within the state of Kerala. It was deeply disturbing that Prof. C.P Roy, the former Chairperson of the Mullaperiyar Action Council, was subjected to vituperative personal attacks in the wake of his decision to go public with his suggestions on alternative options to the proposal for a new dam. Nevertheless, opposition to the orchestrated propaganda for a new dam is slowly gathering momentum and support.

Given the nature of political polarization in both states, it is apparently a difficult task to bring down the issue from the peaks of hysterical biopolitics to the plains of transparent democratic discussions. Agriculture, water and food security are core social issues that need immediate attention and the task on the part of civil society is to make them part of public and political discussions both in Kerala and Tamil Nadu . The political voices that favour sharing of the dam water between the states, long term decommissioning of old dams and creation of a civil societal social movement against the orchestrated clamour for the construction of new dams in post-development Kerala are currently marginalised and silenced since they run against the grain of the hegemonic text of the right-wing populism of political coalitions. The uphill task of the new social movements will be to reverse this central tendency, move beyond the politics of fear and help create more spaces of dissent, dialogue and democratic consensus.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Inasu Thalak/ poet,writer/. Paris permalink
    January 16, 2012 4:56 AM

    The Mullaperiyar issue as it stands today, is in urgent need of a solution, political and above all technical. Mr Sreekumar has roped in Foucault, Agamben, etc in a seemingly historico-political analysis of the situation, saying that all this is continuation or sequel of
    British colonial politics. Biopolitics as he calls it. He insinuates that hysteria of a damburst
    is whipped up by the populist politicians. May I request him to visit the populations who live
    downstream the Mullaperiyar dam and ask them why they are so fear stricken. I am sure
    they will detail to him the freightening aspects of the degradation of the dam and its extr-
    eme fragility vis a vis the unpredictable earthquakes and their intensity. The author ignores
    the central issue: obvious possibility of the dam breaking up in the event of an intense
    earthquake. In such an eventuality, who will suffer more? Kerala should refer the situation to an international body if the center and the SC drags on with their decision. Okay, don’t
    build a new dam. Agreed. But how to assure the safety of some millions of people who will be simply washed away in the event of a catastrophe? How to provide the water needed in the four districts of TN ? Certain alternative solutions have benn proposed like constructing a tunnel across the Ghats to bring water to the otherside. Unfortunately, I am afraid we don’t have the technical knowhow nor equipments to do that unless we seek the assistance
    of some foreign countries like France. It is known that a tunnel runs under the Mont Blanc
    in the Alps. I request Mr Sreekumar to have a look at a documentary “Dams as Leathal as
    Bombs” on YouTube which gives a lot of technical data to show that Mullaperiyar is in
    danger. This is not the hour for revelling in a neo-Marxist surgery of colonial power tactics.
    We will be in the colonial hangover for may more years still. It is time to find a feasible
    technical solution to this ailing dam which poses a threat to millions on either side in case it
    collapses: loss of lives and destruction of nature in Kerala and starvation and aridity in TN.

    • T T Sreekumar permalink
      January 16, 2012 8:42 PM

      Thanks for the response. I cannot agree that the moment of theory and analysis have passed and hence what is left is to look for some technocratic solution. Contrary to the assumption made in the above comment, I have been associating with the Mullaperiyar movement for several years, having visited the activists involved in the movement on several occasions. I have also been interacting with the people living in this area which includes scores of friends, relatives and activists. As recently as last month I revisited the “populations who live downstream the Mullaperiyar dam” about which I have reported here: http://on.fb.me/wELx1c
      When C P Roy (Chairperson of the Mullaperiyar Action Council for the last 5 years) was attacked for raising doubts about the viability of a new dam, and for suggesting alternative solutions, I joined a group of activists, poets/writers, intellectuals and concerned citizens who issued a statement in support of him (see here: http://bit.ly/Aiw2Be). He has pointed out that the struggle for a “new dam” is now 1800+ days old. According to him the Council with its slogan for ‘New Dam’, has achieved nothing discernible so far. He currently thinks that the slogan is no longer relevant. I have also had opportunities to write and speak about the issue from the 1990s onwards much before any such peoples’ initiative had taken shape. Nevertheless, I must also add that there is no particular vantage that one gets just by ‘being there’ or ‘talking to people’, unless there is a perspective and framework to understand and analyse the situation.

    • joe permalink
      January 17, 2012 8:27 PM

      Not only mullaperiyar , all dams including idukki, are really dangerous, in case of an earthquake.Fascist jingoisms in both the states are to be condemned.

  2. January 16, 2012 1:53 PM

    I find the article extremely interesting and relevant. Sree kumar has put my thoughts in words and done better. The DAM I am sure is as good as any other of its age and is not in any real danger of brusting up. The SC appoiinted committees have time and again verified this issue.
    At the core of the dam issue is the colonial legacy that brought it to existence and remains at the root of the issue and ofcourse the problem of linguistic national sentiments and chauvanism that the post independent india failed to resolve.
    We can all arrive at a practical and real solution if we recognise the facts (that the treaty which has allowed TN to use the water was unfair and colonial and secondly that over the 100 years people in tamilnad have been using the waters and thereby acquired a quasi use right), are prepared to spell it out and then begin a constructive debate around this.
    To lay claim to territory, or appeal to jingoistic ethnic feelings or to raise fear among local people serves no purpose. It is time that the tamil and kerala societies and especially the intellectual community in the two states begin a campaign against the falsities propogated by local political vested interests in both the states.

  3. January 18, 2012 2:19 AM

    IS THERE ANY POSSIBILITY FOR ANOTHER DAM, SAY A SUPPORT DAM OR MAY BE THE REAL RESOURCE DAM, BEING BUILT A KILOMETER OR TWO UPSTREAM SO THAT THE PRESENT DAM CAN BE SAVED AND THE PURPOSE ALSO SERVED?

  4. A. J. Menon permalink
    January 18, 2012 12:11 PM

    We should tie up Vaiko to the Dam when there is an earthquake. Only then will he learn if the fear of Keralites is real or not.

  5. TamMalu permalink
    January 21, 2012 11:27 PM

    Now I know more mallus visit kafila than tamils!

  6. Kannan permalink
    January 22, 2012 12:10 AM

    A sensible write up..” Innale cheythorabhaddham,Innatthe achaaramakkaam,naalathe sastramathakaam,” just like that the mistake of British divides the dravidians today (both tamilian and malayalees are dravidians) and tomorrows fight is created by vested interest of petty politics ,party politics on both side of the border and Center too. Read Ramaswamy Iyers report.please.

  7. March 8, 2013 12:01 PM

    i liked t.t.s ‘s presentation. but what is the alternative? we should not leave the matter to holders of power,knowledge and law alone. there should b a sharing of concerns between the two peoples. there should b attempts to devolope waterbeds in tamilnad along with the dismantling of this dam. can there b small ‘anas’ from whch we can take water to t.nad and store there to regenerate waterbeds there? but colonial dam,colonial contract must go

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