My article from The National:
PALLAR PATTI, INDIA // Claims that a century-old dam could collapse and kill up to three million people in southern India are considered blasphemy in one remote village, where its British colonial designer is regarded as a god.
The dispute over the Mullaperiyar Dam, in the border region between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has grown increasingly bitter. In recent months, violent attacks and even rape have been reported by workers crossing the border.
Kerala claims the dam, which was completed in 1895, could collapse at any moment, submerging three million people who live downstream on its side of the border.
For many on the Tamil Nadu side, which receives most of the benefits from the rivers created by the dam, such claims are sacrilege.
In the tiny hamlet of Pallar Patti, the man who built the dam, a British engineer called John Pennycuick, has achieved divine status.
His portrait hangs alongside that of Lord Krishna in the small temple in the centre of town.
Posters featuring his face adorn the walls of many homes and businesses, and a large billboard at the entrance to the village portrays him riding a chariot, with the faces of the current and former Kerala chief ministers superimposed on his horses.
“He has been elevated to the level of god here,” said P Andi, a resident. “On his birthday, we pour milk over his portrait – which we only do for the most sacred gods.”
The reverence is not hard to understand. Once an arid, dusty plain in which few crops could grow, this part of Tamil Nadu was one of the worst-hit regions during the famines that swept India in the latter half of the 19th century, taking millions of lives.
Today, Pallar Patti is rich and fertile – multiple crops of rice are grown each year, large banana and sugar plantations line the picturesque riverbanks and almost every villager rides a new motorcycle.
“If Pennycuick had not constructed this dam, these people would not have life,” said S Dorai Samy, a retired history professor who lives in Pallar Patti. “It is natural that he should become a god.”
From the crowd that has gathered around us, he points out three children called John.
Pennycuick’s story has the perfect ingredients for myth-making. According to the legend, he single-handedly spearheaded the creation of the dam against great odds.
When a monsoon storm destroyed two years of work and the British government backed out of the project, Pennycuick is believed to have sold his property and emptied his life-savings to see it through.