Water Crisis Cripples Meghamalai

( The students of Asian College of Journalism covered rural India — its inadequacies, its people and their culture— in January 2017. Below is a story of the people of Theni.)

With Tamil Nadu recently declared as a drought state, the people of the Megamalai forest reserve are also experiencing a tough year. There’s a huge water shortage because the main river upstream, has dried up, affecting the livelihood of the people in the foot of the mountains.

Vellimalai (Silver Mountain) is an area in the heart of Meghamalai. Silver-lined clouds seem to rest gently on green hilltops, where the river Vaigai originates. The forest reserve is spread over of 45–55 sq. km. and is situated near Periyar tiger reserve. Udangal river is a branch that comes from Vellimalai, which originates from about 11km uphill from Arasaradi village. Towards the end, it joins the Vaigai dam.

The Udangal river is considered to have pure water. It is generally not hand touched by the locals. The water is used to make a special concoction with native herbs, labeled “bodhai thailam” meaning “intoxicating balm.”The river bed is also famous for its precious stones. Named “Vairakal”, these stones are a special type of granite which come in green, red and white. Quarrying used to be done in this area but has now been banned.

image produced using JuxtaposeJS

The river used to be a flourishing one and an integral part of life in Arasaradi. The river flowed directly through the village, separating the thatched residences from the Arasaradi primary school. The construction of a bridge for the convenience of the students, was stopped due to the sight of the dry river bed.

The Vaigai dam is currently the main source of water for 6 villages in the Megamalai district. The dam gets its water from two sources — the Vaigai river basin in Megamalai, and the Mullaiperiyar river. The current water level of the dam is 25.20 feet with an inflow of 40 cusecs. In January 2016, the water level was 55.77 feet.

Due to the lack of water, the villagers use tapped water which comes from Vaigai reservoir downhill. “Water will come only if it rains. Since there are no rains this year, we have been pumping ground water for the village,” says M. Thamizhan, the Panchayat leader in Kadamalaikundu.

“Even if the government plans to make arrangements to deal with this water crisis, the forest rangers are causing trouble and preventing it. There is a strict checking done at the checkpost and the lorries are usually denied access. Vehicles carrying pipes and motors are heavily and unnecessarily scrutinised at the checkpost,” Thamizhan adds.

However, the hands of the forest officials are tied. According to the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, certain goods are not allowed inside forest reserves across India.

The main crops in the region–tea, coffee, pepper, and cardamom–have also ben badly affected this year and the yield is low. The villagers are also apprehensive about the yield of the single season cotton that should bloom during the Tamil month of Thai (Jan-Feb)

Water is tapped from rivers upstream

Water crisis has cast its shadow over Pongal celebrations also. “This year was difficult because of lack of water. We have decided to dedicate the prayers for more rains in the coming year,” she Easwsari, 35, who sorks in a cotton field in Arasaradi.

Another adverse consequence of the acute water shortage is the potential for man-animal confilict as elephants are part of the Megamalai ecosystem. “Elephants move to areas where there is water. They come in search of large wells and reservoirs for water,” explains P. Gnanasekar, a freelance rural journalist from Theni. “Especially during times of water shortage, they come into the villages. They mostly come during the night when the people are asleep and drink the water which is collected in buckets and pots and they would break it sometimes. This causes problems between the villagers and elephants.”

Khaja Mohideen, a forest ranger in Megamalai wildlife division, says that the forest department has been doing their best to solve the water crisis. “There is no drinking water in 4 districts across Megamalai. The rainfall data of the past 3 years has been low. This is one of the reasons for which we aim to protect the forest tightly.”

When asked about the compensation that is being planned for the drought struck lands of the farmers, Gnanashekar says that there has been no talk about it in the Megamalai forest area. “There’s a fear that the compensation would not reach the people because of the intervention of the forest department.”