While everyone is talking about the incessant rains and how the rising water level in the Idukki dam has initiated discussions about opening the dam shutters, 76-year-old Kunju Panikkan reminisces about the time the dam was constructed.
As a youth, Kunju Panikkan was among those who had come from faraway places hearing that a huge construction was going in the hilly district, which at that time was not easy to reach. He left his native land, Karunagappally in Kollam, in search of work at the dam site and joined the army of men who were working day and night on the massive project.
“It was in 1963-64. I joined as a worker to do concrete works. I had come alone from my place changing several buses,” he recalls sitting at his home near Idukki Kavala at Cheruthoni.
Kunju Panikkan, now struggling with old age related ailments, was among the hundreds of people who came to Idukki to find work at the construction site. They all were young, the time was such that a job and income were like distant dreams, which everyone was not able to achieve.
“The work was hard, but at that time getting a job with an assured remuneration was a big thing. There were so many like me who came to work here, not a single one went back because the work was tough, we all managed to do it, we all survived,” he says.
Kunju Panikkan didn’t go back to Karunagappally even after the construction of the dam was completed. He started a small shop, got married, had children, built a small house and still lives here.
Aliyar, who is also in his 70s, had come to Idukki from Aluva in Ernakulam, also with the sole intention of finding work at the project site. Now living with his elder daughter at Vazhathoppu panchayat, he says that the construction site employed nearly 5,000 men, hailing from almost all parts of the country, both from the southern states as well as from the north.
“Most of them were from Punjab and other parts of north India. The men from Punjab were not like us, they were employed directly by the company. They held top posts, they had previous experience in similar projects. They used to travel in jeeps,” he recollects.
“There was work for all who came looking for it, as completing the project was a herculean task. The wages were distributed in two monthly instalments,” Aliyar, whose job was to break rocks using a jackhammer. “Sirens were sounded before explosives were set off to break materials, but still several tourists who used to visit the site got injured as they failed to notice the siren,” he says.
The construction began in 1969 and the dam was commissioned in 1976 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Built over the Periyar river, it is one of the highest arch dams in Asia. Built along with the Cheruthoni and Kulamavu dams, the Canadian government had aided the construction of the dam. It supports a 780 megawatt hydroelectric power station at Moolamattom in the district. Hindustan Construction Company won the bid for carrying out the construction work and hired the men as its workers.
The work continued round the clock in three shifts from 6 am. The one thing Kunju Panikkan and Aliyar distinctly remember is a protest staged by the workers for a wage hike. The company then increased the wage from Rs 3 to Rs 3.50 per day.
In the ‘crowded’ workforce there were many who didn’t have a proper address, which the company realised when some of them died during the course of work that lasted for over a decade. Earlier, the company didn’t send the bodies to their homes, which changed after the protest.
“Some bodies were returned as the address given by the workers was wrong,” Aliyar says.
Aliyar also got married while living at Cheruthoni and settled there. He now works as a daily wage worker with the Forest department. Both Aliyar and Kunju Panikkan had also witnessed the opening of the dam shutters in 1981 and 1992. Aliyar also remembers the huge crowds that had gathered when the dam was commissioned by Indira Gandhi at Moolamattom.
“The company had arranged accommodation for the workers in an asbestos roofed building. Ever since the work of the project began the area became lively,” says PN Sivaraman. The 71-year-old had come from Ranni in Pathanamthitta to Cheruthoni. He set up an eatery, which was one among only three in the area at that time.
“There was a boom in the business and so I also didn’t go back,” he says.