“I remember them building it - a structure made entirely of mud. I was 15 then and my family and I along with several others were moved from the opposite hill to this place,” 55-year-old Gopi recalls the building of the Banasura Sagar dam. It was an event in history which altered not just the topography of Wayanad, but also the lives of many tribes living on these hills.
Forty years ago, authorities of the Banasura Sagar power project began clearing the plains between the foothills of the Banasura hill, the largest mountain of the Western Ghats in Wayanad, to support the hydroelectric project of the Kakkayam dam in Kozhikode. Land was purchased from tribal communities for the purpose and they were later moved to the surrounding hills. The ambitious dam, which is the largest earthen dam in India, impounded the water flowing from the Karamanathodu tributary of the Kabani river, drowning the coffee and pepper rich valley to create a breathtaking reservoir.
Nestled between this reservoir and the hills is a little-known tribal colony of 14 Kaatunayaka families and 60 Paniyas in Kuttiyamvayal, to which Gopi and his family belong. Today, the lives of the colony’s adults - both young and old - revolve around the dam and its water, their children play by the lake’s banks and their day begins and ends with this view.
“We use water from the dam for washing and bathing. Our drinking water comes from the hills. The children play by the shores of the lake and the men go fishing in the water. The dam authorities don’t allow the water to be used for irrigation which would have been ideal,” says Gopi.
Most importantly, the land they have is immensely valuable, thanks to the stunning view of the water on all three sides.
“There are several resorts with this view on the other side the dam. The property was split and given away to private parties from the excess land owned by the dam authorities,” he added.
However, the dam and its water also pose the biggest threat to their lives.
This year, four shutters of the Banasura Sagar dam were opened to release water following heavy rains in Wayanad. And before the shutters were opened, the colony’s residents witnessed the reservoir swelling up dangerously, fearing that their lives and houses would be consumed by the water.
“The water came up to a few metres near our house. I don’t remember this happening in my lifetime. We even lost a few coffee shrubs and pepper plants we had planted downhill,” says, Nisha (27), Gopi’s daughter, who lives with her husband Ramesh and three children in the colony.
Come monsoon, the community here fears for their houses due to rising waters. And although, they had never witnessed the lake swelling up like it did this year, residents here fear worse rainfall in the coming years.
The flowing water also carries with it several reptiles, including python and Indian cobra which is spotted during monsoons near the hutments.
“Last year we had a reptile menace following the monsoons. Pythons are in abundance here and they are attracted to the dampness due to rains. A few rabbits and chickens that we raised were lost to pythons during last monsoons,” Nisha said.
However, the community has not planned to shift to other, safer locations in the hills as this is the only home they have known.
“We were asked to reclaim land from here by the government and build houses. My mother owns 65 cents of land here and my husband and I built a house on a part of this property and we don’t have other places to move to,” Nisha adds.
This article has been produced in partnership with Oxfam India. In the last 10 years, Oxfam India has delivered over 36 impactful humanitarian responses in India. Oxfam India is providing critical relief to the affected families and communities in Kerala: clean drinking water, sanitation, and shelter kits. Click here to help #RebuildKerala.