March 21, 2023

Colonel John Pennycuick is an British Army Chief engineer and civil servant responsible for building the historical Mullaiperiyar dam, to solve the drought situation in Vaigai delta region in 19th century.

During the construction of the dam, as he could not get adequate funds, he sold his family property to mobilize money to fund the project, which was completed in 1895. To honor and salute his great contribution, the Public Works Department Office at Madurai houses a life-size bronze statue of Pennycuick.

Colonel John Pennycuick was a British engineer who built the Mullaperiyar dam in 1895 in Kerala’s Idukki which provides water to Theni, Dindigul, Ramanathapuram, Sivagangai and Madurai districts. The dam is currently operated by the Tamil Nadu government.

Pennycuick is highly respected by the people of the five districts in Tamil Nadu and is even worshipped by many.

Many claimed that when the British government decided to abandon the project due to high cost, the Colonel spent money from his own pocket to complete the project.

In Theni district, Pennycuick’s birthday — which is on January 15 — is celebrated along with Pongal.

It was Madras Presidency in British India in 1876. An officer clerk in the governor’s office got two emergency letters from two district collectors. One said it needed funds to manage drought, and another said it needs funds to control a flood. The two districts were just 100km away, and the stark difference made it clear something was not right. British India officials knew the problem for centuries but were not able to put up a concrete plan. It took a British Engineer to build a dam and save people’s lives equal to Germany’s population. His name was John Pennycuick, and he is revered as a god by millions of people.

British India state of Madras presidency stretched from modern-day Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamilnadu, and Karnataka. The State of Travancore, modern-day Kerala, was a neighboring state of Madras presidency. Periyar (meaning big river) and Mullaiyar (meaning river from mountains) originated from western ghats and drained into the Arabian sea. The western ghats, which separate Madras presidency and the State of Travancore, made Travancore a windward region and Madras a leeward area. The rain was abundant in Travancore, whereas it was scarce in Madras presidency. Vaigai river, a lifeline to many in South of Madras presidency, dried up during many parts of the year. While the regions of Madras presidency close to, the Periyar and Mullai rivers reported flood. Pradani Muthirulappa Pillai, the prime minister of Ramnad state, first proposed the idea of diverting parts of the Periyar and Mullai river and connecting it to the Vaigai river. Ramnad heavily dependant on the Vaigai river for irrigation.

British engineers surveyed the region and made proposals to the Madras presidency government, but cost factors spoiled the plans. British government awaited a cost-effective and efficient plan, and it was John Pennycuick who met both. Pennycuick was born in Pune, India. His father and elder brother were part of the East India Company army, and they both died in the Second Anglo Sikh war. Pennycuick’s mother took the family back to Britain, and they survived with their father’s pension. Pennycuick joined military college and did engineering. Pennycuick landed in India in 1860 after the Indian sepoy mutiny. Pennycuick was an avid cricketer, and together with fellow enthusiasts, he proposed the construction of the Chepauk cricket stadium.

Pennycuick was in Madras presidency when the worst famine hit it in 1876. The famine’s horrors made him rethink constructing a dam to divert water wasted into the Arabian sea. The British Indian government rejected Pennycuick’s first proposal, but it accepted his second proposal using concrete to construct the dam. British Indian government entered into negotiations with the State of Travancore to lease the dam region of 8000 acres for 999 years. The state of Travancore accepted the terms of 5 rupees per acre per year for the lease. Construction of the dam started in 1880 with lower and upper dam construction. British Indian government brought in people from all across Madras presidency for the construction of the dam. During construction, a heavy flood almost damaged the dam and killed many of the workers. Luckily it didn’t stop Pennycuick’s confidence. The dam was completed by 1895. The dam created an artificial lake called Periyar lake. The new district of Idukki emerged due to the dam. Later, the British Indian government established a wildlife sanctuary in the area.

The dam was named Mullaiperiyar dam, and the water flowed into one of the tributaries of Vaigai. The dam created a new lifeline for millions of people. Pennycuick was hailed as a hero and even worshipped as a god in the region. His grandson unveiled the statue of the Pennycuick in Madurai in 2002. Mullaiperiyar dam was considered an engineering marvel of the time and still stands to this day. After independence, the newly formed Kerala and Tamilnadu states started a clash regarding the dam. Kerala wanted to dismantle the dam stating its age. At the same time, the Tamilnadu government took the case to the Indian court to keep the dam alive.

There is a widespread belief that he sold his property to construct the dam, completely untrue. A movie loosely based on Pennycuick’s story acted by Rajnikanth hit theatres in 2014 as Lingaa.

Pennycuick had a constant clash with the British Indian government. It might be why he didn’t receive a knighthood. But people of modern-day Tamilnadu took him several steps further and rever him as a god.

United Nations University’ raised an alarm about the dam’s location being in a ‘seismically active area’ that proves to be extremely detrimental for the people living nearby. The report stated that the ageing of large dams is a major matter of concern. The people living in the state’s Idukki district experienced several tremors in July 2011. While their intensity was not life-threatening, its impact was seen when the dam’s water rose up to 136 ft. This is considered to be higher than its actual capacity.

“One of the primary technical issues has been the safety of the people living in Kerala, downstream of the dam. The safety concerns are built on the fact that the dam has outlived its life and that it was built with old technology. Adding to these, apprehensions of the resident population were the instances of leaks observed in the dam. If the dam collapses, it would wash away a stretch of about 25 km between Mullaperiyar and Idukki dams affecting about 0.1 million people.

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