The Vaigai is truly India’s ‘heritage river’. For centuries, it has seen the rise and fall of human civilisation. However, today, it is beset with problems similar to any river in the world. But that could change with the declaration early this year of a tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu.
Let us first try to understand the context to all this. The Vaigai was the river that flowed through the fabled city of Madurai, the capital of the ancient and prosperous Pandya kingdom located in southern Tamil Nadu. The river finds a mention in Sangam literature dated to 300 before Common Era.
The river originates in the Western Ghats. It travels through the Pandya Nadu region of Tamil Nadu. Its main tributaries are Suruliyaru, Mullaiyaru, Varaganadhi, Manjalaru, Kottagudi, Kridhumaal and Upparu.
The Vaigai is 258 kilometres long and finally empties into the Palk Strait near the Pamban Bridge in Ramanathapuram district.
The river fulfils the drinking water requirement of five districts of Tamil Nadu namely Theni, Madurai, Ramnathapuram, Sivagangai and Dindigul. It also provides irrigation to 200,000 hectares of agricultural land.
So how did things deteriorate for the Vaigai? It happened at the end of the 18th century when the British started deforesting the Megamalai region which acts as a major catchment for Vaigai.
Large parts of virgin forest were destroyed to free land for commercial plantations of cash crops like tea, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, etc.
Consequently, the water flow in the river reduced gradually. As a result, the people who depended on the river for their livelihood, faced innumerable hardships. Some 200,000 people died in this region during the Great Famine of 1876-77.
Following the famine, the British Crown proposed diverting water from the Periyar and feeding it to the Vaigai through a tunnel.
Major John Pennycuik and his team built a dam at the confluence of the Mullaiyar and Periyar rivers and the work was completed successfully after eight years in 1895.
The Periyar project, was widely considered ‘one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering ever performed by man’.