Tribal leader V. K. Geetha from Vazhachal forest village has inherited a unique family legacy — of getting displaced in the name of development. The proposed Athirappilly Hydro Electric Power Project with an installed capacity of 163 MW in the Chalakudy river basin of Kerala’s Thrissur district, could soon acquire her home.
The go ahead was given by the Kerala government recently to the state’s electricity board to start the process for establishing the project, ignoring the huge environmental and livelihood costs. This evoked angry responses across the country.
The first woman chieftain of a tribal community in Kerala, Geetha is now in her early thirties. Her forefathers, who belonged to the forest-dwelling Kadar community, had to vacate the deep interiors of the present Parambikulam Tiger Reserve when the British started construction of a tramway linking the region to Chalakkudy railway station in 1905, to transport teak and other timber products to Kochi harbour to facilitate shipping to Great Britain.
Then they moved to a forest locality called Peringalkuthu and lived there till the beginning of the construction of a hydel power project in the post-Independence period. Geetha’s parents moved to Sholayar region of the same forest stretch when the tribal settlement in which they lived was demolished for the construction of the new dam. They lost their home again when yet another hydel power project came up in Sholayar.
Now faced with another move, Geetha is categorical that she would not allow her community to be displaced a fourth time from their forest environments.
“For over a decade, we have been facing displacement and uncertainty in the name of development. The pro-dam lobby is reviving the defunct controversial project by ignoring stringent provisions of the Forest Rights Act, according to which a dam cannot be constructed without the approval of the tribal communities that stand to be affected. These are our forests and we will protect it at any cost,” said Geetha, when contacted by Mongabay India.
More than 160 Kadar families of nine forest settlements in Vazhachal and surrounding areas have got community forest rights five years ago and Geetha was one among the driving force behind it.
The majestic Athirappilly waterfalls (made world-famous through the ‘God’s own country’ advertising campaign by Kerala Tourism) is walkable from Geetha’s house. Athirappilly is also at the entrance to the biodiversity-rich Sholayar range forests of the Western Ghats, which extends up to Valparai in Tamil Nadu. The falls, which are located 1000 ft above sea level, is one among the major tourist destinations in South India.
“We are bound to protect these forests and their biodiversity from the greedy dam lobby that has been active since 1996 without bothering much about the environmental and livelihood issues involved. The proposed dam, submerging 136 hectares of virgin forests, would also uproot hundreds of tribal people. These tribals have been displaced many times in the last hundred years especially during construction of the Parambikulam-Aliyar, Peringalkuthu, Sholayar, Mangalam and Thunakadavu dams,” pointed out S.P. Ravi of the Chalakudy River Protection Forum.
Rebirth of the project proposal
The proposal for the controversial hydel power project at Athirappilly, which was in cold storage for long in the face of stringent opposition from environmentalists and tribal organisations, got a new lease of life during June second week with the Kerala government issuing an order considering favourably a letter from the top officials of Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) seeking to proceed with the project and to obtain a fresh environmental clearance for it from the centre.
As per the order, the content of which was leaked to the media later, the state government has given a ”No Objection Certificate” to the board for a period of 7 years, “permitting it to proceed with implementation of the hydroelectric project in Chalakkudy River, the third-largest in the state.”
According to official sources, the government has given the go ahead nod to project developer KSEB on finding that the dates of statutory clearances including the environmental clearance and techno-economic clearance obtained earlier for the project have expired. However, the government has preferred to ignore the fact that the project, if implemented, would submerge low elevation riparian forests left in the Western Ghats, which is one among the global biodiversity hotspots.
In the face of criticism, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan told journalists in an interaction that there is no decision to take the project forward as of now. Terming the NOC as a routine procedure, he said the project is on hold.
Within hours of the state government decision creating headlines in the local media, former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh, Kerala’s leader of the opposition Ramesh Chennithala and CPI’s Rajya Sabha member Binoy Viswam, who happens to be a former state forest minister in Kerala, raised strong objections against the revival of the project. Environmentalists such as Madhav Gadgil also expressed their concern.
Coming down heavily on the pro-dam lobby within the state government and among KSEB top officials, Jairam Ramesh has warned that a Silent Valley type protest would be organised to fight the move in the coming days. It was an ecological movement with huge mass participation, happened to be the first in India during the end of 1970s and early 1980s, which forced the Kerala government to abandon the move to construct a dam across the Kunthi river inside evergreen tropical forests of Silent Valley in Palakkad district of Kerala.
It was in 2010, while Ramesh was the union environment minister in the Congress-led UPA government, Kerala was warned against continuing with the project. According to Ramesh, he took the decision against the project after consulting various people in Kerala both in government and outside and even personally visiting the area.
Are floods not a warning?
The timing of the decision has also invited strong criticism. Kerala is now struggling to emerge out of the COVID-19 induced lockdown. Climate experts are predicting a repeat of the 2018 floods disaster in the coming months. However, the government has used the lockdown as a cover to give the go ahead order to the KSEB.
During the 2018 floods, the Chalakudy river valley was badly affected and this caused damage in Athirappily panchayath, according to a detailed study report by K.A. Amitha Bachan and M.P. Shajan for the Kerala State Biodiversity Board.
“I thought the recurring floods in the last two years have brought in some environmental sense to the political leadership in Kerala. But clearly my thinking was wrong. This project will cause immense ecological damage,” stated Ramesh.
In a statement in Thiruvananthapuram, Ramesh Chennithala has made it clear that the opposition in the state would not allow the government to implement the project. “We are quite aware of the environmental and livelihood concerns. The state needs effective flood management plans than new dams,’’ he said.
Binoy Viswam, who always stood against the project, had asserted that the project would not be implemented in Athirappilly as the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) leadership had earlier decided to abandon the project keeping in view of the human and environmental costs involved.
“The new developments are purely bureaucratic. Officials with no concern for the environment are behind the fresh move. If implemented, the project would be an environmental disaster. Financially also, it’s unviable,’’ he added.
A history of resistance to the Athirappilly hydel project
Whenever the previous Congress-led UDF and CPI (M)-led LDF governments had raised the project proposal, there was strong resistance by conservationists and local people. Even the then principal chief conservator of forest in Kerala T.M. Manoharan, who was also the chairman of KSEB under three different chief ministers, had opposed the project saying it would cause enormous damage to the environment.
A report of Kerala State Biodiversity Board headed by noted environmental scientist V. S. Vijayan had also pointed out in 1997 that the power project would adversely affect the ecology of the fragile river ecosystem of Athirappilly.
According to conservationists, the controversial power project which proposes the construction of the seventh dam along the 145 km course of Chalakudy River will sound death knell for what remains of endemic species of flora and fauna in the Athirappilly- Vazhachal region which include four rare varieties of hornbills.
According to S. Unnikrishnan of the Chalakkudy River Conservation Forum, there were expectations regarding a complete abandoning of the project during the last two subsequent annual floods which ravaged Kerala.
“The largest volumes of discharge when the shutters of Kerala dams were opened during the floods in 2018 were not from Idukki or Idamalayar dams but from Peringalkuthu, situated in the Chalakkudy River and just above the catchment area of the proposed Athirappilly dam. While 750,000 litres burst out from the Idukki reservoir per second, it was 1 millon litres a second when the shutters of Peringalkuthu were opened,” he pointed out.
In its elaborate report, the Madhav Gadgil-led Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) had not only termed Athirappilly hydel project as undesirable but also categorised it as futile as per environmental, technical and economic grounds. As per the report, there is not enough water in the river at Athirappilly to generate the power as claimed. If implemented, the project would affect downstream irrigation schemes and the Athirappilly waterfall impacting the tourism potential of the area. Above all, it will destroy one of the last low elevation riverine forests in the Western Ghats.
Activists supporting the Kadar cause are pointing out that all the nine tribal settlements in the region would be affected directly or indirectly by the project. “One among the settlements is located hardly 400 metres from the proposed dam site. But the KSEB is claiming that the settlement would not be affected,” points out K.H. Amitha Bachan of Western Ghats Hornbill Foundation which works closely with the tribals.
According to the local community, the project got environmental clearance for the first time in 1998 but it got suspended in 2001 after the Kerala high court ordered the electricity board to first conduct a public hearing as per the rules. The union environment ministry had issued a second environment clearance in 2005 which was again quashed by the high court for procedural violations. The project was given a third environmental clearance in 2007 that was dependent on the feedback from a central expert team visiting the site.
Though the Gadgil report had stated that the hydel project would completely alter the river’s ecology and would seriously affect the livelihoods of the Kadars, even those whose settlements didn’t fall within the submergence areas, the subsequent Kasturirangan panel only made note of the contentions by the electricity board and the Kadars and asked for a re-evaluation of the project’s impact on ecological flow. While the Gadgil report unequivocally said that the project should not be approved, the Kasturirangan panel said it could be taken forward based on the re-evaluation report. This was taken as a “go ahead” by the electricity board.
“As per the fresh order, the state government has made it clear that it is no more opposed to the KSEB’s plan to go ahead with the project and seek a fresh environmental clearance. The dam proposed to be built a few kilometres upstream of the Athirappilly waterfalls would definitely kill the tourist attraction of the region,” said P. Rajaneesh, a river protection activist based in Chalakudy.
“Other than Silent Valley movement, no other environmental issue in Kerala has kicked as much furore as the proposed dam in Athirappilly. Now the move of the state government to reinitiate proceedings is causing alarm not just among environmentalists and but also among the partners of the ruling formation,’’ he added.
“It was hardly two years ago, Kerala’s power minister M.M. Mani had openly admitted that the state government would not go ahead with the project as it lacks consensus in both ruling and opposition benches in Kerala. The minister has now taken a U-turn and the intentions seem doubtful,” said environmental activist and lawyer Harish Vasudevan.
When the project was first mooted way back in 1979, the idea that time was to generate 163 MW power from the river water. Now, the river has not much water to generate the same amount of power, as per sources within KSEB. In the last 41 years, the water level in the river has decreased considerably because of climate change and deforestation.
Chandrika Shibu, member of the Athirappilly village panchayat, said the local body will discuss in detail the latest development in the coming days. She also said the panchayat board is vehemently opposed to the project.
According to activists, the government had assured people after the two subsequent annual floods that it would be very careful while undertaking mega dams and other river-based projects. Now there are no policy changes at that level.
“The tribal council of Vazhachal will be convened shortly to discuss the new development. The issue will also be discussed in the Forest Rights Committee. We will challenge the order in all possible means. We are stiffly opposing the project,” said Geetha.
“All that we want from the Kerala government is to honour the promise in the Left Democratic Front manifesto to take steps to protect rivers and improve their water flow. The manifesto was vocal about reviving rivers and not constructing dams,” said Ravi, of the Chalakudy River Protection Forum.
According to top sources in the KSEB, the aim of the board is not just materialising the Athirappilly project but also the establishment of two more dams in the same river – the Chalakudy-Sholayar tail-race and Peringalkuthu Right Bank. They will be located upstream of the proposed Athirappilly dam in the river, which already has six reservoirs impounded in the basin.
If implemented, Peringalkuthu Right Bank scheme will cause submergence of hundreds of hectares of forest land forming part of the buffer zone of Parambukkulam Tiger Reserve. The Sholayar tail-race project aims at utilising the tail-race discharge from the Sholayar Powerhouse, spill from the Sholayar dam and the seasonal rainfall.
“The board is claiming that the new dams would prevent floods. It is a sheer misconception that dams can stop floods,” said Ravi, who elaborated on the heavy floods, that occurred in the Periyar river basin in 2018 despite the presence of major large-capacity dams.