This article is written by Meenal Sharma, a student of Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies. In this article, the author has discussed the controversy of the Athirappilly hydel project and its impact on the environment.
“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people. ”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt
Since the 1980s there has been a controversy over the issue of construction of the Athirappilly dam in Kerala. Recently the State government gave a no-objection certificate to the project which has further stressed the issue. At this point, it is important for the State government of Kerala to recall valuable lessons offered by the Silent Valley movement in 1978 Kerala which played a great role in saving a forest. The movement was started against the construction of a dam in the Silent Valley near Palakkad. This movement was one of its kind as earlier similar movements were started by communities who were directly concerned by such projects. In this case, there was no issue of relocation of any community. The Silent Valley movement took place because the construction of the dam would have adverse effects on the forests in the valley. The concerned project would completely destroy the rainforests in the valley. The movement went on to become a great success due to various factors including the role of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a non-governmental organisation and some intellectuals who successfully took forward the issue amongst people and managed to put pressure on the government to cancel the project.
In this article we will discuss the concerns regarding the Athirappilly hydroelectric project, the impact it is likely to have on the environment and the legal issues concerning it.
What is the Athirappilly Hydroelectric Project?
The Athirappillly Hydroelectric Project is named after the Athirappilly waterfalls. It is a popular tourist attraction and also called the Niagra of India. It is the largest waterfall in Kerala at a height of 80 feet. It is also a popular shooting location for South Indian films.
The project is proposed to be constructed on the Chalakudy river in Kerala. This river flows through 3 districts in Kerala, i.e., Palakkad, Thrissur, and Ernakulam and it goes to meet the Periyar river a few kilometres before it meets the sea. It is the fourth largest river in Kerala and harbours a substantial level of riparian species.
The dam is proposed to be built 6-7 km upstream from the Athirappilly waterfalls and 400 metres upstream from Vazhachal falls. The height of the dam is proposed to be 23 metres and 311 metres in length.
Why is it harmful to the environment?
The area around the Chalakudy river has a very rich biodiversity. As per the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel report, the forests in this area is the last remaining lowland evergreen forest.
The construction of this dam will cause unprecedented damage to the flora, fauna and tribal communities living in the forests as there are already 7 other dams which are already constructed on the Chalakudy river. The Thunakadavu dam, Peruvaripallam dam, Parambikulam dam, Kerala Sholayar dam, Tamil Nadu Sholayar dam, and Peringalkuthu dam are hydel projects, whereas the Thumboormuzhy dam is for irrigation purposes. As of 2019, there was a 35% annual reduction in the flow of water of the Chalakudy river due to diversions in the basin. If another dam is constructed on the river, it will have a devastating impact on the ecology of the area.
Flora and Fauna
The area has riparian vegetation and harbours a number of endemic and endangered species. About 236 species of birds including the hornbill are found in these forests out of a total of 486 bird species in Kerala and 85 species of freshwater fishes are found in the Chalakudy river out of 152 species in Kerala. Animals such as Nilgiri langur or the lion-tailed macaque, the rare Cochin forest cane turtle, Asiatic lion, Malabar giant squirrel, etc can be found in these forests. An elephant corridor which is vital exists between the Parambikulam Sanctuary and Pooyamkutty forests. The dam will lead to 138 hectares of forests submerged in water and about 104 hectares of submerged area. Therefore, the flora and fauna would be severely affected by the construction of this dam and are at risk of being endangered. Moreover, the construction of the dam will sever the only link between the Peechi Vazhani Wildlife Sanctuary, Thrissur and the Idamalayar basin of the Periyar river.
Tribal and other communities
The area is home to the Kadar tribe which is the most primitive tribe of South India. They are very less in population and are a hunter and food gatherer tribe. With the construction of this dam, they will be displaced. The construction of this dam will definitely cause the extinction of this tribe. There are various downstream communities who are dependent for their drinking and irrigation water on the Chalakudy river. These communities have a population of about 5 lakh and about 20,000 acres of land is irrigated by the water of the river. The construction of this dam will affect the livelihood of these communities.
The Athirappily waterfalls and the Vazhachal waterfalls are a great tourist spot and people from all over the country and the world come to see them. After the construction of the dam, the flow of water in the dam would decrease as these waterfalls draw water from the Chalakudy river. This would result in the deterioration of the condition of the waterfalls and as a result, tourism would be affected in this area.
The 2018 Kerala floods which occurred in the month of August were the fifth biggest floods in the world. 433 people died as a result of these floods. Moreover, in the 2019 floods, about 121 people were killed, 40 injured and 21 went missing in Kerala. If the said dam will be constructed, history is likely to repeat itself. The side effects of construction of the dam will include loss of human and animal lives along with a devastating effect on the environment.
What are the controversy and legal issues?
Recently on 4 June 2020, the Kerala State Electricity Board has received a no-objection certificate from the Kerala power department to apply for financial, technical and environmental clearances for the Athirappilly hydroelectric project.
The proposed project is being criticised and protested by various environmentalists as well as the coalition partner of the State government, Communist Party of India.
The Kerala State Electricity Board claims that the project is green and there would be enough water to maintain the beauty of the waterfall.
The project idea was first proposed in 1979 and a formal proposal was put forth by the Kerala State Electricity Board in 1982. However, this project received criticism from the local population of Athirappilly and environmentalists, thus it could not be set in motion.
During the 1970s, there was a shortage of electricity in Kerala, so in the 1980s the dam was proposed to be built on the Chalakudy river having the capacity to generate 163 MW of power. But this project was opposed by the local population as well as environmentalists.
In 1998, the Minister of Electricity, Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan tried to bring the project in motion. However, the case was brought to the courts where Kerala State Electricity Board and Minister of Environment and Forest were directed to conduct a public hearing and get environmental clearance. In the public hearings, local population, as well as environmental activists, opposed the project as it would severely impact the flora and fauna of the region and the project was not given clearance. However, in 2005 the Ministry of Environment and Forests gave clearance to the project based on a report of environmental impact assessment prepared by the Water and Power Consultancy (Services) India Limited. In 2006, the Chalakudy River Protection Committee along with some activists approached the Kerala High Court. The Kerala High Court decided against the project and it was cancelled. Again in 2007, the Left Democratic Front government made a fresh proposal which was rejected by the Centre.
Ecologically Sensitive Zone
In 2011, the report of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel by Madhav Gadgil declared the Western Ghats region as an ecologically sensitive zone. This area included the Athirappilly belt. Mining, quarrying and huge projects such as thermal power plants etc were banned in this region as a result of this report.
In 2012 the Kasturirangan Report on the Western Ghats was published which stated that hydropower projects should be allowed in the Western Ghats subject to various conditions. These conditions included that flow of waterfall and river must not be affected and the impact on the environment as a result of these projects must be minimal. The Ministry of Environment and Forests assigned the task to examine the water flow in the Chalakudy river to the Central Water Commission. It was reported that there would be no effect on the flow of the water and about 1055 cubic metre water in the lean season. But again in 2015, the tribal community living in the concerned area approached the High Court claiming that according to The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, the area belongs to them.
The construction of the dam has been cancelled various times by the Courts as it is likely to cause damage to the ecology of the area. Also, the rights of tribal communities under The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 will be violated by the construction of this dam.
Section 3 of the Act provides the following rights to forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers on all forest lands:
- Right to live in the forest land for habitation or self-cultivation of livelihood.
- Community rights including entitlement over the fishes and other products of water bodies, access to traditional seasonal resources etc.
- Rights of ownership and the right to access, collect, use and dispose of minor produce
- Right to habitat for tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities.
- Right in/over lands claimed to be disputed by the State.
- Right to get leases/grants issued by the State government or any other authority on forest lands to be converted to titles.
- Right to settle and convert forest villages/old habitations/villages etc into revenue villages.
- Right to conserve/manage/protect/regenerate community forest resources for sustainable use.
- Other recognised rights of tribals under any State law or any other law.
- Right to access biodiversity, traditional knowledge and their cultural diversity.
- Other traditional rights enjoyed by the forest dwellers excluding the right of hunting/ trapping/extracting body parts of any wild animal.
- Right to in situ rehabilitation where forest dwellers have been illegally evicted or displaced from their habitat and were not entitled to rehabilitation prior to 13 December 2005.
Section 6 of the Act allows Gram Sabhas in such areas to reject projects that will affect their livelihood. Section 7 provides a penalty of ₹1000 as fine for contravention of any provision of this Act by members or officers of authorities and Committees under this Act.
Feasibility of the project
The proposed project claims to generate power of 163 MW. However, that is no longer possible since seven other dams have been constructed on the river and the flow of water has been already affected. Moreover, the cost of the original project was ₹993 crores when it was first proposed. Today, the cost of the project would be much higher. The project is no longer feasible as the power thus generated would be expensive. There are numerous sources available which are much cheaper and also environment friendly such as solar power plants.
It is important to take steps for the development of the State, however, such development must be sustainable. Today when the world is fighting climate change, it is disheartening to see that projects like the Athirappilly Hydroelectric Project are being approved by the government. The concerned project has the potential to cause the extinction of riparian species and tribal communities in the area. Moreover, there are already seven dams on the Chalakudy river and construction of another dam on the river would be a match in the powder barrel. Kerala is the most literate state in India and it needs to set an example by cancelling the Athirappilly Hydroelectric Project as it is a recipe for disaster. It is high time that such projects which have the potential to harm the ecology should be banned. Instead, the focus of the government should shift to alternatives like solar and wind energy that are much cheaper and eco friendly.
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