Will Athirappilly waterfall be saved?

Will Athirappilly waterfall be saved?

Will they, won’t they? As I leave behind the last of the free flowing Chalakudy in the Vazhachal forests of the Western Ghats in Kerala, I bring with me a strange anxiety. The 20-odd lion-tailed macaques that I encountered magically, have no clue that fate of the tree crowns they hold on to, hangs in the corridors of power in New Delhi.

In January, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) issued a show-cause notice to the Kerala state electricity board (KSEB). KSEB was asked to justify as to why the 2007 environmental clearance issued under a central law by the MoEF itself, should not be revoked.

MoEF’s grounds were that they had come to know that the construction of the 163 mw Athirappilly hydroelectric project would impact the primitive Kadar tribe residing in the project area. Moreover, the valuable biodiversity of the area will also be threatened. While I welcome this decision, I wonder why this logic didn’t wash while granting the clearance in the first place.

But what’s critical to understand is that there is a decade old history of a multi-dimensional struggle against the Athirappilly project. The dam is proposed to be constructed over a river whose basin has been already dammed for electricity or irrigation six times upstream in its catchment. Five of these projects are located in Kerala and one in Tamil Nadu.

The effects
While the forest streams struggle to retain their perennial nature, the loss of most of the evergreen and riparian forests is not helping the case. As a result, the Vazhachal area and the highly popular Athirappilly waterfalls downstream in the Chalakudy river basin remain the relatively untouched stretch where one can find river rapids and fast flows. This is what is going to be impacted the maximum if the dam construction becomes a reality.

In fact, most of the river less than 5 km upstream from the proposed Athirappilly project site lies captured and still in the water reservoirs created by other existing dams. At other place, water flows through metal pipes to power houses of existing projects. Where one does find a rapid flow, it is not natural but induced by the release of water from the dam sites located upstream of the river.

It is for this reason that the Kadar tribes, non tribals communities around Athirappilly and self-motivated activists from other parts of Kerala, are engaged in a peaceful struggle in and out of court against the project. Since its first clearance in 1998, the technical and economic feasibility of the project has been challenged at several forums including two public hearings carried out in 2002 and 2006 as per the directions of the high court of Kerala.

At least 10 local self governments have passed resolutions citing that the project if implemented would impair their drinking and irrigation water needs. Thousands from all over India have participated in the two satyagrahas organised at Athirappilly led by river basin communities opposing the implementation of the project.

Yet, the KSEB in its reply to the MoEF’s show-cause notice says that there is no local opposition to the project. A baseless and misleading comment, to say the least. On the contrary the KSEB funded environment impact assessment (EIA) report completely misses mentioning the impacts on the fully Kadar tribal village, Vazhachal, located just 500 metres downstream of the demarcated dam site.

The MoEF’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) has given a personal hearing to KSEB officials on March 22 and 23. No such privilege unfortunately came the way of the communities and activists who have been demanding a similar space for several years. Nevertheless, that is a recent past. Since then the local media in Kerala flashes unconfirmed updates. The most recent one being that Jairam Ramesh, minister of state, MoEF refused to sign on the report prepared by the EAC on grounds of its content not being adequate.

Kilometres away from where Chalakudy river flows, lies the power to decide on its future. I end with hope that the river and its people will not be dammed seventh time over and Athirappilly’s water will continue to flow.