Green Signal To Kill Athirapally

KA Shaji


Another Indian river is set to die. Kerala’s Chalakkudy will soon no longer have the water to feed its famous waterfalls, Athirapally and Vazhachal. Ignoring the apprehensions of tribals and conservation activists, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) has given the green signal to the VS Achuthanandan government to go ahead with its long-pending controversial project to set up a 163MW hydel power plant by blocking the river just before the Athirapally falls.

Though the power generation target remains small, the project will wipe out the region’s rich biodiversity and render hundreds of adivasis homeless. Located on the Western Ghats, the riverine forests of Athirapally- Vazhachal host a unique ecosystem. Intermingled with swamps, they support a large number of rare and endangered species of plants and animals. While scientists are still discovering many new species here, the project is posing a major threat to their survival.In spite of the stiff local resistance to the project under the banner of the Chalakkudy River Protection Forum, the MOEF is in no mood to relent. Both the ruling Left Democratic Front and the Opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front support the project and have exerted pressure on the Union ministry to give its approval. The MOEF had recently denied permission to another controversial hydel project at Pathrakadavu as it fell within the buffer zone of the Silent Valley National Park.

According to the Kerala State Electricity Board’s own opinion, the project will require the diversion of over 130 hectares of highly sensitive riverine forest land. An environmental disaster in the making, the project will sever the only link between the Peechi Vazhani Wildlife Sanctuary and the Idamalayar basin of the Periyar river. The vital elephant corridor between the Parambikulam Sanctuary and the Pooyamkutty forests will also be affected. Apart from being home to the tiger and leopard, the forests also host the hornbill, the Nilgiri langur, the liontailed macaque and the rare Cochin forest cane turtle.

On the tourism front, the project would wipe out the Athirapally and Vazhachal waterfalls, which draw six lakh domestic and foreign tourists every year.

In 1998, the Kerala government came up with the proposal for a hydel project using the tail-end waters of the existing Poringalkuthu dam (constructed across the Chalakkudy in Thrissur district). In February 2000, the state government cleared the diversion of 138.60 hectares of forest land for building the Athirapally dam. But the delay in getting the MOEF nod had affected construction work.

According to Kerala Electricity Minister AK Balan, the government went ahead with the project following an environmental impact study conducted by the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute in Thiruvananthapuram. “That has addressed almost all the issues the environmentalists, have raised.’’ he claims. The impact study, in fact, provided the green signal for the Union ministry’s clearance.

However, environmentalists have found faults in the study. “It is silent on the actual volume of trees that would be submerged and the submergence of over 402 rare plants,” says Mohandas of the River Protection Forum. “The report was prepared in a hurry after a three-month-long study in 1996. To get an authentic picture of the area’s biodiversity, the study should have covered all seasons. Most birds breed during February-April, this period was not covered,’’ he says.

“The report admits that the field visit was scheduled during the monsoon, when the river was flooded. That made the collection of parameters diffcult and in some cases impossible,” says noted environmentalist Prof MK Prasad.

According to Dr RVG Menon of the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad, the 144km-long Chalakkudy river system has a record of 99 fish species. “Five new fish species were recently discovered in the Chalakkudy; 71 of the 99 species recorded from the basin are found in the zone where the dam is proposed,” he says.

“Do remember that the Chalakkudy is just 144km long but it is the fifth largest river in Kerala,” warns social activist CR Neelakandan. “The river has been hugely dammed already. There are six dams for power and one for irrigation. At least five lakh people from 19 panchayats and two municipalities depend on the river. Once the new dam comes up at Athirapally, it will affect all these people.”

Apart from biodiversity, the dam will also threaten the traditional way of life of the Kadars, the local adivasis, who have been living here for hundreds of years. Any relocation will wipe out their links with the forest.

Though major political parties are in favour of the project, local resistance is now gathering momentum. The protest has taken an interesting turn recently with the decision of 33 organisations to fight the project together.

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