Once again, a furore over Athirappilly

Published : June 12, 2020 12:56 IST

A view of the Athirappily waterfalls and its surrounding areas near Chalakkudy in Thrissur district. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

Should a government keep on reviving its plans to build a controversial hydroelectric project ignoring nearly four decades of people’s opposition to it and concerns about the project’s ecological, economic and social costs?

‘Yes’ seems to be the answer to the question, if the recent decision of the Kerala government to allow the State Electricity Board to once again seek techno-economic clearance from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) for the Athirappilly hydroelectric project is any indication.

The government’s no objection certificate to the Electricity Board, given without any discussion in the Cabinet or within the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and reportedly in response to a letter from the CEA, has taken the people of the State by surprise.

No doubt, daggers are drawn, with environmentalists, the Congress and the CPI, a prominent partner of the LDF, raising objections. State Electricity Minister M.M. Mani, however, said the NOC was issued as a matter of routine, in response to a letter from the CEA last year informing the Electricity Board that the techno-economic clearance for the project has expired and would need to be renewed if the proposal is to be pursued further.

Already, on at least three occasions clearances obtained from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the CEA had lapsed as the State government found the opposition to the project too strong. Going ahead with the project would require yet another environmental impact assessment to be done before the government can seek clearance for the project once again, maybe years down the line. It is clear that the project will not take off during the present government’s term, if at all.

The CPI(M), which leads the LDF, has repeatedly declared its commitment to implementing the project, while the CPI has said in no uncertain terms that it wants the project shelved because of environmental and other concerns. Soon after the LDF government came to power, the CPIM) was forced to keep its plans to build the dam aside on account of renewed protests by environmental groups and opposition parties and the turmoil within the LDF, with the CPI expressing its objections. Eventually, it was announced that the government would go ahead with the project only if there was a consensus on it within the LDF as well as outside.

Such a consensus seems unlikely any time soon because even almost four decades after it was proposed the promised benefits from the project remain sketchy in the popular perception vis-à-vis the concrete objections raised against it. The Kerala State Electricity Board’s proposal, first made in 1982, was to build a concrete gravity dam across the Chalakkudy river in Thrissur district and generate 163 MW of power "to meet the power deficit being experienced in the State during the peak hours from six p.m. to 10 p.m". Since then the idea has invited widespread opposition not only because of the effect it will have on the ecology of the region but also because of questions regarding its economic feasibility and social impact.

The proposed dam will take away 138 hectares of forests and have a water spread area (submergible area) of 104 ha. It will also involve the construction of a 4.69 km tunnel to the main power house northwest of the dam site, above the Kannankuzhithodu river into which the tailrace water is to be emptied. This tributary joins the Chalakkudy river 1.5 km downstream.

The feasibility of the project itself has been questioned, with critics saying that it will have an irreversible impact on the rich biodiversity in the region, including the surrounding forests; that the claims of water availability in the Chalakkudy river system is far less than what has been stated in the project report for the proposed power generation of 163 MW ; and that the original project cost of Rs.993 crore has skyrocketed to such a huge figure now that the cost of power generated from it will have to be pegged so high if it is to meet even the interest costs on the loan taken to build the dam. They also say that, unlike in the 1980s, cheap power is now available freely from many other sources.

The Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel (WGEEP) headed by Madhav Gadgil had recommended that permission for such a large storage dam should not be given in the Athirappilly-Vazhachal area, which comes under highly fragile Eco-Sensitive Zone One (ESZ-I). The WGEEP has pointed out that the project area is the last remaining low-land evergreen forests of the Western Ghats and that no such riparian vegetation so rich in endemic and endangered species is found anywhere else in the Western Ghats.

It is also a globally important area for birds (with 234 of the 486 species of birds recorded from Kerala); a unique area for bird conservation where, for instance, all the four species of hornbills found in Kerala are seen; an area of extremely high fish density and a breeding and migration area for fish; the migratory route of elephants and part of an elephant reserve; an area known for the presence of the rare Lion-tailed Macaque, an endemic and endangered species of the Western Ghats; the only place where the endangered Cane Turtle is found; and an area of several rare species of plants.

The panel has pointed out that the construction of the dam and the subsequent submergence will lead to the loss of 28.4 ha of riparian forest rich in biodiversity and endemic species and completely alter the ecology of the river system.

The loss of crucial amount of water flow as well as fluctuations in the water flow will endanger the high species richness and endemism of the area, affect the availability of water for irrigation and other purposes in the downstream panchayats and no doubt sound the death knell of the flourishing tourism industry surrounding the Athirappilly waterfalls.

The other important objection to the project is the impact it is likely to have on the local settlements of Kadars, a primitive hunter and food gatherer tribe originally restricted to the forests and hill tracts of the Chalakkudy river basin. They are considered to be the most primitive of the south Indian forest tribes with a population of fewer than 1,500. The construction of the dam will be a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the Kadar people to the forests around the project site, under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. The Act even allows grama sabhas of people in such areas to reject projects that are likely to affect their livelihood.

The High Level Working Group on Western Ghats (HLWG, also known as the Kasturirangan Committee), too, had said that "the desire to use the river for generating electricity cannot be at the cost of the value of the river," and that "such single focus objectives must be enlarged so that the competing — and often the primary needs — can be taken into account at the time of planning and management."

It had said that "while the project’s importance for meeting the peaking power requirements of the State cannot be disputed, there is still uncertainty about the ecological flow available in the riverine stretch, which has a dam at a short distance upstream of the proposed project. Given the increased variability in flow from catchments due to unpredictable monsoon rains, the project may be re-evaluated in terms of the generation of energy and (looking at whether) the plant load factor expected in the project makes it viable against the loss of local populations of some species."

On June 11, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the NOC issued by the government was only part of "a routine procedure", that it needed no discussion elsewhere except within the department concerned, and that the project will be implemented "only through a consensus decision".

However, in a State that is barely recovering from two unprecedented flood years and is acutely aware of the environmental degradation in its Western Ghats districts, the NOC issued on June 4 "for a period of seven years", thereby, "permitting the KSEB to proceed with the implementation of Athirappilly Hydro Electric Project" has surely left a jarring note — whatever may have been the reasons for such a swift and unexpected move.

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