The project has been called the “perfect recipe for an ecological disaster”.

Athirapilly dam not viable ecologically or economically Why even an LDF ally opposes project
news Environment Sunday, August 20, 2017 - 16:23

Ever since the CPI (M) led Left Democratic Front government came to power in Kerala in May 2016, the CPI (M) and some of its leaders began advocating for the Athirappilly hydroelectric project.

The CPI, the largest ally of the CPI (M) in the Left Front, has taken an opposing stand citing the ecological impact of the project. On Thursday, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan reiterated the CPI (M) stand on the implementation of the project. The Chief Minister said that the water flow to the Athirappilly waterfalls and from the proposed dam to the powerhouse won't be affected, and told the assembly that no water would be wasted due to the project. Although he said that the project would be taken up only after reaching a consensus, environmentalists and activists who stand for the project are skeptical.

Ecological Impact

The project is proposed in an area where 138 hectares of forest land falls under the Western Ghats. "Studies have proven that the flora and fauna in the region are very rare. The National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources has found that the Chalakkudy river is one of the rivers in India which houses rare fish varieties. There are around 108 fish species in the river," Chalakudy River Protection Forum Secretary SP Ravi told TNM.

Hardly 5-6% of the forest cover of the state has remained intact, as the rest of it has already been highly degraded. "Rather than making efforts to retain the existing forest cover, the attempt to build the dam in an ecologically fragile area would backfire," a source said. 

The natural flow of the Chalakudy river is in the 20km stretch from Peingalkkuth to Thumburmozhi. If the project is implemented, this would be reduced or even lost. Athirappilly is one of the last remaining low-level riverine forests with rich biodiversity, which exists only in this region in Kerala.

The proposed project area is in the region where the population of elephants is the second-highest in the state. Noted ecologist Raman Sukumar had recommended that an elephant sanctuary be set up in the region. 261 rare and endangered birds have been identified in the region. All four breeds of hornbill which are found in Kerala are found in the region. These include the Malabar-pied hornbill, which is locally known as the Pandan hornbill.

Social Impact

There are two tribal settlements in the region ¬— Pokalapara and Vazhachal. Around a hundred families live in the region in both settlements. The project, if implemented, would affect both settlements. Kadar, a primitive tribe, is also settled here.

"They have got community forest rights. Therefore their consent is needed to implement the project. They have written to the government that the project should not be implemented. They have moved the court too", Ravi added.

Environmentalists also counter the Chief Minister's statement that the water flow won’t be affected. The water flow will definitely be affected. If the dam is built, 78% of the water flowing to the region will be diverted. If implemented, the project will also affect the drinking water availability of many regions in Thrissur and Ernakulam districts. As many as 20 local bodies in both the districts depend on the Chalakudy river for drinking water.

Not Economically Viable

Madhav Gadgil, Chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) has always taken the stand that the project was neither environmentally or economically viable. 

"The project is not viable. There is an expert committee report on it which was published in the Forest Department's website," he told TNM. 

According to experts, hydroelectric projects are only 90% dependable. "But in the project, the actual capacity would be less than 15%. It would generate electricity that would just be enough to meet one-third of the consumption of the state," Ravi said. 

In a Facebook post, Kerala finance minister T M Thomas Isaac said that the cost of the project is Rs 1500 crore. The cost would be met through loans whose repayment would take 15 years. Annual repayment amount would be around Rs 200 crore. 

“By selling the electricity generated from the project, the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) would only be able to make half of that, which would worsen the financial situation of the crisis-hit board. Even if they have to make Rs 100 crore a year, they would be required to sell electricity at Rs 12 to Rs 15 per unit. Some of the power projects in the state, like the Kayakulam thermal power project, have almost shut down. When electricity is available at Rs 6 to Rs 7 per unit, how will it be possible to sell electricity at Rs 15 per unit," a source asked.

Former director of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board and well known ecologist Dr VS Vijayan said that "to implement the project the total loss of forest will be 138.6 hectares. As per the existing estimating standards by the Indian Institute of Forest Management, the economic value of forest eco system  per hectare is 40 lakhs and for 138.6 hectares, it is Rs 555.4 crore per year. The value is high in the region as the evergreen forest is more. The eco value of the wetlands, spread in 195 hectares in the proposed region, is 1029.3 crore, . Considering these facts, the electricity generation from here won't match the loss”.

"Though the installed capacity is 163 MW, the actual capacity will be much less. Almost all power projects in Kerala use only 40% of their installed capacity. Also, the water availability in the river will not be sufficient even to meet the demand of the installed capacity.  According to a study by the UN, a project can be implemented only if the benefit from it outweighs the loss," Vijayan added.

He added that given the backdrop of climate change, most of the countries are abandoning hydel projects, which is a lesson for us too.

The Project

The project, which was proposed with a generation capacity of 350 million units, has been planned on the Chalakudy river in the Thrissur district. Although the idea of the project was mooted in 1979, the KSEB moved a formal proposal in 1982. The project got clearance after seven years from various agencies. Since then, public protests backed by environmentalists and activists citing the ecological and social impact of the project has forced the government to stop going ahead with the project. 

The installed capacity of the project is 163 MW.  A gravity dam of 23-meter height and 311-meter length was proposed which is 6.7 km upstream from the Athirappilly waterfalls and 400-meter upstream from the Vazhachal falls.

This was not the first that Pinarayi Vijayan, who isn’t known for having a pro-green stand among environmentalists, has backed the project. In 1998, when Pinarayi Vijayan was the Minister of Electric Power and Co-operatives, the project got a fresh lease of life. "The move to seek environmental permission was initiated during my tenure as the electricity minister," Pinarayi Vijayan had said earlier. 

It got clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1998. The project was in a limbo for several years from various corners. In 2001, the High Court, in a petition filed by activists, directed the KSEB and the ministry to conduct a public hearing. In 2005, the ministry again gave clearance for the project. Subsequently, the activists again moved the court against the project and secured an order in favour of them.

In 2007, when the LDF government was in power, a fresh proposal was submitted to the ministry for clearance.

In 2011, Madhav Gadgil said that clearance for the project was not properly issued and that the project could not be carried out until the Forest Rights Act was implemented in its real spirit. He also said that the project area comes under an ecologically sensitive zone, where such projects are banned. The then minister for environment Jairam Ramesh also opposed the project. However, in 2015, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for River Valley and Hydro Electric projects approved it.

Jairam Ramesh reiterated his stand when the LDF government made efforts to revive the project. He said that the project is a perfect recipe for an ecological disaster.

However, the Kasturirangan report on the Western Ghats gave conditional sanction to the KSEB to pursue the power project. The activists, mostly related to the Chalakudy River Protection Forum, and from the tribal communities are firm that any attempt to go ahead with the project would be opposed.

 

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.