The Athirappilly Hydro Electric Project was first proposed in 1982, and public opposition began soon after in 1985 due to the ecological damages it would cause.

A waterfall with its white foam spread around at the bottom, surrounded by greenery under a sunny sky. Photo is taken sideways. Courtesy - Jan Joseph George / Wiki Commons / CCBYSA 4
news Environment Friday, October 08, 2021 - 12:27
Written by  Cris

There has been no formal announcement yet, but it looks like the controversial nearly four-decade long Athirappilly Hydro Electric Project (AHEP) in Kerala has been cancelled. The Forest Department has reportedly returned the money (more than Rs 4 crore) it had received from the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) nearly 20 years ago. This was given as compensation for the forest that would have been cut down for the project. A group of environmentalists has taken this to mean that the KSEB has abandoned its last claim on the forest land, and it can be considered that the project has been dropped.

“It is a highly delayed move, the last permission having expired in 2017 (when the validity of the environmental clearance lapsed). In between, there were several permission issues (when the environmental clearance was rejected either by the Union Ministry or courts multiple times). But now, after four years of it having been a dead project, they have finally returned the money and we welcome that move. Though they have not made a formal announcement, this move means the project has ended, in effect,” says SP Ravi, director of River Research Centre (RRC).

If you look at the timeline, the twin proposal for a hydroelectric project in Athirappilly and another in Poringal was first submitted in 1982, nearly 40 years ago. While the Poringal project was abandoned a few years later, the Athirappilly project – at a proposed capacity of 160 MW - went through hurdle after hurdle, with multiple proposals and rejections.

At least three times environmental clearance was given by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest Affairs, and later rejected when the matter went to court. Public opposition had begun as far back as 1985, highlighting the environmental issues it would bring. There would also be displacement of tribal people living in these areas and the destruction of waterfalls. In 1987, the Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samithi (Chalakudy River Protection Forum) was formed and raised these matters.

“The main ecological impact was the toll it would take on the riparian forest in the Vazhachal area. That is the only remaining low-elevation riparian forest stretch in Kerala. A significant part of it – around 5 km considering the two banks of the (Chalakudy) river – would have drowned in the reservoir. This is also an elephant migratory route and a favourite spot of fish. Five new species of fish were found from the Chalakudy River, out of which two were from the project site. In addition, there are more than 250 species of birds in the place, including the four types of hornbills found in Kerala. Also, this is the only free-flowing stretch of the river, the rest is disturbed or regulated by various other projects,” explains Ravi, who is also the secretary of the Chalakudy River Protection Forum.

Read from archive: Athirapilly dam not viable ecologically or economically: Why even an LDF ally opposes project

Members of the forum want the state government to come out and say that they are fully withdrawing from the hydroelectric project. Last year – three years after the 2017 expiration of the environmental clearance – the state government had allowed the KSEB to move ahead with the project. “That was in June 2020. That permission should be withdrawn and the project fully dropped – that’s what we ask of the government. We also want the project office at Kannankuzhi, just below Athirappilly, to be closed. Already, crores of rupees have been spent on this project which is against nature, against people and which is not even viable. Not a single rupee needs to be spent any more,” Ravi adds.

Also read: From Mullaperiyar dam to sand mining: A history of the slow death of Kerala’s rivers