About a month ago, Geetha saw a Whatsapp message about the number of trees that were going to be cut in the Anakkayam forest area of Athirappally in Thrissur, for a project by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). Nearly 2,000 trees across 20 acres of forest land were going to be cleared for a small hydroelectric project, the message said. Shocked, Geetha, who lived in nearby Vazhachal, called forest experts she knew. They assured her it was not right, that no one could proceed with such a project without first holding a meeting with the nine ‘ooru’s or tribal settlements in the area. They are the protectors of the forest by law, and they hold the title to Community Forest Rights (CFR) as bestowed by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
“The CFR is held by nine tribal settlements including Anakkayam and Sholayar, which are immediately around the forest area that the project will be built on,” says Geetha, who is the tribal head of Vazhachal, one of the nine oorus. The area comes to 400 square kilometres of forest, and the tribe belongs to the Kadar community. Geetha and Ajitha, secretary of the CFR coordination committee (of all nine settlements), have submitted a petition to the Kerala High Court, in addition to sending letters to officials concerned at the KSEB as well as the Minister for Electricity, MM Mani.
The KSEB should ideally have called a meeting of all nine tribal settlements before deciding to proceed, not just the two immediate settlements, says Ravi SP of Chalakkudy Puzha Samrakshana Samithi (Chalakkudy River Protection Forum).
“Anakkayam (valley) falls in the Chalakkudy river basin. The KSEB project is planned on an area 15 km above Vazhachal. It is a small hydroelectric project with an installed capacity of 7.5 MegaWatts. The design is to build a tunnel to channel the water coming from the existing Kerala-Sholayar hydroelectric project to generate electricity. No dams are involved. But there will be tunnelling and other components such as a powerhouse. For this, they will need to clear eight hectares of forest land. It may not sound like a large area unless you consider the critical importance of the Anakkayam forest,” says Ravi.
A major part of the proposed forest area that will be cleared falls in the buffer zone of the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. The number of trees marked for cutting is 1,897, and most of these are evergreen. Ravi says that this number was identified in 2013, for trees having a girth of 70 to 700 cm. There will likely be more trees with this girth after seven years.
Anakkayam and Vazhachal are also major habitats of elephants. With dams and other physical barriers in Chalakkudy River, wildlife movement is already affected in a big way, Ravi says.
“Anakkayam begins where the Poringalkuthu reservoir ends. Further upstream, one side is really steep and the animals find it difficult to cross. It is also a very rich forest, that’s why losing eight hectares of it will cause more impact than losing five times as much forest in a less critical area,” Ravi explains.
The area is also prone to landslides. Geetha remembers the landslides during the 2018 floods of Kerala when people living on either side of Sholayar had to move away. People who lost their homes were promised rehabilitation but they are still waiting for it. Tunnelling (for the new project), using rock blasting, can further increase the risks of landslides, Ravi points out.
It is also not just the two nearby settlements of Anakkayam and Sholayar that will be impacted by the project. Three other settlements depend on these areas for forest produce. “Their livelihood is dependent on these forest produces,” says Rajasri, who was the principal investigator in a project study of livelihood enhancement in the area, done by the District Level Committee, with the support of River Research Center (RRC).
“When the season is right, they go deep into the forest to stay there and collect the produce – honey, tubers and mushrooms, among others. Earlier, they used to hunt animals, but that stopped later, especially with laws against it coming into place. The tribal people are a very peace-loving community, respecting the wildlife. Even children know silence is important and they move around without disturbing the other lives around them. There are thousands of life forms depending on those trees. Varieties of butterflies and migratory species depend on those trees. The nearly 2,000 evergreen trees marked for cutting include many endemic ones,” says Rajasri.
The KSEB project for the small hydroelectric project was sanctioned 30 years ago, but for various reasons, it had not been implemented. “At the time, the KSEB had given the work to a private agency, but it did not happen. More than 20 years later, they began trying for clearance again. In 2014, they managed to get clearance from the forest department, allowing 5.5 km of tunnelling in the area. But it was said in the report that blasting cannot be allowed and they would need to use chemicals. Since that would be a costly option, there seemed to be some delay in the proceeding,” Ravi says.
Later, the KSEB made a request to the Parambikulam Tiger Conservation Authority to exclude this condition (of using only chemical and no blasting). A team visited the area, held discussions, and finally allowed control blasting in the year 2018. “The KSEB called a contract for tree cutting and one team came forward. And now is a time when people can’t really hold protests (during the COVID-19 pandemic),” Ravi says.
But that didn’t stop them from opposing the cutting down of trees. Mohandas M, an activist of the River Protection Forum, tells TNM that the tribal people in the area sensed a problem when contractors spoke to them of loading and unloading trees. “They had even tried to reach an agreement with trade union workers for loading and unloading. Sensing that the trees were going to be cut, the residents of the area came out in protest. This was in Thavalakkuzhpara, one of the nine tribal settlements in the CFR. As per the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, consent of tribal people is needed even for planting trees,” he says.
Bibin Joseph, Director (Generation - Civil), KSEB, says that the clearance from the forest department had come as long ago as 2013. “We got the clearance after all the stakeholders, including the tribal and forest departments, met all the statutory requirements. We are not clearing 20 acres of forest, that’s an exaggerated number. No dams are involved. It is just a tailrace of the Sholayar powerhouse, and the water from it will be tunnelled into a powerhouse we build. It is not big. But there will be certain people to create a smokescreen and cause misunderstandings. I cannot say much as the case is in the court now. But we are going ahead only in accordance with the law,” he says.
Eight of the nine tribal settlements had ‘ooru kootam’ or meetings to discuss the KSEB project. No one had heard of such a project, says Geetha. All eight of them passed resolutions and submitted it to the Sub Division Level Committee, District Level Committee and 15 others including state ministers, political leaders and KSEB officials. They also approached the High Court.
“The next hearing is on November 27. KSEB has agreed to the court that no trees shall be cut until then. We also held small protests among our settlements. One settlement is in deep forest area so we have not been able to reach them. But all nine tribal settlements have equal say over it,” says Geetha.