The highly controversial Athirappilly hydroelectric project received a fresh fillip on Tuesday, when state power minister MM Mani announced in the Assembly that the government is determined to go ahead with the 163 Mega-Watt project.
The project, which was first proposed in 1979 and has faced decades of opposition from activists and tribals living in the region, is estimated to cost around Rs 1500 crore and will aim to produce 212 million units of electricity per year.
Crucially for tribals living in the area, however, the project lays claim to 112 hectares of forestland under the Athirappilly panchayat. The panchayat comprises about 12 tribal hamlets, with nine of them protected under the Forest Rights Act. Of these, two tribal hamlets in Vazhachal and Pokalappara will be directly affected by the hydel project, and are facing submersion.
Even as the government announces its determination to continue with the project, the tribals of these hamlets are up in arms against any attempts to take away their land. The tribal chieftain of Vazhachal hamlet Geetha Vazhachal, a winner of the PV Thampy Memorial Endowment Award for Environmental Protection, told The News Minute that they are determined not to allow the project to come up at any cost.
â€śChalakkudy river, on which the dam is to come up, is already on the verge of death. Moreover, there are a number of dams across the river already. Why do they want to build one more by destroying our habitat? Madhav Gadgil had visited the place, and had reported that both the hamlets will be submerged if the project comes up. We will fight the project till our death,â€ť Geetha said.
Itâ€™s not only opposition from tribals that has stood in the way of the Athirappilly project. In 2001, the Kerala High Court rejected the project proposal based on the impact it would have on the local environment and wildlife. In 2005, a review petition filed by the Central Governmentâ€™s water resources agency, WAPCOS, was also rejected by HC.
In 2007, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests granted environmental clearance to the project, giving the state government the chance to go ahead with it. However, in 2009, then union forest minister Jayaram Ramesh sent a notice to the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) raising the question of environmental hazards associated with the project. The Gadgil Committee also reported adversely on the project.
Following this, in 2015, the Central Government withdrew the environmental clearance given for it. Despite being rebuffed multiple times, however, the LDF government is adamant on restarting the clearance process, and finally building the dam.
Geetha alleges that the planning on the project has proceeded without proper consultation with the local stakeholders, and also contradicts existing guidelines on dam projects.
â€śFor such a project, they first have to discuss it with us, but over these many years nobody was ready to talk with us. This project will go against the Kasthoorirangan Report, which says that a distance of at least three kilometres should be maintained between two hydro projects. Here, if the project comes up, it would be too close to the Idamalayar dam,â€ť she added.
The project will rob the livelihoods of at least 100 families in the two hamlets, she adds. â€śThere are 75 families in Vazhachal hamlet and 25 in Pokalappara. Without our permission, no project will come up here â€“ we have the forest protection documents with us. This is our land, almost all the families here depend on the forest for a living. They go as tourist guides inside the forest, they fish in it and they collect forest produce. This project will wipe away our livelihoods,â€ť Geetha said.
And itâ€™s not only tribal livelihoods at stake. Geetha adds that the dam will also destroy the habit of four species of Hornbill birds that cannot be found anywhere in Kerala except in the Athirappilly forest. â€śThis is just one example. Like this, there are many other rare species of flora and fauna present here. Along with us, they all will lose their habitat,â€ť she said.
â€śThis project is our only problem now. I will fight it with my people till my last breath, because this will profoundly affect our existence,â€ť she added.