Kerala government gives go-ahead to Athirappally hydel power project

Decision elicits angry response from a cross-section of society

By K A Shaji
Published: Wednesday 10 June 2020
The majestic Athirappally waterfall draws 0.6 million tourists annually. Photo: K K Najeeb
The majestic Athirappally waterfall draws 0.6 million tourists annually. Photo: K K Najeeb The majestic Athirappally waterfall draws 0.6 million tourists annually. Photo: K K Najeeb

The Kerala government has given the go-ahead for the proposed 163-megawatt (MW) Athirappally Hydro Electric Project (AHEP) on the Chalakudy river in Thrissur district, it was revealed on June 10, 2020.

The state government issued an order on June 4 after favourably considering a letter from the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). The letter sought to proceed with the controversial project and to obtain a fresh environmental clearance for it from the Centre.

The state government has given a no-objection certificate (NOC) to the KSEB for a period of seven years and has permitted it to proceed with the project’s implementation, according to the order’s contents, that were leaked to media on June 10.

The government gave the go-ahead to KSEB on finding that the dates of statutory clearances including environmental clearance and techno-economic clearance obtained earlier for the project had expired, according to official sources.

Angry reactions

The government’s decision elicited a storm of protests from various quarters. Former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh, Kerala’s Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala and the Communist Party of India’s Rajya Sabha member Binoy Viswam, a former state forest minister in Kerala, raised strong objections against the project’s revival.

Ramesh warned that the decision will cause people to organise a protest on the lines of Silent Valley in the coming days. Silent Valley was an ecological movement with huge mass participation, that forced the Kerala government to abandon dam construction across the Kunthri River in Palakkad district during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Ramesh said he had warned Kerala against continuing the project in 2010, during his tenure as environment minister in the United Progressive Alliance government.

He took the decision against the project after consulting various people in Kerala, both in government and outside and even personally visiting the area, Ramesh said.

Almost all who reacted, highlighted the timing of the decision. Kerala is slowly emerging from the COVID-19 lockdown. There are also predictions about a repeat of the 2018 floods disaster in the coming months.

Ramesh Chennithala told media in Thiruvananthapuram that the Congress-led opposition in the state would not allow the government to implement the project. “We will prevent its facilitation at any cost. We will not allow the government to implement it,” he said.

Binoy Viswam has also asserted that the project would not be implemented in Kerala as the LDF leadership had earlier decided to abandon the project keeping in view, the human and environmental cost involved.

“The latest decision is purely bureaucratic. Officials with no concern for the environment are behind the fresh move. If implemented, the project would be an environmental disaster. Financially also, it is unviable,” he said.

Around 168 hectares of biodiversity-rich forests in the Western Ghats would be submerged if the project got implemented, Viswam said. “Athirappally is home to some rarest species of birds, animals and plant species. In addition, Kadar tribal settlements in the forests will be dismantled. The fresh move is even violative of the forest rights granted to the Kadars under Forest Rights Act,” he added.

Previous resistance

There has been strong public resistance to the project during the tenure of past Congress-led United Democratic Front and Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF governments.

Former principal chief conservator of forest in Kerala, TM Manoharan, who was also the chairman of KSEB under three different chief ministers, had opposed the project citing the harm it could cause to the environment.

A report of Kerala State Biodiversity Board headed by noted environmental scientist BS Vijayan had also pointed out in 1997 that the power project would adversely affect the ecology of the fragile river ecosystem at Athirappilly.

The controversial power project, which proposes the construction of the seventh dam along the 145-kilometre course of the Chalakudy river, will sound the death knell for what remains of endemic species of flora and fauna in the Athirappally-Vazhachal region, conservationists have said.

“The government has examined the matter in detail and are pleased to issue NOC for a period of seven years and hereby permit KSEB to proceed with implementation of Athirappilly Hydro Electric Project,” the latest order read.

According to SP Ravi of Chalakudy River Protection Samithy, the project which was initially mooted by KSEB in 1996, had been in limbo with the local community strongly opposing the move, backed by environmentalists and politicians with green concerns.

“Even the majestic Athirappally waterfall would dry up once the project comes up. Apart from flora and fauna involving four varieties of rare hornbills, even fish varieties in the Chalakudy river would be impacted. A total displacement of the local tribal community will also happen,” he said.

But KSEB officials are confident that they can manage approval from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as it was approved in 2012 by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for river valley and hydro-electric projects.

However, the LDF government’s attempts to revive the project in 2016 based on the EAC approval was dropped later, following strong opposition from environmentalists and the general public.

Noted environmentalist Leo Saldanha also tweeted, urging the state government to back off from the project.

The Athirappally project was absurd and totally impractical, according to a statement by the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad. M Achuthan, a veteran environmental activist, who conducted the feasibility study on the Athirappally project, alleged that there was a lobby behind it that had no concern for environment and livelihood.

The project would be an environmental disaster in the making and would sever the only link between the Peechi Vazhani Wildlife Sanctuary and the Idamalayar basin of the Periyar river, environmentalists have warned.

The vital elephant corridor between the Parambikulam Sanctuary and the Pooyamkutty forests would also be affected. Apart from being home to hornbills, tigers and leopards, the forests also host the Nilgiri langur, the lion-tailed macaque and the rare Cochin forest cane turtle.

On the tourism front, the project would wipe out the majestic Athirappally and Vazhachal waterfalls, which draw 0.6 million domestic and foreign tourists every year.

 “The river has been hugely dammed already. There are six dams for power and one for irrigation. At least 0.5 million people from 19 panchayats and two municipalities depend on the river. Once the new dam comes up at Athirappally, it will affect all these people,” P Rajaneesh of Chalakudy River Protection Forum, said.

The total installed capacity of AHEP is 163 MW and the project is supposed to make use of the tail end water coming out of the existing Poringalkuthu Hydro Electric Project that is constructed across the Chalakudy, according to the detailed project report KSEB submitted to the Union environment ministry earlier.

A 23-metre-high dam located at about three km downstream of the existing Poringalkuthu left bank power house is envisaged to divert the water from the Poringalkuthu project as well as from its own catchment of 26 sq km through a 4,689.50-long tunnel of 6.4 diameter.

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