Athirappilly falls is situated 70 km from Kochi city in Kerala's Thrissur district. The 80 ft high falls is a part of the Chalakudy River and originates in the upper reaches of the Sholayar ranges in the Western Ghats. Lush greenery and little streams that cover the winding route up and down to the falls exhilarate and intimidate all at once. The region is home to many endangered species of animals such as the Asiatic elephant, tiger, leopard, bison and sambhar. Four species of hornbill are only seen here in the Western Ghats. It also has one of the highest levels of fish diversity with 85 different species of fresh water fish. Sadly, this melting pot of biodiversity is now under threat.
In 1994, The Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) had proposed the Athirappilly Power Project, a 163 megawatt hydroelectric project, on the 144 km small but heavily dammed Chalakudy River. This included a 23-metre high and 311-metre wide dam around 5 kms upstream of the picturesque falls in the Vazhachal Forest division in Thrissur. If this project is constructed, it will submerge an area of 138.8 hectares. Water from this reservoir will be diverted 7 km downstream through a 4.5 km long tunnel to a power house, located on the banks of a tributary of the main Chalakudy River.
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The fear is that the falls may possibly dry up if the project becomes a reality. KSEB suggests that it would adjust the water releases to maintain the waterfall but environmentalists doubt that. Another worry is that the project could displace “Kadars”, a primitive tribal group of the area. They dwell in the forests near the Chalakudy River and their numbers are as low as 1500 today given the forced displacement they have been subject to in the last nearly 150 years owing to forest clearances.
Citing these as reasons, the Kerala State Advisory Board recommends scrapping of the project. According to Dr. Sathis Chandran Nair, an expert on the Southern Western Ghats, “Chalakudy River is perhaps the only major river in Kerala where along the main river channel, some stretches of the riparian vegetation remains in spite of so much destruction.” (1)
The case of Athirapilly is intricately woven to the larger context of the Western Ghats. The Western Ghats stretches along the western edge of the Indian peninsula sandwiched between the Deccan Plateau and the coastal plain along the Arabian Sea. The Ghats have seen brazen illegal mining activity in the recent past especially in Goa, which saw the Rs.35,000 crore illegal mining scam.
Prof. Madhav Gadgil, renowned ecologist known for his studies on people-environment relationships, has fostered his love of ecological field work by extensive work in the Western Ghats. At a recent lecture on 'Science, democracy & ecology in contemporary India' in New Delhi, Gadgil talked about the Athirapilly project.
Gadgil, as Chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), had come up with a report in September 2011, which triggered a public debate on environment-development choices. Gadgil’s report had demarcated areas to be notified as 'ecologically sensitive' and had put key curbs on the mining industry. Listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as one of the top eight bio-diversity hotspots in the world, the Western Ghats area was in need of nuanced regulation of activities, Gadgil said.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), didn't disclose the details of this report to the public. Instead, it roped in former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief Kasturirangan to head a High Level Working Group to advise the government on how to conserve the Western Ghats. Gadgil pointed out the holes in Kasturirangan’s report by saying that it would open the Ghats to economic exploitation, while continuing to play lip service to conservation. Gadgil also noted that the MoEF was “even hesitant to implement the Kasturirangan Panel report, which according to him was a watered down version of his report.” (2)
A study by Environics Trust, an NGO that enables research and development on environmental and human behavior, also says that “appropriate grievance redressal mechanisms need to be put in place for the Western Ghats. If one analyses the appeals filed before the National Environment Appellate Authority they will see that the maximum number of cases have been filed from the Western Ghats region. It is clear that projects in the Western Ghats are legally opposed by affected communities and civil society groups.” (3)
While specifically studying the Athirappilly hydroelectric project, the Gadgil Panel found that “the Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) prepared for the project and the public hearings conducted were flawed and the High Court had repeatedly set them aside.
Indeed, it is not an exception, but very much the rule that EIAs are never objective neutral evaluations of the project but are deliberately distorted to expedite clearance.” Specifically, the Gadgil Panel noted that 70% of the EIA of this project was bogus. The panel said that Athirappilly fell in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1, a zone where no new dams based on large-scale storage should be permitted. Therefore, it should not be accorded environmental clearance. K Radhakrishnan, former member (Generation) KSEB, did not agree with the Panel report and said that the report “was highly biased and the project was eco-friendly doing minimum damage to environment and forests. (4)
The people too are opposed to the project and nearly all 1200 present at the second public hearing on the proposed dam had spoken against it. Nearly, 90% of the written representations after the public hearing too were opposed to the project.
Gadgil sees hope in grassroots research and advocacy groups like the River Research Centre (RRC), which conducted an independent assessment of the proposed project. RRC’s assessment points to a number of flaws as per Gadgil. According to the Chalakudy River Protection Forum set up by RRC, there is not enough water to generate the power as claimed. Power generation would also adversely impact the current irrigation capacity of the river. It could also affect the scenic waterfall itself and thereby the thriving tourism industry, which draws 8-10 lakh tourists a year.
It is clear that development can't happen at any cost yet the answer to the environment-development dichotomy isn't clear. Gadgil says that it lies in “implementing the many well thought provisions of various Acts and Schemes for protecting the environment, and for devolution of democratic powers”.
(1) Chalakudy River Protection Forum, Issues related to the proposed Athirappilly hydroelectric project, 2007
(4) Panel report on Athirapally project biased - K Radhakrishnan, "The Hindu", January, 1, 2012