Neha Miriam Kurian writes: The Left-Front government in Kerala is reviving the Athirappilly Hydro Electric Project against stiff resistance from local tribes and environmentalists. If implemented, it will displace the ancient hunter-gatherer Kadar tribe and submerge the only remaining low elevation riparian forests left in the Western Ghats, one of the world’s eight biodiversity ‘hotspots’.
More than eighteen years have passed since the Athirappilly Hydro Electric Project was granted sanction in 1998. If implemented, it will result in submergence of the only remaining low elevation riparian forests left in the Western Ghats, deemed as one of the eight biodiversity ‘hot spots’ of the world, because of its high presence of endemic species, along with a 70-75% habitat loss.
The project was granted environmental clearance three times; but twice it was set aside by the High Court of Kerala on various grounds, including the fact that the public hearing was not conducted. The third time, the High Court disposed of the matter noting that the latest clearance had expired. But just like many other politically charged schemes, the Athirappilly project refuses to die!
In October last year, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) breathed life into the expired clearance, extending it by another 5 years; again without a public hearing. The Project Proponent, the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), is now once again promoting this 163 MW project, which is estimated to sink 104 hectares of pristine rain forests, on the grounds that the High Court had set aside the environmental clearances on mere procedural issues.
A public hearing, as envisaged under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006 is not merely a procedural issue. It is a mandatory democratic process which seeks to ensure that the concerns of those affected by a project are taken into account while granting final clearance. In this case, the Kadar tribes who are the ‘public’ in the project area, also have vested community rights in the area under the Forests Rights Act, 2006, which allows them to reject the project if they want to.
Vested Community Forest Rights
Nine settlements of the Kadar tribes/Oorukoottams reside in this region, the Vazhachal forest division. Of these, there are communities which are currently residing both 400m downstream of the Athirappilly waterfalls as well as those within the submergence zone. The Kadars are one of the oldest of our indigenous populations and mainly live off the land as hunter-gatherers; 89% of the Kadars in this area live off this ecosystem, collecting non- timber forest produce and selling it to the Ayurveda industry.
In May 2014, the Kadars living in this region area were granted recognition under the FRA as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. The gram sabhas were granted Community Forest Rights titles over an approximate area of 40,000 hectares. These rights include the right to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage any community forest resource which they have been traditionally protecting and conserving for sustainable use. An extension of this right includes the condition that any diversion of forest land in such area can be allowed by the Central Government only if it is recommended by the gram sabha. But let alone such recommendation, not even a public hearing to consider the views of the Kadars has ever been conducted for the Athirappilly project.
The Kadars have consistently opposed the project from the beginning and have been trying to assert their rights through the High Court of Kerala. The environmental clearance now granted to the Athirappilly project is clearly illegal, as it has been issued without securing the mandatory clearance from the oorukoottam/gram sabha (village council) under the Forest Rights Act. It is worth noting here that in 2014, the MoEF has issued 2014 circular curtailing the powers of the gram sabha under the FRA, which they were forced to take back after facing sharp criticism from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
The Environmental Clearances granted to the Athirappilly Project was struck down by the Kerala High Court on the first two occasions for not conducting a public hearing in accordance with the EIA Notification. The third time, when the clearance was granted, the incumbent environment minister Jairam Ramesh issued a show cause notice to the project proponent raising many issues, including the rights of the Kadar tribes, under the FRA. The project was thereafter referred to the Gadgil committee which after conducting detailed consultations with various stakeholders including the primitive Kadar tribes, rejected the project in toto, stating it would cause irreparable damage to the biodiversity as well as the Kadars who are dependent upon it.
The Kasturirangan committee appointed thereafter, however did not address the issues of Kadars. Instead, it raised serious apprehensions about the viability of the project and the availability of water considering that the 80 km stretch of the Chalakkudy river, upstream of the present project site, already has 6 dams. It recommended a re-evaluation of the ecological flow of the river, to enable the government to make a reasoned decision about the feasibilty of the project.
However months later, without an environmental impact study or even a reevaluation as suggested, the MoEF granted an ‘extension’ of the expired clearance, stating without any apparent reason that no Kadars would be affected by the project.
“The beauty of the waterfall”
The Athirappilly Hydro Power Project, if implemented will cause unprecedented damage to one of the richest ecosystems of the world as well as a group of people who have committed themselves to protect it. This has been studied and concluded by none other than government appointed expert bodies, the Gadgil and the Kasturirangan Committees. Further the FRA is a landmark legislation in that it recognised the need for protection of our indigenous populations as an intrinsic part of protection of our forests.
The KSEB and now the Kerala government is promoting the project stating the project is ‘green’ and that enough water will be spared to maintain the ‘beauty of the waterfall’. This speaks volumes about the warped understanding we have of riverine ecology. All over the world, experience shows how major hydro power projects have entirely changed the structure of the river, reducing the downstream to mere trickles, rendering them incapable of supporting life.
A river like the Chalakkudy is a living, organic, dynamic being which supports millions of organisms, many not even discovered by man, in a self-sustaining ecosystem. Furthermore, it supports one of our most vulnerable ancient populations. By ignoring the livelihoods of the Kadar tribes, and more importantly the ecosystem, and by mobilising public sentiment on the ‘beauty of the waterfall’ (cue mental image of actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan falling through it in the popular Mani Ratnam movie Raavan/Raavanan), the KSEB and the Government is looking at the issue through an anthropocentric prism and exhorting others also to do the same.
Other aspects also offer a bone of contention, such as the generation potential of the project, as well as the legality of an environmental clearance that was revived some three years after its validity of 5 years had expired. However finally it all comes down to the question whether we need a project which admittedly will cause so much ecological and social destruction. Once lost, this unique ecosystem cannot be recreated. This is exactly what the precautionary principle, accepted as law of the land begs us to acknowledge. It remains to be seen what may happen as a result of the two Writ Petitions filed by the Kadars pending before the Hon’ble High Court. But with the present State Government also endorsing the project, it currently looks like this project may have many more lives to live.
Neha Miriam Kurian is an advocate who practices before the National Green Tribunal. The article has been prepared on the basis of inputs from Dr. Latha Anantha, River Research Centre, Thrissur. It appeared originally in the blog of the Centre for Environment and Law, National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi.
Athirappalli Project: Development For Whom And At What Cost?
K.P. Sasi, Countercurrents.org
What was the need to repeat the same arguments from Silent Valley to Pooyankutty to Pathrakkadavu to Athirappalli except to educate the politicians who unfortunately had the electoral mandate to decide on the ecological future of Kerala? During all these struggles for the protection of rain forests in Kerala, the question `development for whom and at what cost’ followed. And during all these struggles, the politicians who advocated `development fundamentalism’ were forced to retaliate on `strategic grounds’. The question also is, during these long stretches of public debates on environment, development and people, are our politicians educated enough?