Tribals of Athirappilly vividly remember director Mani Ratnam’s adventurous setting for ‘Raavan’ and Aiswarya Rai’s fall into the roaring waters. The thunderous waterfall that has formed the backdrop of several Bollywood hits could eventually fall off the map thanks to an ambitious power project.
A favourite picnic spot and weekend getaway, the Athirappilly waterfall is in the news again as the demand for a hydel power project in its upstream has been revived after a long gap, triggering loud protests from nature-lovers and local tribals. The ruling CPI(M), a strong votary of the dam, has dubbed these protests as ‘green fundamentalism’.
The ruling LDF government feels the dam can be built without disturbing the course of the waterfall and the surrounding green cover. But its opponents say the dam will deal a death blow to the picturesque landscape and displace many tribal families. Earlier this month, the Kadar tribals living in the area took a vow saying the hydel project can only be built over their bodies.
“They have to kill us before building the dam. We never expected such a proposal from the new government that we just voted to power. It is a ploy to plunder green cover and destroy the serene waterfall. We will oppose it tooth and nail,” said tribal leader KP Indira.
Several tribals like Indira work with the Vana Samrakshana Samiti, a group that protects the waterfall and surrounding areas. For them, it is the sole source of their livelihood. “Only fools will argue that the dam can be built without harming the pristine forest,” said Gopalan Kaliappan, another tribal.
The hydel project with an installed capacity of 163 MW is being planned on the Chalakudy river in Thrissur district. It will be spread along 6.7 km upstream from Athirappilly waterfall to the Vazhachal fall, both famous tourist destinations. Six dams for hydel projects and one for irrigation have already been constructed along the 145-km-long river that flows through Palakkad, Thrissur and Ernakulam districts before entering the Arabian Sea.
Environmentalists say the proposed dam will submerge 200 hectares of forest land that is home to tigers, elephants, the endangered Malabar giant squirrel, lion-tailed macaque and great Indian hornbill. Besides affecting the rich flora and fauna it will also displace 500-odd tribal families living here for many generations.
The tribals say they have been displaced and driven downstream earlier for hydro power projects and there is hardly any forested area left downstream for them to shift. The dam would also affect at least four lakh people living downstream, they argue.
“It is sad that for 163 MW power we are planning to destroy a lush green cover. The Madhav Gadgil expert panel on Western Ghats has put Athirappilly and surrounding areas in ecologically-sensitive list and opposed any move to grant permission to the dam,” says Dr Latha Anantha, founder of River Research Centre, who has been spearheading a campaign to protect Chalakudy river.
The dam was first mooted in 1978 and the state electricity board (SEB) moved a proposal in 1982. But it was forced to back down following a loud outcry. In 1998, when Pinarayi Vijayan (the current CM) was the Power Minister in the EK Nayanar government, the project was revived again. Later it was given ecological clearance but got into a series of legal wrangles.
However, the Kasturirangan committee on Western Ghats ecology gave a conditional permission to SEB to pursue the project. Subsequently Union Environmental Ministry allowed the SEB to go ahead with the project with some riders, including the flow of water level at the fall should be maintained and power generation should be done only during night and it should be limited to four hours during summer.
But green activists were not convinced. “This will end up like mining permission. Initially there will be checks and balances but later it will be a plunder,” said VC Anil Kumar, president of the forest protection council.
With the protests against the project snowballing, the CPI(M) has done a climb down. “We are not in a tearing hurry. All stakeholders will be taken into confidence,” said state electricity minister Kadakampally Surendran. But local tribals, activists and nature-lovers are not convinced