Environmentalists decry revival of controversial Athirappilly Hydel Project by Kerala G’ovt

It has been reported that the project violates FRA norms and is set to adversely impact the ecology and tribal communities in the region

Athirappilly Hydel Project

As made evident by countless incidents, the coronavirus induced lockdown has been used to give a free hand to many damaging environmental clearances that were hitherto stopped in their tracks. Community forests in Odisha have been ravaged, a part of the Dehing Patkai elephant reserve has been made open for coal mining, the Gujarat government is essentially asking the pollution control board to go easy on violators of environmental laws and now the Kerala government issued a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to the controversial Athirappilly Hydel Project on the Chalakudy River.

The Athirappilly Hydel Power Project has been long opposed by environmentalists and tribal communities living there for a variety of reasons. It was in 1996 that the Athirappilly hydro power project, which included the building of a 23-metre high dam, was proposed to generate 163 MW of power to help with the shortage of power in the state. To be built upstream on the Athirappilly Waterfalls, a major tourist attraction, it was opposed due to the tremendous damage it would cause to the low elevation riparian forests, the flora and fauna in the Vazhachal forest division, the tribal settlements in the region (Kadar community), downstream irrigation, not to mention the hit to the tourism.

Apart from this the recent NOC given by the Kerala government stands for seven years, which gives the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) time to apply for fresh environmental clearances in the wake of the ones given in the past having expired.

Not only this, the project is also a violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 as the dam cannot be constructed without consulting the Gram Sabhas and the tribal communities who received their community forest rights (CFR) in 2014.

In light of these issues, S Faizi, an ecologist and member of the Expert Group on Biodiversity and Development of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, has written to the Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan and Minister of Electricity apart from ministers in the tribal development department and forest departments of the State and the Centre saying that “the law requires that the project is abandoned unless the Gram Sabhas governing the CFR area reconsider the project and grant permission”.

Faizi wrote, “The proposal for resuming the process for the Athirappilly Hydel project is a breach of the Forest Rights Act 2006 as all the permissions granted for the project became null and void in 2014 when the Community Forest Rights of the local Adivasi community (Kadar) was recognised there. CFR for the Kadar community of Vazhachal and eight other Adivasi hamlets of Athirappilly panchayat, Thrissur district was accorded over an area of 40,000 hectares of forests under the FRA after the due process. This recognition of rights has vested the power and duty to manage and protect the forest with the Adivasi community of the 9 hamlets organised into Gram Sabhas. The proposed hydel project area falls within the CFR area and any external intervention would require the prior permission of the Gram Sabha. Any formal permissions granted by any agency after 2014 are invalid as the basic permission of the FRC Gram Sabhas was not taken in advance.”

He also listed the powers and duties vested in the Gram Sabha on CFR areas under section 5 of FRA (besides the rights under section 3.1) as follows:

a) Protect the wildlife, forest and biodiversity. 
b) Ensure that adjoining catchments area, water sources and other ecologically sensitive areas are adequately protected. 
c) Ensure that the habitat of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers is preserved from any form of destructive practices affecting their cultural and natural heritage.
d) Ensure that the decisions taken in the Gram Sabha to regulate access to community forest – resources and stop any activity which adversely affects the wild animals, forest and the biodiversity are complied with.

Fauzi also said that under Section 5 (d) it was the legally binding duty of the Gram Sabha to ensure that its decisions are complied with, and the KSEB has no option but to respect the law. He also pointed out that the FRA is the magna carta of the Adivasi community of India and it was enacted with the untiring support of the Left parties.

It is noteworthy that the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, hhighlighting the biodiversity and the unique riverine forest system had stated that the construction of the dam would completely alter the ecology of the river system, both upstream and downstream, affect irrigation dynamics, affect the groundwater in the catchments which would adversely impact the availability of drinking water in the area and seriously disturb the habitats of the primitive Kadar tribe.

It had proposed that no new dams with large-scale storage be permitted in the Ecologically Sensitive Zone (1) under which Athirappilly falls and recommended that no environmental clearances be given to the hydel project, apart from proposing that the Chalakudy River to be declared as a Fish Sanctuary.



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