V.K Geetha has grown amidst uncertainty, displacement and violence. Settled in the forests, her parents have lost their home thrice, each time for the purpose of a dam construction deep inside the forests of Kerala.
As a first woman chieftain of a tribal community, the 30-year-old is determined to not allow her community to go through what she endured thrice in her life. She belongs to the Kadar community, a primitive tribe from the forests of Palakkad and Thrissur districts of Kerala. In Malayalam, Kadar means forest dwellers. They have lived a nomadic life, practicing shifting cultivation, growing rice and millets.
She hails from the Vazhachal Forest Village which now borders the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. Vazhachal is also a few kilometres from Sholayar and near the Annakayam forest which is inhabited by around ninety percent of the Kadars.
The proposed Athirappilly Hydro Electric Power Project in the Chalakudy river basin of Kerala’s Thrissur district, could soon acquire Geetha’s home.
Forest land under threat?
The 163 mega watt project was given sanction by the Kerala Government in June 2020 after the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) had addressed a letter to them seeking to proceed with the project and to obtain a fresh environmental clearance. Subsequently, the State Government issued a No Objection Certificate (NOC) for a period of seven years, permitting the Athirappilly project.
According to The Hindu, eight settlements of the Kadar Tribes people had obtained Community Forest Rights (CFR) over 40,000 hectares of forests surrounding the site of the proposed power project in 2014 after a long battle with the Government and KSEB authorities.
Section 6 of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, provides that community forest rights empower the gram sabhas to reject major developmental projects that may affect the livelihood of the forest dwellers.
This project which has been estimated to displace 163 Kadar families in Vazhachal and 71 families in Pokalappara settlements, was outrightly rejected by the community. In 2016, Geetha, in her open letter titled Dear Sisters, They Are Killing Our Trees focused on the threat to the trees in the area to be submerged further explaining that the Athirappilly Hydroelectric Project “will destroy 28.5 hectares of riparian (riverside) forests that sustain our way of life”.
Her heartfelt letter reads, “We value them for the coolness we feel as we walk for hours in search of food, fuel and fodder. We know and sense trees through their continuous life process by which water is rejuvenated in the ground and flows out as streams and rivers.” This is clearly someone who understands the value of trees as a part of a larger rainforest ecosystem.
In the forest she senses “the strength and generosity of trees in the honey filled flowers and the honeycombs that bees make that earn us our livelihood. We sense the nutrient rich humus that leaves shed from trees growing by the river bank that emerges as the diverse fishes and other life forms that reach our hearths. We know trees through the heat and energy of the fire that helps cook our food and warm our tiny huts on cold nights. We understand that dead and dying trees are needed for special denizens of the forests like the hornbills and woodpeckers to nest and raise their next generation.”
In another letter posted in July 2015, titled “Dear Sisters, Please Help Us To Protect Athirappily River And Forest”, she passionately explained the ill effects of the project citing her family’s history of displacement by the series of dams that have come upstream and how their compensation and rehabilitation was ignored.
History of Resistance
In 1905, Geetha’s ancestors were displaced after the British Presidency of Madras began building a tramway linking the forest region to Chalakudy railway station in central Kerala. Her forefathers moved to a forested locality called Peringalkuthu, where they lived until the government began building a hydel project shortly after Independence.
With their settlement demolished by authorities, the Kadars were forced to shift to the Sholayar region of the same stretch of forest. This was met with another hydel project in the 1970’s and another eviction. Such circumstances led V.K Geetha to settle in Vazhachal near the Anakkayam forest which now inhabits ninety per cent of Kerala’s 1,848 Kadars.
The Telegraph reported a message from the KSEB that Geetha recently received, wanting to cut down thousands of trees across 20 acres of forestland for the project. She has firmly informed the authorities that no part of the project can be initiated without the consent of the nine settlements that are to be directly and indirectly affected by it.
Activists have also alleged that the government had assured people after the two subsequent annual floods in Kerala that it would be very careful while undertaking mega dams and other river-based projects but there has been no policy change since then.
In an interview to Mongabay, Geetha said, “The tribal council of Vazhachal will be convened shortly to discuss the new development. The issue will also be discussed in the Forest Rights Committee. We will challenge the order in all possible means. We are stiffly opposing the project”. A decision is yet to be arrived at.
The controversial power project proposes construction of the seventh dam along the 145-kilometre course of Chalakudy River. Despite protection under the Forest Rights Act that was enacted in 2006 to address the long-standing insecurity of tenurial and access rights, the Kerala Government has given their nod to the massive project which will render the communities homeless and adversely impact the flora and fauna.
As per the Telegraph, the areas of Anakkayam and Vazhachal are major elephant habitats. River Chalakudy’s banks, which will host the power project was worst hit during the floods in 2018 which further caused damage in Athirappilly panchayath.
A detailed study report by K.A. Amitha Bachan and M.P. Shajan for the Kerala State Biodiversity Board revealed the destruction of huts of the tribal people who lived close to the proposed project site, forcing them to move. Further, 498 human lives so far (till September 13, 2018), injuries to at least 140 persons and the death of 46,867 animals was recorded.
The environmentalists and tribal communities have opined that the tunnelling for the project, involving rock blasting, will increase the risk of landslides, destroying more huts and houses. The huge dam construction which was conceived in the 1980’s will block the flow into the majestic Athirappilly waterfalls and kill the tourist attraction to this region.
The former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had also expressed his anguish over the go ahead the project received saying, “I thought the recurring floods in the last two years have brought in some environmental sense to the political leadership in Kerala. But clearly my thinking was wrong. This project will cause immense ecological damage.”
Harish Vasudevan, environmentalist and Kerala High Court lawyer, told the Telegraph that the Kadars help protect the forest ecology, safeguarding four varieties of hornbills in the Athirappilly-Vazhachal region under a project piloted by the state forest department. But the felling of 2000 trees for the project, as envisaged by the Board, will disturb their peaceful existence.
Activists supporting the Kadar cause contend that two of nine tribal settlements will be affected by the project. “One settlement is recorded as only 400 metres from the dam site. But still the electricity board is saying that it will not be affected,” said KH Amitha Bachan of the Western Ghats Hornbill Foundation who works closely with the tribe to Scroll.
The KSEB has argued that construction of dams will be helpful in preventing floods. But the community voiced by V.K Geetha have argued that this will come at the cost of impacting 108 species of fishes in 130 kilometre stretch of the river, 264 species of birds including 4 species of hornbills in the rainforest habitats, the 10 lakh tourists whose access to visit and view the beauty of the falls and the livelihoods of many people dependant on the water from this river for agriculture, irrigation and all daily activities.