Within a week of the LDF government assuming office in Kerala, the CPM and CPI have locked horns over the long-pending Athirapally hydroelectric project. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has declared the government’s intention of going ahead with it, but the CPI is opposed on ecological grounds.
The project, with an installed capacity of 163 MW, is planned on the Chalakkudy river in Thrissur district. A gravity dam of 23 m height and 311 m length was proposed 6.7 km upstream from the Athirapally waterfalls and 400 m upstream from the Vazhachal falls, both picturesque tourist zones. Six dams for hydel power and one for irrigation have already been constructed along the Chalakkudy river, which flows through the districts of Palakkad, Thrissur and Ernakulam before it meets the Periyar not far from the sea.
The project idea was mooted in 1979, and the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) moved a formal proposal in 1982. It took seven years for the project to get clearance from various agencies, but KSEB was forced to step back in the wake of public protests.
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The project got a fresh lease of life in 1998 when Pinarayi Vijayan was the Power Minister in the LDF government led by E K Nayanar. A study by a state government agency favoured the building of the project, and it subsequently got clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
However, activists moved the High Court, which, in 2001, directed the KSEB and the MoEF to conduct a public hearing and follow all mandatory procedures for environmental clearance. In the public hearings, activists and local people opposed the project on the grounds that it would adversely impact the the endangered fauna and flora of the region.
In 2005, however, the MoEF gave clearance again, based on the environmental impact assessment report prepared by Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Limited. The activists and Chalakkudy River Protection Committee moved the HC in 2006, which junked the clearance.
In 2007, the LDF government made a fresh proposal before the MoEF for environmental clearance, but union minister Jairam Ramesh opposed it. The MoEF said the Kerala Biodiversity Board and Kerala Forest Department had reported that the project would adversely affect the ecology of the area.
In the meantime, the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel of Madhav Gadgil declared the Western Ghats region, including the Athirapally belt, an ecologically sensitive zone, banning mining, quarrying, thermal power plants and huge projects. However, the Kasturirangan report on the Western Ghats gave conditional sanction to the KSEB to pursue the power project. Armed with the new report, KSEB presented a fresh case for MoEF clearance. The MoEF assigned the Central Water Commission to examine the water flow in the Chalakkudy. The commission reported that the dam would have 1,055 million cubic m water in the lean season, and the project would not affect the flow. Subsequently, the MoEF extended the green clearance for the project until 2017, which has allowed the KSEB to go ahead with a set of conditions, including that the flow at the waterfalls should be maintained, and that power generation should be limited to four hours at night during the four summer months.
In December 2015, the tribal community in the project area moved the High Court, saying it infringed upon their rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, and that the government could not proceed with the project disregarding their objections. This petition is pending in the HC.
The dam is expected to lead to the diversion of about 140 hectares of forest land, which is the habitat of the tiger, Asiatic elephant, the Great Indian Hornbill, Malabar Giant Squirrel, lion-tailed macaque and other species. An elephant corridor will be affected by the submergence of a large forest tract.
The hydel project would take away water from an existing irrigation system, which covers 20,000 acres of farmland downstream. About 5 lakh people reportedly depend upon the river for drinking and irrigation purposes. Tribal settlements in the project region would be submerged, and the project could mean the end the Athirapally waterfalls which attract lakhs of tourists every year.
Those who oppose the project say it would generate only 26.7 MW of energy against the installed capacity of 163 MW. The power generation would be affected mainly due to the reduced flow in the river. Generation would go down further during the dry summer season.