Environmentalists and tribal communities in Kerala are set to strengthen their resistance against a small hydel power project, powered by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) in the Vazhachal forest division, citing widespread concerns of habitat destruction and violation of tribal rights on forest land.
The KSEB recently issued an order to clear hard wood and rosewood trees in the allocated forest area in Vazhachal division to kickstart work for the Anakkayam Small Hydro Electric Project which has been designed as a tailrace development to generate power from the water flowing out of the Sholayar dam.
According to the KSEB, the power developed from the project will have high value because the generation mainly occurs in the summer season due to assured release of 12.3 TMC of water in the Sholayar reservoir. The 7.5 MW project, first mooted in the 90s and which was given administrative sanction recently at a cost of Rs 139.62 crores, is set to come up in nearly eight hectares of forest land located in the buffer zone of the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve (PTR).
Environmentalists say the project, if implemented, will involve the construction of a 5.5 km-long and 3.65-m wide tunnel through blasting works and thereby render irreparable damage to a forest area already ecologically sensitive. The consequences will extend to loss of precious flora and fauna species along with huge impact for nearby tribal settlements.
“The project is unnecessary and untimely. It was mooted first in the 90s considering the then energy needs of Kerala. But since then, things have changed a lot. We have been facing effects of global warming and climate change. During both the 2018 and 2019 floods, we have suffered extensive damage in the area. At a time when we need to be alert, when we cannot afford to lose even an inch of forest area, this project has been re-introduced,” said Mohandas M, a member of the Chalakudy River Protection Forum which has been leading protests against the proposed Athirapilly dam project and currently the hydel project in Anakkayam. The site of the Anakkayam project is not far from the Athirappilly proposed area.
“Around 20 hectares of forest land will have to be cleared out of which 15 acres are in the buffer zone of PTR. Around 1900 large trees with a circumference ranging from 74 cms to 740 cms will have to be felled. A larger number of small trees will also be cut. In short, it will have irreparable environmental consequences,” he added.
Another aspect of the resistance against the hydel project is the absence of consent from the local Kadar tribe which holds the right of Community Forest Resources (CFR) as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The site of the hydel project comes within the 400 sq kms of forest land that were given as CFR to the Kadar tribe which has the responsibility to protect and conserve the habitat, said Mohandas.
“This is the first place in Kerala where CFR were accorded to a tribe. Forget cutting a tree, even if you have to plant a tree, you need the permission of the tribal settlements. This (the project) is the absolute denial of the law and rights of the land,” he said.
He added that eight of the nine tribal settlements have passed resolutions against the project, which have been conveyed in writing to the divisional forest officer, Vazhachal and the Thrissur district collector.
Mohandas claims the project has been brought possibly as a move by a state government that’s on its way out, considering Assembly elections are only five months away.
“Or they might have thought our mouths will be shut because of the pandemic. We would like to say that our mouths may be shut, but our eyes and ears are still open. Right now, we cannot get large number of people to assemble so we will protest in accordance with Covid protocol,” he said.
There are protests planned Wednesday in front of KSEB and other government offices across the state.