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Public hearing on Athirappilly project today

K. Santhosh

Environmentalists say the project is likely to cause serious environmental damage

Environmentalists argue that the proposed Athirappilly hydel project will wipe out the Athirappilly waterfalls. The Kerala State Electricity Board, however, claims that the waterfalls will be maintained by constructing a dam toe powerhouse of 3 MW ca pacity. PHOTO: K. K. NAJEEB

Thrissur: A public hearing on the proposed Athirappilly Hydroelectric Project will be held at the Gopalakrishna Auditorium in Chalakudy, near here, on June 15 on a directive of the Kerala High Court.

The 163 MW Athirapally hydel project was cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 1998. Prior to environmental clearance, the mandatory public hearing was not held.

Following legal intervention by local communities and enviromentalists, the Kerala High Court, on October 17, 2001, directed the Kerala State Electricity Board and the MoEF to ensure that all the procedures for environmental clearance, including holding a public hearing, be strictly followed.

A public hearing held at the Thrissur Town Hall on February 6, 2002, witnessed severe opposition to the project. The project, however, was cleared by the MoEF on February 10, 2005, on the basis of a report by Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Ltd. (WAPCOS), an environmental impact assessment (EIA) agency. On March 23, 2006, the Kerala High Court quashed the clearance and ordered another public hearing. The Court asked the authorities to publish the report of the hearing and submit a fresh application for the project.

The proposed Athirappilly hydel project is the seventh dam to be built across the 145.5-km Chalakudy river, the fifth largest in the State. The Chalakudy river, which originates in the Anamalai region of Tamil Nadu, is the collection of falls from Parambikulam, Kuriyarkutti, Sholayar, Karapara and Anakayam. Athirapally and Vazhachal waterfalls, tourist destinations, are located on the Chalakudy river. The annual report of the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources, Lucknow, states that Chalakudy has the richest diversity of aquatic wealth among the rivers in the country.

Envrionmentalists argue that the Athirappilly project is likely to cause serious environmental damage. The project infringes upon human rights and threatens tourism, they maintain.

The 138.6-hectare forestland to be used for constructing the dam is home to Asiatic Elephant, Great Indian Hornbill, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Gaur, Lion-Tailed Macaque, Nilgiri Langur and Cochin Forest Cane Turtle. The EIA has not scientifically studied the ecological problems of submergence of the only remaining riparian forests at this altitude in the entire Western Ghats. The vital elephant corridor between the Parambikulam Sanctuary and the Pooyamkutty forests will also be affected, environmentalists say.

About 5 lakh people from 19 panchayats and two municipalities depend on the river for their livelihood. About 100 members of the Kadar tribe, will

be displaced. Environmentalists say the project will wipe out Vazhachal and Athirappilly waterfalls, visited by about 6 lakh people every year (the KSEB, however, claims that the waterfalls will be maintained by constructing a dam toe powerhouse of 3MW capacity).

The proposed Athirappilly project would depend only on the tail race waters of Poringalkuthu (commissioned in 1958) hydel project for power generation. Based on the stream data of the past 22 years, the People's School of Energy, a team of engineers from Kannur, calculated that only 20 per cent of the planned power capacity can be generated from December to May.

Hence, environmentalists argue, the KSEB's claim for proposed peak load generation of 163 MW is false. With Kerala getting almost 60 per cent of the power it requires from Tamil Nadu and other States, hydel projects with poor generation can incur severe economic losses.

The proposed 160 MW is less than three to five per cent of Kerala's current electricity production and can be generated through sustainable wind farms,

solar projects, prevention of power theft and cutting down transmission loss, environmentalists say. They point out the outcome of the destruction of forest land: the State, which once boasted of a wealth of water resources, is now struggling with droughts.

The State had an estimated forest cover of 44.4 per cent in 1900. Environmentalists cite independent studies and satellite images that show the forest cover was 14.7 per cent in 1983 and has currently come down to 9 per cent.

Those who oppose the dam call for an end to the old-fashioned model of development where the bulldozer is king.

KSEB stance

The KSEB, on the other hand, says that apprehensions about the proposed dam are misplaced. The Central Electricity Authority has vouched for the viability of the project, which is expected to generate 233 MU per annum. The range of production will be between 98 MU and 604 MU. The Board maintains that only flow of water in a small area will be affected.

Compared with other projects, the Athirappilly dam involves submergence of very little forest land, the KSEB says.

If the entire course of flow is diverted to the main powerhouse, the Athirappilly-Vazhachal waterfalls could dry up.

To avoid this, the KSEB proposes to release 6.23 m3/s of water in April-May and 7.62 m3/s of water from September to March.

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