Construction is expected to begin on the Athirappilly Dam project, which will severely impact a Kadar village in Kerala State. The media in India has been buzzing with stories in recent weeks about the opposition to the dam, though the opponents appear to be getting nowhere.
GreenYouth, a Google group whose e-mails are available on the Web, posted a message on January 21 alerting its members to their probable defeat. Evidently, the Kerala State Electricity Board, which is spearheading the project, is planning to begin work shortly. In fact, the High Court of Kerala, which has reviewed various court suits about the proposed project, has ordered the KSEB to start work by the 31st of the month. The order was in response to a suit brought against the state government by a construction contractor challenging a move by the state to re-tender the construction award.
The lengthy GreenYouth e-mail gives many details of the history of the project, as well as links for more information. It describes the back and forth struggles by the people of the state against various government agencies over the past eight years. Environmental clearances issued in favor of the project have been cancelled by the High Court in 2001 and 2006. Another case, also before the High Court, has yet to be heard.
It appears likely that the opponents are about to lose. They argue that construction of the dam will have a severe impact on the Athirappilly Waterfalls on the Chalakudy River just below the dam site. It is a major tourist draw for Kerala. Other effects of the dam will include harm to the habitat of one of the hornbill species and the disruption of an important elephant route through the forests.
A lot of the news about the dam focuses on the impacts on the natural environment, but the GreenYouth message also mentions the Kadar village that is in the way of the project. Using conservation language, it refers to the “endemic, highly endangered, primitive, forest dwelling and river dependent Kadar tribal community under threat of loss of livelihood and habitat due to the new dam.” It says that other Kadars, displaced by dams built upstream, did not receive the support they were promised. Approximately 300 out of the 1500 remaining Kadar people will be affected by the current dam.
Opponents of the construction have been quite vocal in recent weeks. A leader of the Congress Party in Kerala State, V. M. Sudheeran, speaking at a convention on February 7 in Kochi, said that the benefits from the dam project will counterbalance only a small portion of the huge capital investment. He said that acceptable cost benefit analyses have not yet been done.
Another speaker at the same convention, Rajaji Mathew Thomas, who chairs the Kerala Assembly’s Committee on the Environment, pointed out that there had been insufficient study of the project, and the will of the people should be respected. He urged the state to focus more on the search for alternative energy resources.
Sugathakumari, an Indian woman poet and environmental/feminist activist, entered the fray on February 15. In a letter to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, she urged the national government to intervene and stop the project. On February 25, she inaugurated what the press is calling an “agitation,” a popular, continuing protest to try and stop the construction. She said that the project would have severe impacts on the environment and the drinking water, and she asked why the state government was proceeding with it despite the popular opposition.
An article on February 28 focused on the potential harm to elephants from various developments in South India. It describes how elephant migration routes will be severed by the construction of the dam, and it mentions the Kadar in passing.
Despite all the opposition, the state government seems determined to move ahead. The wildlife, the habitat, the sanctity of the river, and the welfare of the Kadar people appear to mean little. The e-mail from GreenYouth provides addresses of prominent individuals in India who should be contacted by people who want to support the opposition—before it is too late.