A feature article last week in Express Buzz, a major South Indian magazine, provides an in depth review of the continuing controversy over the proposed Athirappilly hydropower project on the Chalakudy River. Unlike many such articles in recent years, this one describes the effects of the dam on the two Kadar villages located near the proposed site, as well as the serious environmental problems analyzed by earlier reviewers.
The magazine article states, erroneously, that the forests along the Chalakudy River “are the only habitat of the hunter-gatherer Kadar tribal community.” In fact, the Kadar live in more than one location. Seetha Kakkoth’s 2005 journal article “The Primitive Tribal Groups of Kerala: A Situational Appraisal,” reviewed on this website in 2006, includes a brief scholarly description of 15 different Kadar settlements located along several rivers in the Western Ghats mountain range of Kerala and neighboring Tami Nadu states.
Last week’s magazine article indicates that the Kadar are “completely dependent on the forest and the river,” which, to judge by Kakkoth, appears to be a bit of an exaggeration. The 2005 journal article maintains that the people are no longer nomadic. They now live in settled villages where they do agricultural work and cultivate gardens. But the forests and streams are still very important to them. They rely on small game hunting and fishing for a lot of their food, and they gather non-wood forest products which they fabricate into ropes, mats and baskets for sale. Kakkoth makes it clear that the literacy rate among the Kadar, by 1997, had reached 40 percent.
According to Sudha Nambudiri, the author of the current magazine article, many of the Kadar living in the two villages nearest to the dam site are employed by the Kerala Forest Department in Vana Samrakshana Samithis—a village level forest protection committee. They work at miscellaneous jobs, such as janitorial work, related to the well-known Athirappilly waterfall on the Chalakudy River. The waterfall is a major tourist draw for the entire state.
One of the villagers, V. K. Geetha, who filed litigation in the Kerala High Court in 2007 to challenge the environmental clearance in effect at that time, indicated that the forest is her home. “We all continue to make our living from the forests.”
Ms. Geetha is eloquent in expressing the need to protect the forests for the local Kadar villages. “Initially we were told by officials and the party that the project was for our good. But when I spoke to my father, who is the Mooppen (head), he told me that we had already come down from the high ranges in the mountains when the Poringalkuthu dam was constructed. If this dam comes up, we will have to migrate into the plains and that would be giving up our culture and customs.”
Ms. Nambudiri writes that two Kadar villages would be affected by the proposed dam. Pokalapara, with 25 families, is upstream from the dam site and Vazhachal, with 67 families, is half a kilometer downstream. Both will be destroyed, according to the author.
The magazine also reviews some environmental implications of the project—destruction of prime, lowland forest habitat and harm to important animal species—but those issues have been reviewed by numerous earlier articles, such as one in November 2009, which described the Chalakudy River basin as one of India’s major biodiversity hotspots. Nambudiri concludes that the battle over the proposed dam will be long and bitter.