On Sunday, August 23, tribal residents of Kerala’s Vazhachal forest will meet to pass a resolution against a hydroelectric project coming up in their backyard. This will be the fourth time that the Kadar tribe will be fighting off such an attempt by the Kerala State Electricity Board and the first time it will be invoking its Community Forest Rights.

More than 160 Kadar families across nine settlements in the Vazhachal got Community Forest Rights titles in May last year. The Kadars are classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group under the Forest Rights Act. Under the Community Forest Rights provision no government or private project in a forest area can be implemented without the approval of the gram sabha. The Kadar tribal council announced the Sunday meeting to reject the Athirapally hydroelectric project that involves building a seventh dam on the Chalakudy river.

The urgency of the Kadars’ tribal council meeting comes from the latest decision of an expert appraisal committee constituted by the environment ministry. The committee has given the ministry a go ahead for the project to be approved. In its July meeting the committee withdrew a 2010 show cause notice to the electricity board that asked why the project clearance should not be revoked after observing that the dam would threaten resident tribes and biodiversity. The 23-metre high dam is expected to submerge 104 hectares of forest land.

Displacement ignored?

According to the minutes of the meeting, the expert committee accepted the electricity board’s claim that no tribal families will be displaced by the project. This claim has been strongly contested by the Kadars. In an appeal for support, Kadar leader Geetha wrote an open letter in July explaining that the Athirappally Hydroelectric Project “will destroy 28.5 hectares of riparian (riverside) forests that sustain our way of life.”

Activists supporting the Kadar cause contend that two of nine tribal settlements will be affected by the project. “One settlement is recorded as only 400 metres from the dam site. But still the electricity board is saying that it will not be affected,” said KH Amitha Bachan of the Western Ghats Hornbill Foundation who works closely with the tribe.

Latha Ananta of River Research Centre, a non-governmental organisation in Thrissur, said: “Before this July meeting of the River Valley Committee, the Kadar tribes had sent their gram sabha resolution and certificate of CFR [Community Forest Rights]  to the committee. There is not even a mention of it in the minutes of the meeting.”

Stalled on technical grounds

The 163 megawatt Athirapally project has been in abeyance for more then 15 years. The project first got environmental clearance in 1998, which was suspended in 2001 after the Kerala High Court ordered the electricity board to first conduct public hearing as per the rules. The environment ministry issued a second environment clearance in 2005 which was again quashed by the high court for procedural violations. The project was given a third environmental clearance in 2007 that was dependent on the feedback from a committee visiting the site.

By this time, public sentiment in the Vazhachal was squarely against the project. With the help of River Research Centre, the Kadars held meetings and rallies against the project. In 2010, the incumbent environment minister Jairam Ramesh issued a show cause notice, asking the Kerala electricity board why clearance to such a damaging project should not be revoked.

Since then, the Athirapally project has been assessed by both the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by Madhav Gadgil and the subsequent High Level Working Group led by K Kasturirangan. The Gadgil report

Among all the people who have written reports n the Athirapally project, the Gadgil committee was the only one that conducted extensive and transparent consultations with all stakeholders, Anantha said. The Gadgil report stated that the dam would completely alter the river’s ecology and would seriously affect the livelihoods of the Kadars, even those whose settlements didn’t fall within the submergence areas. The Kasturirangan panel, however, only made note of the contentions by the electricity board and the Kadars and asked for a re-evaluation of the project’s impact on ecological flow. While the Gadgil report unequivocally said that the project should not be approved the Kasturirangan panel said it could be taken forward based on the reevaluation report.

“This was taken as a "go ahead" by the electricity board. The Ministry of Environment and Forests allowed them to reapply and in December 2014 the project was once again taken up by the River Valley Committee,” said Anantha, explaining how the project has come up for clearance for a fourth time.

Another technical catch is that environmental clearance is valid for five years. This means that the 2007 clearance obtained by the electricity board would have expired in 2012. There is no indication from the board or the environment ministry whether the old clearance has been extended or a new clearance has been issued. If a new clearance has been issued, it has been done without the requisite new Environment Impact Assessment and public hearing, Anantha said.