The government of Kerala has decided to build a large dam that will destroy the habitat of numerous endangered plant and animal species and force the relocation of a Kadar village. Despite strong opposition for a number of years by environmentalists and supporters of the tribal society, the government recently announced that the project will move forward.
On Saturday August 25th, the Kerala Minister for Electricity and SC/ST, Mr. A.K. Balan, held a news conference to announce that construction would begin soon on the Athirappilly dam on the Chalakkudy River, despite the protests. The project has also been approved by the national government, he indicated.
The minister acknowledged the issues that had been raised, but he argued for the government perspective. The project would maintain at least some water flow over two waterfalls in the river downstream, below the dam. Out of the 163 megawatt potential of the dam, three megawatts would be devoted to maintaining a small, natural flow. The two waterfalls evidently receive some 600,000 domestic and foreign visitors per year.
He also acknowledged the concerns of the Kadar people—that they might have to be moved out of their village and could lose their traditional way of life. He said, in the words of a news report, that the “project will not affect any tribal family.” He added “one of the conditions … was that the project should not in any case hinder the life of tribal settlements in the area.”
Mr. Balan added, however, that the government had proposed a package for Kadar families “that might be affected by the project,” which would include a new house on an acre of land per family, plus a common area for a public health facility and a school. In other words, the government is really not going to destroy the village, but if they do, they will provide housing for the affected Kadars.
As minister not only of electricity but also of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the official may have his own feelings for the welfare of the Kadar. He announced that the proposed reservoir will have facilities for speed boating, trekking, bush walking, and other activities that should attract more tourists to the state on the southeast coast of India. The government thus intends to provide jobs for the people affected by the development.
Despite the government’s assurances, opposition to the project appears to be growing, according to a news report on September 14. The Chalakkudy River Protection Forum continues to protest, but the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), a national government agency, is firmly supporting the dam construction. Both the ruling leftist party in power in Kerala, the Left Democratic Front, and the opposition United Democratic Front, led by the Congress party, support it.
Opponents point out that the project will destroy very sensitive riverine forest lands, disrupt corridor links between important natural areas, and possibly harm a number of animals such as tigers, elephants, leopards, hornbills, liontailed macaques, and Nilgiri languors. The environmental impact assessment, commissioned by the electricity ministry, appears to the environmental community to have been a hurried job. They claim it was an inadequate study that missed many major issues, such as the potential submergence of hundreds of rare plants. The environmental assessors visited in the wrong season for observing the huge numbers of birds that nest in the affected forest.
Apparently local opposition is intensifying, and 33 different organizations have formed to oppose the project, but the prospects do look ominous for the forest community, including the Kadar people.