Though appearing as a tiny speck in the larger upheaval of distressed happenings everywhere in India, a small proposed project in Kerala has sparked a vibrant coming together of around 100 environmental and protests groups in more than 200 regional locations across Kerala this week. Baring the risk of the ongoing pandemic, it was endearing to see more than a thousand people wearing masks and expressing their dissent holding placards silently in front of KSEB offices and with few groups doing a cyclathon as well on 18 November, in order to send the resolute message of resisting the mini hydel project altogether at Anakkayam, just one kilometer away from the buffer zone of Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.
The communities to whom the forests of the Parambikulam Wildlife sanctuary belong to, have had the previous experience of fighting the state for three decades, to successfully stop the much contested Athirapally Hydro project, marred with deep environmental and social flaws. The indomitable spirit of the tribal settlements sensing early the dangers of a seemingly small 7 MW hydel project now coming up in their forests, materialised into protest actions. What was conceived thirty years ago by the KSEB, as a tail race project of the Sholayar dam, this project would enable irreparable damages if the 5.5km underground unnel is built from Sholayar dam to Anakkayam. The explosion of rocks to build this tunnel would trigger landslides in this area, which saw disastrous landslides in 2018 during the terrible floods in Kerala, which experts see as the negative impact of ill- designed dams across many of the rivers in Kerala, accentuating the consequences of already visible climate change effects in the State. However, what triggered an urgent retaliation from the nine oorukootams here was the proposed felling of around 2000 huge trees with 70 to 74 cm girth in the 20 hectare forests under the Vazhachal Forest Division and the tribes’ displacement from their land. The Kadar community had earlier itself claimed Community Forest Rights under the Forest Rights Act 2006, and are engaged in fishing and forest produce livelihoods. They were not made aware of the decision of the State approval to the KSEB for the project and they consider it a grave violation of their rights, for not having informed them for decision making and obtaining prior consent for the same.
Falling under the Western Ghats ecologically fragile biospot, further to the 2018 devastating floods and landslides, the Geological Survey of India had recommended that there should not be any construction projects in these forests, which is also designated as a protected area for wildlife. KSEB had entered into an agreement with Chitra Enterprises of Thiruvananthapuram for felling of trees in this protected area. Of all the 50 tiger reserves, this reserve with 643. 66 sq km area comes in the top ten with 27 tigers. The Anakkayam hydel project has been proposed in the 252.77 sq km buffer zone of this reserve area. Ridden with landslides and soil erosion since 2018, the area is an extremely sensitive zone now, with very little precious flaura and fauna remaining.
The cost-benefit analysis does not add up: Though the project cost is approximated around Rs. 140 crores, the impacts are intensely negative and the claimed benefit of producing 7 MW is negligible compared to the electricity power demands of the State. Yet, the cost of the project also may trigger higher consumer charges from the people, according to the environmental groups and the Chalakudy River Protection Forum who steer the Stop Anakkayam Hydel Project Campaign for the tribal communities and the forests. A basic math shows that 1 MW production will cost Rs. 20 crore, and without charging Rs. 10 per unit, the project will not be feasible for the State. The State is already buying electricity from outside for Rs. 4 to Rs 4.50 per unit, along with that from the national pool. There is clearly an uneven distribution of costs and benefits with the traditional forest dwelling communities getting displaced, robbed off their livelihoods, and common taxpayers also having to pay huge charges.
Meanwhile, KSEB officials narrate a different overly optimistic appraisal, that except during rainfall season, Kerala buys electricity from external sources, and that this proposed hydel project at Anakkayam would only see the construction of a tunnel and not a dam. The production unit is proposed to be situated above the already existing Peringulathu reservoir. Yet, they do not address the mitigation measures of such an adversive proposal.
This seemingly tiny project is one among the multitude of conflict ridden power projects which the country has witnessed. The 1990s had seen increasing rifes and conflict around large dams. The World Bank withdrew from India’s Sardar Sarovar project in 1993, following fierce opposition from grassroots movement and activist groups of Narmada Bachao Andolan, which led to an independent review of the World Bank that pointed out serious flaws in the handling of environmental and social impacts. And that which also led to the formation of the first accountability mechanism in a multilateral development bank – the Inspection Panel of the World Bank. Likewise, financial support to Nepal’s Arun 3 project in 1995 was wtihdrawn by the World Bank following campaigns by environmental and social NGOs and extensive political debate in the country. A global coalition of social movements representing dam-affected people signed public declarations in Manibeli, India, in 1994. While there was a slowdown in piping up of dam construction as the development mascot of country, globally thousands of large dams are still being planned and built across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Balkans.There have been many global commissions and studies, still multilateral lenders, banks and state agencies do not consider the decades-old lessons of the irreversible social and environmental effects of ill-designed large dams. Rather, they are devious enough to redefine and redecorate themselves to ensure their relevance, hand in glove with the State agencies, while keeping intact their agenda of promoting free-market and neo-liberal policies, and that of global capitalism.
Notwithstanding, further lurking dangers are deliberately kept aside from the visible eye – with what has been seen an increase in natural disasters recently in the country and with climate change realities, disaster capitalism has become a reality.In-roads by big lenders have been made into Kerala and also to Uttarakhand through State Financial Assistance Programme. The Uttarakhand floods, Cyclone Phailin, Cyclone Hudhud, flooding in Srinagar and the larger valley region, and the Kerala floods are some disasters for which the World Bank has supported the Government of India, in conducting rapid post-disaster damage and needs assessments. As mentioned earlier, Kerala saw its worst floods and landslides in 2018 and 2019. Devastated and burdened with the reconstruction of the State, the Government of Kerala approached the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for financial resources and the Rebuild Kerala Development programme was initiated in 2019. Following this, other global lenders like bilateral agency of Germany KfW also roped in to provide loans to Kerala.
Meanwhile, the Stop Anakkayam Hydel Project campaign realises that this renewed struggle is the first of many more to appear in Kerala in recent times. The movement intends to intensify the resistance actions in the coming days and weeks. The Kadars have filed a case with Kerala High Court claiming the violation of their CFR and the Court will hear the case for the second time this week. KSEB has given an oral confirmation that project work will not commence until the next hearing. Is it the symbolic status of dams, visibly representing progress, economic development, and strength of lenders, state agencies and the government which prompt them to tilt in favour of unviable projects without detailed planning and assessment of alternatives? The movement seeks to find out why KSEB is insistent to go ahead with the unfeasible illogical project, with huge repercussions on the environment, the wildlife, the tribal settlements and the coffers of the State.