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Expert panel visits Athirappilly, public hearing today

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The Athirappilly waterfalls.
The Athirappilly waterfalls.

K. Santhosh

THRISSUR: The Union Ministry of Environment and Forest's Expert Committee on River Valley Projects, authorised to recommend environmental clearance for the 163-MW Athirappilly hydel project, visited Athirappilly, near here, on Thursday. The five-member committee was led by Prof. P. G. Sastri.

The committee visited Thumburmozhi at 10.15 a.m. Representatives of the Kerala State Electricity Board, Kerala Water Authority, Irrigation and Forest Departments and members of the Chalakudy River Protection Forum were present there.

Environmentalists told the committee that the proposed project had several disadvantages, including destruction of forest land that was home to rare flora and fauna; ecological problems out of the submergence of the only remaining riparian forests at such altitude in the entire Western Ghats; damage to the vital elephant corridor between the Parambikulam sanctuary and the Pooyamkutty forests and the Athirappilly waterfalls; displacement of Kadar tribesmen; depletion of irrigation and drinking water resources for about five-lakh people in 19 panchayats and two municipalities; and impairment of the Thumboormozhi irrigation project. The committee said that it would take a dispassionate view of the proposed project. "Reason, not emotion, will guide the committee," Prof. Sastri said.

The committee later visited Vazhachal and Kannamkuzhy. A large number of tribesmen and local residents submitted memorandums against the proposed dam.

The committee would hold a public hearing at the Town Hall here on Friday.

Environmentalists alleged that the hearing was not properly publicised so as to make it a low-key affair.

"A venue 60 km from the proposed dam site was chosen for the hearing so that those to be affected by the project cannot attend it," they said.

Prof. Sastri said it was too late to change the venue. "People from the site of proposed dam need not attend the hearing. We have already recorded their statements."

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) cleared the 163 MW- Athirappilly hydel project in 1998. The mandatory public hearing was not held prior to environmental clearance.

Following legal intervention by local communities and enviromentalists, the Kerala High Court, on October 17, 2001, directed the Kerala State Electricity Board and the MoEF to ensure that all the procedures for environmental clearance, including holding a public hearing, be strictly followed.

Despite severe resistance witnessed at a public hearing held at the Thrissur Town Hall on February 6, 2002, the project was cleared by the MoEF on February 10, 2005 on the basis of a report by Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Limited (WAPCOS), an environmental impact assessment (EIA) agency. On March 23, 2006, the Kerala High Court quashed the clearance and ordered another public hearing.

The Court asked the authorities to publish the report of the hearing and submit a fresh application for the project.

A public hearing held at the Gopalakrishna Auditorium in Chalakudy on June 15, 2002, drew protests against the proposed dam.

Not satisfied by the report of the public hearing committee, the Expert Committee on River Valley Projects refused to recommend environmental clearance for the proposed dam until it visited the place and collected details.

The KSEB, on the other hand, said the apprehensions were misplaced.

The Central Electricity Authority has vouched for the viability of the project, which is expected to generate 233 MU a year.

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