Kerala

We finally did it: great team work

Activists involved in the agitation against the Athirappilly hydroelectric project have declared an end to their agitation, but with a vow to continue their fight to protect the river. People who have been in the forefront of the anti-dam stir look back at the long-drawn struggle and explain the reasons behind their decision

S.P. Ravi, convener, Chalakudy River Protection Forum

Why this decision to end the agitation now?

The agitation for Athirappilly comprised several stages, since its inception in 1985. Initially, they were just small protests by different organisations in Chalakudy, Athirappilly and Vellikulangara. In 1990, strikes began in earnest when the Athirappilly project proposal was being framed. Three rounds of litigation and the agitation continued. The first Athirappilly satyagraha began on December 23, 2005, and lasted for 93 days; the second began on February 25, 2008, and lasted 400 days. But since then, we have not had to conduct protests at this intensity. The last clearance the project obtained through the Expert Appraisal Committee also expired last month. Though the KSEB may have installed a transformer on the premises of its project office at Kannakuzhy, this will not stand legal scrutiny. Our fight does not end here though: the struggle for the river and its protection will continue.

Public support for your protests has been huge.

Absolutely. The first satyagraha consisted of 500 people, mostly from Athirappilly and surrounding areas. The second saw 1,200 people from across the State attending it. Public opposition against the project kept on increasing and the message this sent across to authorities was crucial. This was our biggest strength and helped us greatly. We made sure only people who understood and supported the protests whole-heartedly were part of the agitation; we gave them all information, and have been able to even convince many sceptics.

How has the experience been? Tell us about the journey so far.

It has been a lot of team work: so many people have been part of this. The agitation has taught us a lot: it has played a crucial role in helping us get to the stage of river conservation. To take our agitation forward we had to study several environmental, technical and social aspects surrounding the river. Studying several reservoirs, including the Sholayar, we noticed that there were drastic changes in water flow during power generation and otherwise, and have been able to come up with reservoir management strategies for water management and conservation, which can be synchronised across various departments. Thus the agitation has helped inform research and vice versa. The strength of the river, and that of truth, has pushed this agitation forward.

Geetha V.K., chieftain, Vazhachal Kadar settlement

What made you take part in the agitation?

When talk about the dam first came up, I remember Latha chechi [Latha Anantha, River Research Centre] talking to my father about it. I must have been around 17 then. My father Karumbaiyyan was actively involved in the protests and it was natural that I joined the movement too when I was asked if I would be ready to fight, file cases.

The stir has been called off and the death of the project celebrated. But isn't it worrying that the government says it will strike a consensus and implement the project?

Though I will not express happiness at this victory yet, there is no way the government can do this. We will not permit the project to be implemented. We have been given Community Forest Rights under the Forest Right Act; any developmental activity within a specific radius needs our consent. The forest is our wealth; it is our god. We are wholly dependent on it for our livelihood. How can such development be at our cost, over our dead bodies? What is this consensus that people are talking about? When so many people oppose it, how does the question of a consensus arise?

What are your best memories of this movement?

My best memories are undoubtedly that of Latha chechi and my father who is unfortunately no more. Chechi taught me so much and guided me, supported me immensely. I consulted her before taking several decisions. The support that has poured in from the public too has given me a lot of happiness.

How life-changing has your involvement in the agitation been?

I did not know much about my own community. With the agitation, I dug up more information and learnt more about our Kadar community and other tribal communities. This has also given me an opportunity to interact with other tribal folk who had contacted me and expressed their support, which would have been otherwise impossible.

Were there moments that fazed or frightened you?

This has been a life or death struggle in many ways. Maybe it is the strength of the forest gods whom our people believe in and pray to, that guides me through. If I died in this struggle, I would be happy I died for my people. My strength is that of my community, my people. I have not been afraid of any consequences so far. But I was really scared when I was asked to give my first speech! [Laughs]

Vinitha Cholayar, member, Chalakudy River Protection Forum

What made you join the agitation?

I grew up bathing and playing on the banks of the Chalakudy river. Over the years, I saw it being slowly destroyed due to sand-mining; when the dam was proposed across it, that was the last straw.

Any memory of the agitation that stands out?

All moments are memories. But during one of the public hearings, I remember how a group of around 15 people tried to stall it and create a commotion. The police had to intervene and a case was filed. I will never forget that day! We also conducted “kutty kootam”: around 80 children from Vazhachal and Athirappilly also took part in the protests during the satyagraha. That was memorable too.

Do you think there is a chance the project may be implemented?

Absolutely not. Whichever party comes into power, they seem to want to implement it. But there are so many alternatives now, such as solar. It would be far cheaper to implement that than the Athirappilly project.

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 10:13:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/we-finally-did-it-great-team-work/article19524404.ece

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