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People’s climate march – Vazhachal to Athirappilly,

Translated Thursday 25 February 2016, by G. Asha

People’s climate march – Vazhachal to Athirappilly, Kerala

G. Asha

On a bright, sunny morning on November 29, 2015, hornbills, lion- tailed macaques, tigers, butterflies, fish, tree -frogs, snails and squirrels joined around 2000 humans including members of the Kadar tribe to protect their home – the riparian forests in the Western Ghats surrounding the Chalakuzhy river in Kerala from a Government proposal to construct a 163MW hydro-power plant on the Chalakuzhy at Vazhachal. This People’s Climate march was organized by the Chalakuzhy River Protection Forum. They managed to rope in 70 organisations which included NGOs, schools, colleges, political parties and the like. The most invigorating part of the march was the very large number of young people who participated and the almost total absence of
long-winded speeches by career politicians. The march was timed to coincide with similar marches held all over the planet just before the start of the 21st U.N climate change summit beginning in Paris on November 30th, 2015.

The march was very well organized. We saw posters announcing the event as soon as we came to Chalakudy railway station. Later there were posters and hand written bills all over the bus stand from where we boarded a bus to Vazhachal – the starting point of the march. As the bus wound its way up the Western Ghats we could start seeing the Chalakudy river on one side and once we reached Athirappilly, the famous water falls which are likened to Niagara appeared on our right. It is energy from this fall that the Kerala State Electricity Board wants to utilize to create a hydroelectric power station. They first proposed this in 1994. A 23-metre high and 311-metre wide dam will be first constructed around 5 kms upstream of Vazhachal. It will submerge an area of 138.8 hectares and water will be diverted 7 km downstream through a 4.5 km long tunnel to a power house, located on the banks of a tributary of the Chalakudy river. That would mean the end of the free flowing river and all life associated with it including this stunning beautiful waterfall. The region depends greatly on tourism and that too will end. The tropical forests in this region would be affected causing a major change in climate both locally and regionally. This incidentally will be the seventh dam on this river. The earlier ones have caused much harm. Many groups have been resisting this move for decades now but the Government has gone and got sanction both from the Ministry of Environment and Forests in Delhi as well as the Expert Appraisal Committee for river valley and hydroelectric projects to go ahead with the project.

As our bus stopped at Athirappilly, we could see a stall set up by the organizers with posters and T-Shirts on sale. We however, went to the next stop – Vazhachal from where the march was to start.

Here too young people who had set up stalls registered us for the march. They sold us T-Shirts which we promptly wore. After breakfast we meandered near the river taking in its glorious beauty while marchers assembled from various parts of the state. Many schools from North Kerala had sent groups especially their students who are part of Nature and Eco clubs. Everyone I spoke to from Salsabeel Green School in Kiraloor and Muslim Girls’ High

School Erattupetta were fully aware of all the issues and were vehemently opposed to the hydroelectric project. Why hydroelectric, when we can go solar they ask ? The women from the Kadar tribe who are part of the Vanashree Samrakshana Samiti formed a visible group dressed in green saris. They work in this area for eco-tourism. They know their livelihoods will be affected by this project. I asked them whether they did not think the power plant would bring in jobs. No they said in one voice. This is what they always say, but in the end there are only one or two jobs that are created. Besides, what about the fish, the animals – they would be affected by this too.

Around 11:45 am the march was flagged off by Er. Sankar Sharma from Karnataka, the
neighbouring state where he has been successful in developing a People’s Climate Action and Mitigation plan. He urged people in Kerala to do the same. He also said that in this day and age, Governments should move towards clean energy sources like solar rather than hydropower which cuts down tropical forests and cannot be considered to be clean. Dr. V. S Vijayan, noted ornithologist and member of the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel (WGEEP) was present at the flag off too. At the end of the march he spoke about how the government had told the people that they would give them land elsewhere where they could create another forest.

He was willing to lay down his life to protect these forests as many Vijayans could come up but a forest with its unique biodiversity cannot be recreated again. Shri. C.R Neelakantan, noted environmentalist, was also present. He brought up the issue of how the government had other sinister plans including giving license for quarrying in that region which needs to be resisted

As the march started, it was a loud, boisterous, joyous group of animals, insects, birds, turtles and humans who walked down the cool road towards Athirappilly singing songs and chanting slogans refusing to let pollution, dam construction or greed take over this beautiful land.

No one seemed to think that 5.5 km was too long a stretch to walk. The Chalakudi river kept us company on our left while the canopy of trees, bamboo, ferns kept us cool. Towards the mid – point we reached the Charpa waterfalls, which was a good place for some photographs. These will also be threatened if the dam comes up. The organizers had provided water at various points. This took care of unnecessary plastic bottles being thrown all along the route.

From time to time we had to stop and give way to the traffic moving along the road. But many people in the vehicles, stopped to watch us and understand what the issues were.

Meanwhile, the Indian PM Narendra Modi who is accompanied by a high powered delegation in Paris has been saying all the ‘ correct ‘ things. India will ‘fulfill all its expectations and responsibilities ‘ regarding climate change. India has an ambitious target of producing 175 GW of renewable energy. He also launched an international solar initiative with 120 countries. One of the stated goals that the Indian government has put forward is to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon- dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.

I wonder then why we are all marching through these pristine forests to save them – why have there been so many half baked Environmental Impact studies, why the mandatory public hearing came after many protests, why many individuals including a tribal woman Geeta who lives along the river have filed Public Interest Litigations in the High Court. And why despite the High Court’s ruling in their favour the Ministry of Environment and Forests now led by Shri. Javedkar, a member of PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has given clearance for this project.

Clearly, what is being said in Paris by our leaders and what they are doing in India are two different things. Never before in the history of this country have we witnessed such rampant environmental destruction in the name of ‘development’ and never before have we seen such lack of transparency.

It is also important to mention here the shabby way in which NGOs especially GreenPeace India has been treated almost threatening their very existence.

All this by a government that professes a sustainable future not just for India but for the entire world !

Our march ends at the famous Athirappilly waterfalls which resembles the Niagara falls during the rainy season.

After some music and minimal speech making, we disperse. The falls were open to us who came to protect the river free of cost on that day. A very touching gesture by the locals who have been fighting for this river – which is their lifeline for decades.

For more information please contact Dr. A. Latha. Email : latha.anantha9@gmail.com.

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