Athirapally dam, Kerala, India

Resistance for ten years to the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) proposal for the Athirapally 163 MW hydroelectric project on the 144 km heavily dammed Chalakudy River


The Kerala State Electricity Board proposed to build a 163 MW hydropower project at the Athirapally water falls on the Chalakudy River, Kerala. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forest sanctioned clearance for this proposed project on July 19, 2007 but environmentalists have been against this project because it will result in enormous destruction of the riparian ecosystem. The proposed dam will affect 138 ha of forestland and livelihood of tribal families depending on the forest and river. Also a stretch of 28.5 hectares of riparian forest falls under the submergence area while it will reduce or dry up the water-flow of Athirapally waterfall which preserves the ecology and attracts tourism in this area. Before construction of any dam on the river its impact assessment/analysis should be done in a scientific way otherwise it will pose threat to present ecology as well as economy. Prior to clearance it is mandatory to conduct public hearing as well as EIA study but NGOs are claiming that there wasn’t any EIA study or public hearing for this project.(1) . In 1998, the Athirapally hydro-power project had got clearance from Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) without public hearing . So  in October 2001, Kerala high Court directed Kerala State Electricity Board and MoEF to follow all procedures for Environment Clearances. Public hearing was held in February 2002, in which it was seen that local communities and environmentalists are against the project. But on the basis of a report prepared by EIA agency -Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Ltd., MoEF sanctioned clearance to the project in February 2005. In March 2006, Kerala High Court cancelled the clearance and directed to reorganize public hearing. The court ordered the authority to publish the report and public hearing details. On directives of court public hearing were held on 15 June 2012. The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP),led by Madhav  Gadgil, constituted by Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to suggest conservation measures for Western Ghats rejected this proposal. The sub-committee of the Experts Appraisal Committee for River valley and hydroelectricity project visited the proposed Athirapally dam site in April 2007 which concluded that the main income source of people living in Athirapally was tourism.(1)

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Basic Data
NameAthirapally dam, Kerala, India
SiteChalakudy Taluk, Thrissur
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Water Management
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific CommoditiesElectricity
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsAthirappally falls is situated 70 km from Kochi city in Kerala's Thrissur district. The 80 ft high falls is a part of the Chalakudy River and originates in the upper reaches of the Sholayar ranges in the Western Ghats. Lush greenery and little streams that cover the winding route up and down to the falls exhilarate and intimidate all at once. The region is home to many endangered species of animals such as the Asiatic elephant, tiger, leopard, bison and sambhar. Four species of hornbill are only seen here in the Western Ghats. It also has one of the highest levels of fish diversity with 85 different species of fresh water fish. Sadly, this melting pot of biodiversity is now under threat.(3)

In 1994, The Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) had proposed the Athirappilly Power Project, a 163 megawatt hydroelectric project, on the 144 km small but heavily dammed Chalakudy River. This included a 23-metre high and 311-metre wide dam around 5 kms upstream of the picturesque falls in the Vazhachal Forest division in Thrissur. If this project is constructed, it will submerge an area of 138.8 hectares. Water from this reservoir 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 main Chalakudy River.

The fear is that the falls may possibly dry up if the project becomes a reality. KSEB suggests that it would adjust the water releases to maintain the waterfall but environmentalists doubt that. Another worry is that the project could displace “Kadars”, a tribal group of the area. They dwell in the forests near the Chalakudy River and their numbers are as low as 1500 today given the forced displacement they have been subject to in the last nearly 150 years owing to forest clearances.

Citing these as reasons, the Kerala State Advisory Board recommends scrapping of the project. According to Dr. Sathis Chandran Nair, an expert on the Southern Western Ghats, “Chalakudy River is perhaps the only major river in Kerala where along the main river channel, some stretches of the riparian vegetation remains in spite of so much destruction.” (i)

The case of Athirapally is intricately woven to the larger context of the Western Ghats. The Western Ghats stretches along the western edge of the Indian peninsula sandwiched between the Deccan Plateau and the coastal plain along the Arabian Sea.

Western Ghats spans across six states along the western coast of India - Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Prof. Madhav Gadgil, renowned ecologist known for his studies on people-environment relationships, has fostered his love of ecological field work by extensive work in the Western Ghats. At a lecture on 'Science, democracy & ecology in contemporary India' in New Delhi, Gadgil talked about the Athirapilly project.

Gadgil, as Chairman of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP), had come up with a report in September 2011, which triggered a public debate on environment-development choices. Gadgil’s report had demarcated areas to be notified as 'ecologically sensitive' and had put key curbs on the mining industry. Listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as one of the top eight bio-diversity hotspots in the world, the Western Ghats area was in need of nuanced regulation of activities, Gadgil said.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), didn't disclose the details of this report to the public. Instead, it roped in former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) chief Kasturirangan to head a High Level Working Group to advise the government on how to conserve the Western Ghats. Gadgil pointed out the holes in Kasturirangan’s report by saying that it would open the Ghats to economic exploitation, while continuing to play lip service to conservation. Gadgil also noted that the MoEF was “even hesitant to implement the Kasturirangan Panel report, which according to him was a watered down version of his report.” (ii)

A study by Environics Trust, an NGO that enables research and development on environmental and human behavior, also says that “appropriate grievance redressal mechanisms need to be put in place for the Western Ghats. If one analyses the appeals filed before the National Environment Appellate Authority they will see that the maximum number of cases have been filed from the Western Ghats region. It is clear that projects in the Western Ghats are legally opposed by affected communities and civil society groups.” (iii)

While specifically studying the Athirappilly hydroelectric project, the Gadgil Panel found that “the Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIA) prepared for the project and the public hearings conducted were flawed and the High Court had repeatedly set them aside.

Indeed, it is not an exception, but very much the rule that EIAs are never objective neutral evaluations of the project but are deliberately distorted to expedite clearance.” Specifically, the Gadgil Panel noted that 70% of the EIA of this project was bogus. The panel said that Athirappilly fell in Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1, a zone where no new dams based on large-scale storage should be permitted. Therefore, it should not be accorded environmental clearance. K Radhakrishnan, former member (Generation) KSEB, did not agree with the Panel report and said that the report “was highly biased and the project was eco-friendly doing minimum damage to environment and forests. (iv)

The people too are opposed to the project and nearly all 1200 present at the second public hearing on the proposed dam had spoken against it. Nearly, 90% of the written representations after the public hearing too were opposed to the project.

Gadgil sees hope in grassroots research and advocacy groups like the River Research Centre (RRC), which conducted an independent assessment of the proposed project. RRC’s assessment points to a number of flaws as per Gadgil. According to the Chalakudy River Protection Forum set up by RRC, there is not enough water to generate the power as claimed. Power generation would also adversely impact the current irrigation capacity of the river. It could also affect the scenic waterfall itself and thereby the thriving tourism industry, which draws 8-10 lakh tourists a year.

It is clear that development can't happen at any cost yet the answer to the environment-development dichotomy isn't clear. Gadgil says that it lies in “implementing the many well thought provisions of various Acts and Schemes for protecting the environment, and for devolution of democratic powers”.


(i) Chalakudy River Protection Forum, Issues related to the proposed Athirappilly hydroelectric project, 2007



(iv) Panel report on Athirapally project biased - K Radhakrishnan, "The Hindu", January, 1, 2012
Project Area (in hectares)160
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population2000
Start Date2007
Company Names or State EnterprisesKerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) from India
Relevant government actorsKerala High Court

Kerala Chief Minister

Minister of Environment and Forests (MoEF)
Environmental justice organisations and other supporters-Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad

-Calakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samiti

- Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (Madhav Gadgil)

- Tribal panchayat (Kadars group)

- Left Democratic Manifesto

- River Research Centre
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingIndigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Kadars, a tribal group of the area // River Research Centre (with Latha Anantha)
Fisher people
Forms of MobilizationCreation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Socio-economic ImpactsPotential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusPlanned (decision to go ahead eg EIA undertaken, etc)
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCourt decision (undecided)
Strengthening of participation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Project temporarily suspended
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.The dam is not yet to be built, final decision has been announced several times. In 2018 it i still an open question, probably the dam will not be built.
Sources and Materials

Madhav Gadgil's report, Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP)
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(3) Furore again over Athirapally project in Kerala, The Hindu, Mini Muringatheri THRISSUR, AUGUST 11, 2017
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Athirapilly falls under threat. Amita Bhaduri. Sat, 2013-11-23
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(2) Reported in The Hindu, 4 March 2017 by K S Sudhi.
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Media Links

In memory of Latha Anantha, in Down to Earth, 16 Nov 2017
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(1) January 1, 2014, compiled by Pallavi Patil,
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Other Documents

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Other Comments"If Chalakudy river basin and Athirapally waterfall still remain more or less intact, it is no doubt due to the decade-long green battle of Dr Latha Anantha. Former environment minister Jairam Ramesh who cancelled the eco-clearance of the hydel project said it was Latha's research papers which made him understand the significance of the region. Latha left us after battling cancer for almost a year and a half. If Sugathakumari pioneered the Silent Valley agitation into the popular imagination in the '60s, Latha's work is contemporary and very relevant ..." (Times of India, 26 Nov 2017, Anjana Georgei).
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Last update07/04/2018