KG Kumar

Last week, the Union Minister for Environment, Mr Jairam Ramesh, told journalists in Kochi that Athirapally, the site of the proposed 163 MW, Rs 675-crore hydroelectric power project, is another Silent Valley, rich in biodiversity, which needs to be protected, and that the State should look for alternative proposals for power generation. The implication is that the Centre will go back on earlier clearances for the hydel project.

The Minister said that the permission issued earlier for the project was withdrawn after he assumed office. The State Government has also been asked to stop all work related to the project until an expert committee for approval looks into the issue, he said.

The Athirapally hydel project is planned 35 km east of Chalakudy town, across the Chalakudy river, along the Chalakudy-Anamalai inter-State highway in the Vazhachal forest division of Thrissur district. The project got the first clearance from the Central Government in 1998, which was challenged legally by environmentalists. In 2005, after a fresh environment impact study, it was cleared again. The Kerala High Court intervened and asked the Kerala State Electricity Board for a fresh clearance, which it got for a third time in 2007.

Environmentalists claim that Athirapally is a one-of its-kind riparian ecosystem in Kerala. The proposed project will affect 138.6 ha of forestland, dry up the Athirapally waterfall and affect tribal families living in the area, particularly settlements of the Kadar tribe, comprising around 80 families.

V.S. Vijayan, Chairman of the Kerala State Biodiversity Board and former Director of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore, has been quoted in Down to Earth magazine as affirming that the Vazhachal forest division is the second most biodiverse area in the State. The International Bird Association has declared it an ‘Important Bird Area' and the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation has recommended that the area should be declared a sanctuary or a national park, he points out.

The Wildlife Trust of India says it represents one of India's best elephant conservation efforts. “Any disruption to this fragile ecosystem will spell disaster,” says Vijayan.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines “biological diversity” as the “variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems.”

The CBD says that biodiversity – the variety of life on Earth – is essential to sustain the living networks and systems that provide us all with health, wealth, food, fuel and the vital services our lives depend on.

Increasing human activity is robbing the Earth of its biodiversity. “These losses are irreversible, impoverish us all and damage the life support systems we rely on every day,” the CBD notes.

The biodiversity we see today, says the CBD, is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. It forms the web of life of which we are an integral part and upon which we so fully depend. “This diversity is often understood in terms of the wide variety of plants, animals and microorganisms. So far, about 1.75 million species have been identified, mostly small creatures such as insects. Scientists reckon that there are actually about 13 million species, though estimates range from three to 100 million.”

The United Nations has declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity. It is a celebration of life on earth and of the value of biodiversity for our lives. As part of worldwide celebrations, a National Conference on Impact of Climate Change on Biodiversity of Insects and Environment will be held in Coimbatore at the Bharathiar University during March 15-16. Organised by the Department of Zoology, School of Life Sciences, the conference venue – Coimbatore – is situated in the Western Ghats, as are Athirapally and Silent Valley.

The Western Ghats are known for the uniqueness of its flora and fauna. India is one among the 12 mega biodiversity countries of the world and 80 per cent of the insects are endemic in India. However, insects and plants are becoming extinct because of habitat loss, over-hunting, pollution, overpopulation and the threat of global climate change.

The CBD gives us examples of success stories of how communities, governments and organisations have been able to achieve the 2010 Biodiversity Target at different levels. For instance, Irma Battista, an “urban farmer” in Vancouver, Canada, pursues a permaculture approach to create an edible landscape of herbs, berries and vegetables. The entire permaculture approach, says Battista, is based on creating bio-diversity and a healthy, self-sustaining environment that requires far less time, work, and financial investment than a lawn.

Trees For Life, a South Australian not-for-profit volunteer organisation, was started in 1982 by community members who wanted to restore the State's overcleared landscape.

Starting with 15,000 native seedlings grown in 1982, Trees For Life volunteers now grow around 1 million seedlings each year.

It, now, boasts over 10,000 members and recycles its income from membership fees, donations and fundraising back into running comprehensive revegetation and vegetation protection programmes.

As these examples show, biodiversity can and must be protected and regenerated. The Athirapally project offers an opportunity for Kerala to think of creative solutions for its energy needs, without destroying the State's precious biodiversity.

The writer can be contacted at kgkumar@gmail.com

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 17, 2010)
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