The montane forests of the western ghats are among the last remaining global biodiversity hot spots. These forests sustain a vast population through material ecosystem services such as water security and fish diversity. The flora and the fauna of the ghats are unique and display a high degree of endemism. Four species of hornbills listed in the Wildlife Protection Act, including the regal great pied hornbill, are found here; the Malabar grey hornbill is an endemic. There is thus every reason to view with deep concern the proposed Athirapilly hydroelectric project of the Kerala State Electricity Board. This, if implemented, will submerge a vast portion of this rainforest by damming the Chalakudy river. Six dams have been built across the river and the seventh one now proposed may generate 163 MW of power. But it will sound the death knell for huge tracts of forest. The immediate fallout will be fragmentation of the habitat for elephants, tigers, lion-tailed macaques, and other species that roam the contiguous sanctuaries and national parks in Parambikulam and the Anamalais. Such disruptions will worsen human-animal conflict and lead to further attrition of wild populations of threatened species. For communities that depend on the rich fish diversity of the Chalakudy river and the many irrigation and drinking water schemes it enables, scarcity and drought could be in store.
The Athirapilly hydroelectric project typifies ill-conceived short-term energy solutions, which echo threats to the ecology of Silent Valley that came to the fore nearly three decades ago and brought forth a far-sighted, progressive response from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The consequences of such projects are not fully evaluated under the less than rigorous system of environmental impact assessment being followed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Despite its onerous responsibility as the custodian of the nation's natural wealth, the Ministry appears to be extraordinarily eager to facilitate projects even in ecologically sensitive zones. The environmental impact is often assessed by agencies that do not have sufficient expertise. The findings of these entities, some of which adopt a corporate outlook, are seldom subjected to meticulous scientific review. The apparent disregard for EIA rules became painfully evident when a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court quashed, in March 2006, the environmental clearance granted by the Ministry for the Athirapilly project. The court took adverse note of the fact that the mandatory public hearing was not conducted after the impact assessment report for the project was published. Finding non-polluting sources of energy is of paramount importance, but a far-sighted policy should recognise that an assault on the natural environment is unacceptable in a framework of sustainable development. The last remaining rainforests must not be sacrificed in the name of progress.