The environmental politics that started in Kerala in late 1970s, was seen gaining strength through the struggle for protection of the Western Ghats and the epic resistance against large-scale hydro-electric projects. A shining example of that is the citizens' stir against the Athirappilli hydro-electric project, when corporate capitalism and the UDF-LDF politics were seen losing their case before the decade-long popular resistance of the citizenry, and the legal battles. Even then, in this era of environmental politics thickening each day, the fact that the LDF government is again pushing for the project can only be because either their dogmatic perception is lost or it is unable to assess the prevailing environmental politics.
Ecological impact, financial waste, displacement of species including humans, figures of excess power generation that exists more on paper than in reality.. These are the reasons for the repeated rejection of Athirappilly project ever since 1982. Even then, in the name of 163 megawatt of electricity, the ambition of Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) keeps surfacing periodically to build a dam 23 metres high and 311 metres wide, and 400 metres above the Vazhachcal water falls of Chalakkudy river. But no one is able to understand the reasons why Athirappilly hydroelectric project - which technical experts have termed as of no benefit many times over – has become so dear to KSEB.
Kerala is a state that has ensured availability of power supply at the rate of Rs 3.50-4.50 per unit for the next ten years. Of the total power which was available to us last year, 487 Crore units was not even consumed. But the surprising fact is that all those who donned the ministerial cap of electricity portfolio after 1982 - regardless of political differences - are admirers if not exponents of Athirappilly project even now. If any one talks against it, every one from minister to young Turks of politics will be up in arms targeting them. It will not take long for such critics to be branded anti-development and betrayers receiving foreign funds.
This was made clear in a calling attention motion in the state assembly session in end-October 2016, by Raju Abraham and the reply given by minister AK Balan on behalf of the chief minister. Even as AK Balan was declaring that the Gadgil and Kasturirangan committees were formed to thwart the Athirappilly project, and Raju Abraham was labelling 90 per cent of the environmental champions of Kerala as people working with foreign funds, CPM was standing behind that contention.
When on 19 March 2018 electricity minister MM Mani declared that the government would withdraw from the Athirappilly project, that was not part of a political decision, but a result of pressure of circumstances of not getting any legal backing. Of course, the eco-political leanings of CPI also made it impossible to arrive at a consensus among left forces. In fact the environmental politics adopted and being followed by CPM on issues including Athirappilly, is hollow inside and deprived of any theoretic robustness. Large-scale projects like Athirappilly is within the framework of their environmental politics. For that very reason, it is not a political slip when for a project that is not part of the left front's election manifesto, the government rises in all alertness to renew the approval of an anti-people project, and the chief minister – for all his hectic schedules of Covid resistance – finds time for it without any consultations with front constituents. All this is indeed only a continuation of the environment-development politics followed by the stalwarts who steer the government.
The re-emergence of the Athirappilly project controversy tells us that the floods and the Covid pandemic have not imparted any insights to the politial leadership of Kerala. In spite of two floods, the left front has not been able to understand that Madhav Gadgil's findings were not a scheme of conspiracy. Kerala is gripped by an anxiety that a weakening Western Ghat and an atmosphere blazing due to global warming will cause a third flood in the state. It is deplorable that the rulers have still to be tutored that our land is in the disaster caused by a mad race after development which forgets the earth and the sky. The prop for Athirappilly is a politics that has become outdated in the new-age social value-system in which rivers, hills and bio-diversity and weakened human beings constitute crucial components. But then which academic seminar would drill home that message to the left front, especially the CPM?