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Dams Threaten Aboriginal Tribe

CHALAKUDY, India, Jan 28 2011 (IPS) - Over the years, the Kadars, a dwindling aboriginal tribe who live on the borders of the southern Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have survived pestilences, extreme exploitation and even mass sterilisations. But a new government plan to build a hydroelectric dam across the Chalakudy River would have been the death knell for the group who now number about 1,500.

With the Ministry of Environment and Forest veto of the proposed 140 million U.S. dollar dam project at Athirapilli in the valley of the Western Ghats, the Kadars have gotten a reprieve.

The decision of the Environment Ministry is “a major success for the forest and the tribe,” A. Latha, an environmentalist and research co-ordinator of the Thrissur-based River Research Centre, told IPS.

Local resistance and judicial intervention by the High Court of Kerala have also come to the aid of the Kadars and the unique flora and fauna of the forested hilly area of the Chalakudy river basin.

The Kadar community is one of the six endangered food-gathering communities in India according to anthropologists. Their population in 1961 was just 800.

Ayyan, a member of the tribe, says that many community huts will be submerged if the state continues the work on the dam. “We hear the death knell of our beloved river,” the 60-year-old man told IPS.

“The government does not give adequate basic amenities to us at the settlement area, where living conditions are very bad. Their assurance on amenities is a pipe- dream. Now they want our river and forest for their benefits,” Ayyan said.

P. Gopakumar, a Malayali author, told IPS that the government is guilty of sponsoring violence against tribal society in the name of the dam. “Acting on behalf of the middle men in the market sector, the promoters in government and private agencies are ignoring the rights of the tribe,” he said.

According to Joy Kaitharam, general secretary of the Thrissur-based Human Rights Protection Centre which fights for the rights of indigenous people, there has been no letup in the atrocities inflicted on the tribe since 87 Kadars were forcibly sterilised at the Mattathoor Government Primary Health Centre, near Kodakara in 1976.

“Since the conduct of sterilisations, the population of the tribe has remained stagnant. Today, Kadar men are tortured by officials on charges of forest theft and for agitating against the dam,” Kaitharam told IPS.

Prof. S. K. Tiwari, who compiled ‘Encyclopaedia of Indian Tribals’, pointed out that “Kadars shifted from traditional occupation to snake charmers as well as sellers of honey and wax since 1940.”

“Because of the change of life style, very high morbidity is prevailing in the tribal belt. There is no modern health facility at the settlement,” says S. P. Ravi, convener of the Chalakudy River Protection Forum. “Kadar people need highly nutritious food for managing anaemia.”

Environmentalists say that the immediate fallout of building the dam will be the fragmentation of the habitat for elephants, tigers, lion-tailed macaques and other species that roam the contiguous sanctuaries and national parks in the Parambikulam-Anamalai range of Western Ghats – one of the internationally identified eco-regions for long-term conservation in India.

Due to the rich diversity of fish in the Chalakudy River, the National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources in Lucknow has suggested the river area be declared as a “fish sanctuary.”

Gopinathan Nair, president of the Limnological Association of Kerala, fears construction of dam will prevent both upstream and downstream migration of some of the fish – which is a vital activity for their survival. “Depletion of fish and mussels will certainly affect the environment surrounding the 140 kilometre-long river,” Nair points out.

Cambridge-based Bird Life International has noted the importance of the endemic birds nesting in the Athirapilli-Vazhachal hills.

Botanists have focused on the abundant and diverse flora that has not yet been fully catalogued in the area. “Experts from government agencies are silent on the actual volume of trees that would be submerged,” says Ravikumar, a botanist in Kochi.

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