It took some time to write. Latha chechi and me talked just 4 days before she passed away on Nov 16, 2017. As usual, it was about when we will meet next and go to Athirappilly Falls and travel to the river together. Her voice was light, it had a surreal gentleness. We agreed on everything, which was rare. After just a few minutes, Unni gently took the phone from her and told me she needed to sleep. It just didn’t feel right.
We first met virtually about 10 years back, discussing rivers and forests and then, through her initiative, came together to organize the first civil society workshop on Environmental Flows in January 2009 with SANDRP. Since then, Latha Chechi has been a bubbling, enthusiastic and wise constant. We worked on several submissions together, discussed strategies and ideas, eating each other’s heads about what worked and what can work and always, I was always taken aback by her unmatched way of linking issues.
Aghanashini –is a small village situated on the southern bank of Aghanashini River in the Kumta taluka of Uttar Kannada district in Karnataka state. River Aghanashini draws its name from this village, it is also known as Tadri river as Tadri village is situated on the river mouth on the north bank. Vast estuary and open sea at the village makes you humble. A drive along the bank of estuary is pleasant experience in the hot summer. On one side, big coconut trees and on other side, isolated, stunted mangrove patches draw your attention. Continue reading “The state of the Aghanashini River Estuary”→
Above: Pandhapur wari, the yearly pilgrimage on Bhima banks (Source: pandharpurwari.com)
Bhima River, the largest tributary of Krishna River holds a special significance for the state of Maharashtra. The river is closely woven with the spiritual fabric of the state. The river is also referred to as Chandrabhaga River, especially at Pandharpur- the famous pilgrimage city, as it resembles the shape of the Moon. Bhima basin occupies nearly 70% area of the Krishna Basin falling in Maharashtra. Though the river originates in Maharashtra, it merges with Krishna river in Karnataka state, thus can be viewed as an independent basin.
In recent years Bhima basin has been subjected to excessive pressure of anthropogenic activities such as religious festivals attracting millions of pilgrims through the year, growing pollution by urban centres, growing sugarcane cultivation and over extraction of the river water to feed the water guzzling crop. These activities are taking toll in the river’s health and its water availability. Maharashtra state’s haste of building more and more dams in Krishna basin is most prominently visible in Bhima basin.
In this sense this sub-basin of Krishna River Basin, is its perfect miniature.
Goa, twenty fifth state of the Indian Union, is small but picturesque state, famous all over the world as “The Tropical Paradise of Tourists”. Ensconced on the slopes of Western Ghats which skirts its eastern boundary and lapped by the blue expanse of the Arabian Sea in the West, Goa admeasures an area of about 3,702 sqkm. Situated between Karnataka and Maharashtra, Goa is bounded on the North by the Terekhol river, surrounded on the South and East by Karnataka while on the West is the Arabian sea. This state is divided into two districts, North and South, administered from Panaji, the capital city and Margao, respectively.
Eleven rivers are sustaining the Goan ecosystems. These rivers have sustained the earliest forms of human habitation. The discovery of rare Stone Age carvings on the banks of Kushavati and Zarme rivers stands testimony to this. From the period of Satvahanas, Chalukyas of Badami, Bhojas Kshatrapas and Abhiras, Traikutas of Konkan, Kalachuris, Mauryas of Konkan, Shilaharas, Kadambas…. the Goan rivers have encouraged development of civilization. However excessive load of anthropogenic activities such as mining, tourism etc. have been affecting these rivers from past few decades. While many of the big rivers are critically polluted, many small ones face threat of extinction. Urgent steps need to be taken to protect the rivers of this state which is more intimately linked with its rivers due to unique physiography. Continue reading “Goa River Profile”→
Karnataka is still reeling from the protests, rasta roko, bandhs, burning effigies, etc., resulting from the anger over the Interim Verdict of Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal[i] (MWDT) of the 27.07.16 which did not allow Karnataka’s Appeal to temporarily lift 7 TMC (Thousand Million Cubic Feet) water from Mahadayi Basin into Malaprabha Basin (a sub basin of Krishna basin). Twin cities of Hubali and Dharwad, likely beneficiaries from the diversion, are centers of agitation. Schools and colleges were closed, government offices and buses were burnt, major roads were blocked by protesters. Pro-Karnataka Organizations and even Film stars have joined this protest. Karnataka Home Minister has called on the Prime Minister to look into the decision. Goa, on the other hand, is quietly celebrating this one positive step[ii]. I was reminded of Rajendra Singh’s uncritical support to the project and also what Dr. T V Ramchandra from IISC, Bangalore said about this, “Do the film stars know the details of the issue or even where their water comes from? The day we push Pudharis away, solutions to our water woes will be easy and closer to home.”
“Konkan” is the narrow strip of land encompassing coastlines, estuaries, lateritic plateaus, foothills of Western Ghats and dense forests, which runs from Maharashtra to Goa. It is bound by the Arabian Sea to its west and the mighty Sahyadri ranges (Western Ghats) to its east. The isolated region has a distinct and rich culture of folklore, performing arts, music, literature, culinary art, with subtle changes from north to south. The region receives heavy rainfall of about 2500-3500 mm in summer monsoons, with the lofty Sahyadri ranges blocking the moisture-laden clouds.
The rivers in the region are as spectacular: gushing and gurgling over steep hilly paths and meeting the Arabian Sea in just about 100-150 kilometers from their origin in the Western Ghats. The steep and hilly terrain makes it difficult to build large dams, (though we keep trying unsuccessfully as can be seen here: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2016/02/09/large-dams-in-konkan-western-ghats-costs-benefits-and-impacts/) and water resource managers never fail to point out that of the total yield of rivers in Maharashtra, 45% is from of the West-flowing rives of Konkan!
Having said that, the tempestuous nature of rives, rocky terrain and steep slopes mean that rives dry up as fast as they swell. The lifeline here is not surface water, but groundwater…Groundwater that emerges from springsas the predominant porous laterite rock meets a layer of clay..or dug wells…or unique water harvesting structures crafted by local communities.
Here is a glimpse of some such structures…to appreciate not only the utility and appropriateness, but beauty of small, local structures and traditional wisdom. Also important to note is the diversity and independence of water management in Konkan: as in India..where communities own, maintain and manage their own water. There is a special kind of power and magic in this independence.Continue reading “Many colors of groundwater in a tiny Western Ghats village”→
Konkan is that narrow and spectacular strip of land encompassing coastlines, estuaries, lateritic plateaus, foothills of Western Ghats and dense forests, which runs from Maharashtra to Goa. Bound by the Arabian Sea to its west and the mighty Sahyadri ranges (Western Ghats) to its east, the region has a distinct and rich culture of folklore, performing arts, music, literature, culinary art. Konkan, its temples, rivers and forests have an entire Sahyadrikand of the SkandPurana dedicated to it. Several poems and songs have been penned about the beauty, the mystery and the people of this region. Many of our celebrated singers, poets and authors come from Konkan. Community conservation practices that thrive here include some of the most pristine Sacred Groves, Temple Tanks, Fish Sanctuaries and sacred trees.Continue reading “Large Dams in Konkan Western Ghats: Costs, Benefits and Impacts”→
How a 15 MW project with 55 mts high dam threatens 5 villages and a fish sanctuary
After an analysis of a particularly nasty dam, I felt like going back to flowing rivers. It is monsoon after all. The plan was to visit Kal River in Western Ghats of Raigad District in Maharashtra to understand how a community in a small village called Walen Kondh is protecting the river and Mahseer fish. Mahseer (Deccan Mahseer, Tor tor) is classified as endangered as per IUCN classification and most wild Deccan Mahseer populations have been wiped out in India. And hence a small, out of the way place, protecting these fish as well as the river voluntarily was like a breeze of fresh air. Continue reading “White Elephant, Black Fish”→
Above: Wetlands in Western Ghats Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
On this World Environment Day, a number of images leap to mind from the past year: Prime Minister of India performing the famous Ganga Arati after elections to new species of fish and frogs discovered (again) from Western Ghats. From TSR Subramaniam justifying his Committee Report which seeks to disintegrate the environmental governance of the country to Jadav Payang, single-handedly planting thousands of trees in Assam. From the filthy Yamuna flowing through the national capital to the unseasonal rains that damaged crops of millions of farmers. Continue reading “Remembering Wetlands on World Environment Day”→
Above: Latha with her friends at Athirappilly Falls. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
It is difficult for me to write impersonally about the work of Bhagirath Prayas Samman recipient Dr. Latha Anantha. She is Latha Chechi to me, a close friend and more of a sister. The bond is based on water and rivers, possibly stronger than blood. This is only an attempt to introduce the readers to the exemplary work of Latha Chechi (and that of the River Research Centre and Chalakudy Puza Samarakshan Samithi team) as the recipient of the first Bhagirath Prayas Samman for “exemplary capacity for combining sound research with the mobilization of community, political and state agencies, and for ushering in a unique methodology of consensus- based conservation of rivers in the country’”.
Latha is an agricultural scientist by education and holds a doctorate in the subject. But how did she start working with rivers? In 1989, Latha was a part of a nature camp which took her and many like her into the Silent Valley National Forest. Then, Silent Valley National Forest was declared as a protected area only 4 years back after protracted, and possibly one of India’s foremost anti-destructive dam struggle, led by people. (A fascinating account here )
It was here that, under the guidance of Dr. Sathish Chandran Nair, Latha saw that while forests of Silent Valley are the birth place of beautiful river Kunti, Attapadi region was devoid of forests and most streams were dried up. The Bhavani river was hardly flowing there. The contrast was self revealing. It was here that the connections between forests and water and rivers and tribals and wildlife were forged. She says she was a changed person after witnessing all this.
In 1995, Latha married Unnikrishnan, also an ardent river lover and activist (and a poet!) and together they conducted several nature camps for children and young adults all over Kerala, always coming back to the Chalakudy River and her thick forests near Vazachal and around. By then, she had made friends not only with the river, but with the Kadar tribes who lived with the Chalakudy, on her banks, one amongst them was young Geeta. The learning and exploring continued for a few years, until in 1998 they heard that a dam project on Chalakudy, the Athirappilly dam, had received sanctions from Delhi. They were shell shocked. Back in 1998, this couple and their friends like Ravi, in a remote part of Kerala knew nothing of EIA Notification, sad monotony of sham EIAs, compromised EIA agents, project-friendly meetings at MoEF, nothing. But they persevered.
Helped by stalwarts like Dr. V.S Vijayan, Dr. Sathish Chandran Nair, this tenacious group slowly put the jigsaw puzzle together, piece by piece. They understood the EIA Notification of 1994, got hold of the EIA and saw how the Kadar tribe, living just by the river was not even mentioned. They say how the fact that Chalakudy was already dammed six times before it comes to Athirappilly and how 35% of its flows are already diverted was hidden from the EIA. .Kadar tribal settlement was mentioned incorrectly outside the project impact area. Latha by then also realized that the mandatory public hearing was also not conducted for this project.
Now there was no stopping this group, which also included hydrologist Madhusoodan and botanist K Amitha Bachan. Ravi and Unni filed a case in Kerala High Court in 2001, challenging the EC granted to Athirappilly and Latha & team did all the research, putting together a water-tight case. The court ruled in favor and asked for a fresh public hearing.
Latha and friends already had strong ties in the Chalakudy region. This was not a single day affair, but a trusted relation built over years. The tribals knew this team’s love for them and their river. They listened and they discussed. They were aghast at the dam building plans. The public hearing saw overwhelming participation not only from the tribal communities, but from scientists, shop keepers, hotel owners, farmers, gram panchayat members, etc. The District Collector witnessed this and would not push the project until a river basin study was done, possibly the first such in India.
There was a lull in the meantime, giving a false sense of security for these Chalakudy lovers. But it also gave them time to get introduced and work with friends like Himanshu Thakkar from South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP), Shripad Dharmadhikary from Manthan with whom they had been in touch for long, supporters like Dr. Ramaswmay Iyer, etc. Through SANDRP, in 1998 itself, the group had made submission to the World Commission on Dams opposing the Athirapally project. The CPSS, in collaboration with SANDRP, organized a meeting on the report of the World Commission on Dams at Thrissur on June 22-23, 2002. A meeting against Interlinking of Rivers in Kerala was organized by CPSS and SANDRP on July 12-13, 2003. A book “Tragedy of Commons: The Kerala Experience in River Linking” was published in 2004 by River Research Centre & SANDRP.
But Athirappilly dam plan put up its head again in February 2005 when the project gained Environmental Clearance through back door from the MoEF. This time the EC was challenged by none other than the young Geeta, the Kadar woman, living on the banks of the Chalakudy who filed a PIL in the High Court of Kerala in April 2005 challenging the new Clearance granted to the project. The Athirappilly Gram Panchayat President also filed a PIL on EIA violations. The High court again upheld the plea and ordered for a public hearing afresh! This public hearing in 2006 witnessed massive turnout of the tribal community members.
In the meantime, Latha also wrote to Jairam Ramesh to intervene in the issue and Unni and Lathachechi met him personally when he was in Kochi. He issued stop Memo to KSEB on January 4th 2010. After this KSEB again approached MoEF. Once again PIL was filed in HC challenging the EIA in 2007 and is still pending in the HC.
This proposal was again recommended environmental clearance by the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on River Valley Committee in their meeting in May 2007. However, following directions by Kerala High Court to KSEB, the project came back before EAC in March 2010 and was again discussed in April 2010 and July 2010, till when no conclusion could be reached by EAC and EAC had asked for more information and clarifications. There is no mention of the project in any of the minutes of the subsequent EAC meetings.
Since then there has been a lull on the plans though it has not died out completely. River Research Centre, though existing since many years back informally, was formally registered as a Trust. RRC, Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshan Samiti and Latha’s dedication is one of the strengths of Athirappilly waterfalls, which would have been dammed and dried long before if it was not for this people-led, nonviolent struggle.
Latha was simultaneously working on campaign against the proposed Pathrakkadave HEP across Kunti River near Silent Valley National Park on several angles such as community mobilisation, EIA, Public hearing, etc. The very destructive dam project has been stalled and the public sentiment and pressure is very big on this project as not to build the dam.
Since early 2000, she has also been involved in education program for children along the banks of the Chalakudy River. RRC and the Schools for Rivers program were instrumental in forming a ‘Kuttikoottam’ (meaning a group of children) of more than 50 children aged between 10-20 years who would set out to know more about their panchayath, its natural resources, human resource potential, culture, folklore, institutions, governance, destruction of environment, problems faced by the river and related livelihoods etc. ( More on it here)
While working on environmental governance and advocacy, CPSS has also worked on novel and promising initiatives like Reservoir Reoperation Model. The project is steered by CPSS and Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India of which Latha is a Steering Committee member.This model is specifically aimed at dammed rivers, where impacts are supposed to be a way of life. In the much-dammed Chalakudy, RRC, with its dedicated members like Ravi and others demonstrated how operations of a hydropower scheme can be and should be changed to maintain summer irrigation in the downstream and also rudimentary flows for the river. This is far from perfect, but a great step in the direction. At the heart of these processes is joining the dots and bringing people together: from power company, irrigation department, farmers, local self-governments, etc. In April 2013, the CM of Kerala agreed to increase the off peak generation of Poringalkuthu Left Bank Hydro Electric Project. More on this here.
Latha also played an active role in the Save Western Ghats Movement group. In a meeting of this group Kothagiri in Keystone Campus, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh made the announcement of Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel, after relentless advocacy by the group, including Latha. The subsequent Panel under the leadership of Dr. Madav Gadgil and what followed had deeply affected the environmental discourse in India. The way MoEF and government of India hid Gadgil report was a shameful, underlining the unwillingness of the administration to take any visionary or long term actions towards people-led environmental governance. Along with organization like Goa Foundation, RRC was a part of the petition filed in the NGT against this opacity and for implementation of the Gadgil Report. The court ordered the MoeF to bring out the Gadgil report. The din that followed, especially in Kerala, was massive and bewildering. Gadgil Report was then subsumed to the problematic Kasturirangan Committee, which decision itself was flawed. Powerful interest lobbies, including religious groups, did not miss a single opportunity at misleading locals about eco sensitive areas. If Western Ghats was tense, Kerala was in the eye of the storm. At this juncture, Latha chechi came out and wrote about Kasturirangan Committee report as one of the reason for political polarization for Kerala, and asked for a sane and democratic approach through the Gadgil Report. Latha organised meetings as well as participated in many meetings and debates organised on the subject all over Kerala.
While keeping a balanced, soft spoken and people friendly stand she has not shied from criticizing consultants like NIH and CIFRI for their shoddy eflows assessments. She has served on several government appointed committees in Kerala and has been a resource person for countless programs on rivers and forests. She also serves as the South Asia Advisor, International Rivers and is the Ashoka Fellow, 2012.
Latha’s story, intrinsically linked with River Research Centre, CPSS, Chalakudy River and beyond is a story of soft spoken courage. It is a story of bringing people together and looking at a river as a shared heritage, not only as a part of a conflict.
Today, Latha is undergoing a challenging time physically, undergoing several rounds of treatments. But mentally, she is the same strong and sensitive river woman of the Western Ghats.
She is a natural recipient of the Bhagirath Prayas Samman and we look forward to having her back with us soon in her full form: singing, laughing and loving rivers as she does..