Indian Court Halts Dam, Saves Athirapally Waterfall

November 2001 

Nilgiri Langur
The Nilgiri Langur is one of many important species that was threatened by the proposed dam upstream from India`s Athirapally Waterfall

Free-flowing rivers are vital to communities and the natural environment. Dams can spoil rivers, submerge upland areas, destroy critical wildlife habitat and hinder tourism.

In the Indian State of Kerala, local communities along the Chalakudy River banded together to stop the construction of a hydroelectric dam upstream from Athirapally Waterfall, a major tourist attraction. The proposed dam would have submerged more than 140 hectares of forest, dried up extensive riparian areas downstream and destroyed Athirapally Waterfall, one of several scenic waterfalls important to the local tourism industry. The dam also would have destroyed critical habitat of many important species, including the rare Cochin Forest Cane Turtle, the endangered Great Indian Hornbill, the Lion-Tailed Macaque and the Nilgiri Langur.

The Kerala State Electricity Board received permission to build the dam without preparing an environmental impact assessment (EIA) or holding a public hearing, as required by India`s EIA law.

P.B. Sahasranaman, a public interest environmental attorney in Kerala, filed suit on behalf of local communities and environmentalists challenging the ill-advised project. Responding to P.B.`s call for help, ELAW provided critical legal and scientific support, including: laws and court opinions from Australia, Brazil, India and Sri Lanka on legal requirements for EIAs and public hearings; scientific research on the full impacts of dams; and information on more sustainable ways to meet energy demands. On October 17, 2001, the High Court of Kerala sided with the local community. In a strongly worded opinion, the Justices suspended the project, saying: "this court has a duty to ensure that the requirements of the Environmental Protection Act … are strictly complied with, in the interest of the environment and in that process a public hearing cannot be dispensed with."

This ruling forces the Kerala State Electricity Board to consider the full environmental impacts of the proposed dam and allows the public to present its views before the government reconsiders the project. This important victory gives citizens affected by environmental decisions the right to participate in the decision-making process.

For more information about this ELAW Impact, please contact the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide at elawus@elaw.org.