THE only sound you can hear from the Rainforest Resort overlooking the Athirampilly Falls is of water plummeting down the mountains and joining gurgling streams. It was a heady experience to watch the Chalakudy river crashing down on hard granite rocks and breaking into a cloud of foamy spray in the lush landscape of the Sholayar range.
There was something magical about the undulating hilly regions which stand sentinel to the Falls. The ceaseless music of the myriad falls and the hush of the densely wooded forest surrounding it lend a special charm to the small hamlet of Athirampilly which has been drawing holidaymakers and filmmakers. Once unexplored, Athirampilly used to be a fatal attraction claiming the lives of many tourists who ventured to take a dip. From a filmy location and a suicide spot, Athirampilly has metamorphosed into a popular tourist paradise.
The pristine environs of Athirampilly have formed the backdrop to many fighting sequences, rape scenes and romantic interludes of various movies. Heroines have crooned and danced beneath the falls. Heroes have bashed up villains under this beautiful canopy of green.
Athirampilly attained tinsel fame with the release of the Tamil blockbuster Punnagai Mannan starring Kamal Hassan in the eighties. Many other blockbusters were filmed here. Incidentally, Athirampilly shot to prominence when Mani Ratnam chose it as a locale for the movie Ravana starring Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan.
The Athirampilly Falls originate in the Sholayar river and traverse through the Vazhachal Falls just past the Peringalkuthu Dam. To the east of Athirampilly are the lesser known Charpa Falls which plunge down to the road during torrential rains. The Vazhachal Falls are not as breathtaking as the Athirampilly Falls, but they hold a special charm being close to the dense forest. Although this spot is called Vazhachal Falls, it is not a waterfall in the true sense. The river tumbles over myriads of rocks down a slope at this spot, creating a profusion of foam and a waterfall like impact. Further east from Vazhachal on SH 21 are the Anakkayam Falls.
The Chalakudy River flows gently through it all, past dense forests teeming with swaying bamboo, grass, flora, chirping birds, frolicking Malabar squirrels, slithering snakes, butterflies, blackfaced langurs, screeching insects and the shrill call of the jungle fowl. Athirampilly and its green environs are a haven for adventure and nature enthusiasts. The vegetation swoops down like a dark canopy and it is very common to sight a herd of elephants grazing amidst the bamboo clumps. With a huge and amazing variety of birds and plants, the forest is an ornithologist’s delight and if you are lucky, you will be rewarded with the prized sighting of the Great Indian Hornbill. The place resonates with birdsong, orchestrated by hundreds of winged creatures especially the mellifluous song of the Malabar Whistling Thrush.
The maintenance and upkeep of the tourist spot is done with the active participation of the Eco Development Committee, Vana Samriksha Samithi and Kudumbashree Self-Help Groups. Subsequently to avert accidents and sensitise tourists, some signboards of caution and details of the location were put up by the Forest Department.
But state authorities need electricity desperately so the government wants to construct an additional dam up the river from the falls. Meanwhile activists argue that the economics of the project will benefit very few and impose colossal environment and social costs with impacts on the river’s flow, the forests and the fauna in the region.
If the proposed Chalakudy Hydel Project, the seventh along the 145-kilometre journey of the already dammed river comes up, it could submerge 140 hectares of prime forestland. and wipe out the region’s bewildering biodiversity which comprises of 402 rare plants, 99 fish species and diverse species of fauna including four rare species of the hornbill, the rare Cochin forest cane turtle, the lion-tailed macaques, tiger, leopard, and the Nilgiri langurs. It will also affect the elephant corridor between the Parambikulam Sanctuary and the Pooyamkutty forests and sever the link between the Peechi-Vazhani Wildlife Sanctuary and the Idamalayar basin of the Periyar River. Large, old trees in vast tracts of the Sholayar jungles are bound to be submerged, depriving the endangered Great Indian Hornbill of vital nesting sites.
Any relocation will sever their links with the forest. The Athirampilly and Vazhachal Falls, which are visited by 600,000 domestic and foreign tourists every year will lose their glory and create a setback in tourism in the region. This will result in colossal loss of revenue and affect the livelihood of local people who depend on bus loads of tourists.
The proposed dam will also affect 500,000 people from 19 panchayats and two municipalities which depend on the river for water. Submergence is bound to have its impact on climate change. The decreased flow in the river for almost 20 to 22 hours a day will imperil agricultural operations in almost 20,000 hectares spread over Thrissur and Ernakulam districts.
So far the dam hasn’t come up, though survey work for the project continues. The proposed 160 MW accounts for a paltry three per cent of the state’s electricity production but the damage to the environment and people is huge. Such shortfalls could be met through sensible measures. Some scientists have suggested alternatives to the project like the reduction of transmission losses, hike in power tariff to induce transmission, purchase of power from power exchange, negotiating change in power sharing and introduction of energy efficiency subsidy. If these alternatives are implemented, the impending threat looming over the fate of Athirampilly will be averted. It remains to be seen whether the need for development will supersede the pristine charm of the place.
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