John Pollard, commanding the raft as it negotiated the rapids, explained the river hydrology and the diverse fauna it supported. Spotting kingfishers and hornbills along the river course was common, he said, and a black panther on the riverbank wasn’t altogether unexpected. Pulling my hand out of water, Pollard cautioned me about the presence of crocodiles in some stretches.
Minutes later, his face turned grim: We were at the point where a dam, the seventh in the series, was to come up at Mavalangi, on the river Kali. Once it was up, the impounded water would submerge the famous Dandeli rapids in Karnataka. Panthers would find their ecological corridor plunged under water and the birds would have to search for new habitation. “But those who see power in flowing water and profits in submersion of land aren’t worried about disappearing rapids, lost kingfishers and migrating panthers,” lamented Pollard.
One of the finest rafting sites in the country, the Dandeli rapids were at the mercy of the Karnataka Power Corporation. Home to six hydropower projects and the imposing Kaiga Nuclear Power Plant, the Kali flows uninterrupted only for 18km along its short course of 184km before it meets the Arabian Sea, south of Goa. Once the dam was built, Kali would be the most dammed river for its length in the world.
Green splendour: The seventh dam was to come up on the river Kali.
But that was not to be: Not only has the Kali been saved the ignominy of being the world’s most dammed river, but rafting at Dandeli persists with the same gusto it did in 2002-03. One day turned the tide: 8 September 1983, when hordes of Appiko volunteers laid siege in the Kalse forest in Uttara Kannada, hugging the trees and forcing the forest department and contractors to exit.
Since its origin in the early 1980s, Appiko, the southern version of Chipko, has been at the vanguard of ecological conservation in the Western Ghats. “Over the decades, Appiko has become a potent expression to counter violence against nature,” says Pandurang Hegde, who anchors the movement and led the Kali campaign.
Created some 120-130 million years ago, the Western Ghats— stretching from the south of the Tapti river to the north of Kanyakumari—were ceded to the British in 1799. Following the decline of legendary Maratha ruler Shivaji in the early 1800s, the British systematically dismantled his forts and, in the process, ravaged rich flora and fauna, too. Records indicate that the fall of Shivaji led to the extinction of some 120 mammals and 150 bird species.
Despite the ecological decline, the Western Ghats are one of the world’s 18 biological hot spots. The Ghats have high summit altitudes, steep slopes and deep gorges, diverse landscapes that represent distinct relationships between the living and the non-living, between the yin and yang and between the civilized and the wild. Pumping oxygen into the region are 121 species of frogs and toads, 508 bird species, six types of turtles and terrapins, 87 species of snakes, 63 types of lizards and a variety of large mammals, including elephants, wild bisons, black panthers and leopards.
Legend has it that Parashurama, the sixth incarnation of Hindu god Vishnu, retrieved the Sahyadris (traditional name for Western Ghats) from the sea by throwing an axe into it. Also called Parashurama Kshetra, the ghats are a gateway to the monsoons, the stuff of life for the subcontinent.
Though there is a perceptive decline in ecological consciousness of the kind exhibited in the early 1980s, three years ago Appiko managed to mobilize more than 25,000 people against the establishment of a 4,000MW barge-mounted power plant at Tadadi, a coastal site in Karnataka that overlooks the Western Ghats. Aghanashini, the only free-flowing river of these Ghats, empties itself into the Arabian Sea at this site, creating an incredible 1,800ha of estuary. More than 26 mangrove species offer the perfect habitat for some 100 species of fish and the other aquatic life here.
Similarly, the Yana rocks, located 25km from Kumta amid dense forests in the Shimoga district, could have long been decimated had the movement not protested its takeover by the cement industry. Yana or Bhairavakshetra is an important pilgrimage centre that is as much a rockclimbing destination. The highest of the three black limestone rocks stands 120m tall.
But unthinking development isn’t the only antagonist environmentalists face. Agumbe, known as the Cherrapunjee of south India and a known habitat of the King Cobra, the most majestic and dreadful of all living serpents, is said to be a safe bastion for another dreadful creature called the Naxalite. Appiko’s greatest worry is that repressive developmental policies are making the once impregnable region a safe haven for undesirable elements.
A development expert, Sudhirendar Sharma has been studying the Appiko movement since 2001.