Ammini( Amminichechi to many) sat looking at the turbulent Athirapally falls through the meshed window of the teashop which has been the source of her livelihood for many years. A face withered by the turmoils of life, she came across as a woman bound to her convictions and life experiences. What made her strong was the lessons she learnt from the river and forests, the trees and animals, the birds and forest people whom she adopted as her own when she reached the wilderness of Athirapally as a young girl along with her father. The gurgling streams became her anklets, the lianas and climbers her tresses and the melodious call of whistling school boy her own song. So bound was she to the wild world around her that talking to her was like reading the treatise of Chief Seattle or wearing the ring of King Solomon or walking alongside St.Francis of Assissi.
‘ If you put a board in the forest “Keep Away” the only animal that will move away is us , humans. To the elephant and deer, this means nothing. They belong to the vast and boundary less Earth.How can we control them?” asked Amminichechi almost 2 decades ago looking at the rain filling the streams that join the mighty river. She realised the value of her keen observations about the river along whose banks she grew up when the decision to make a hydroelectric dam across the river was announced by the Kerala Government. Sitting for more than 3 months in the temporary shed made by the group resisting the dam that would spell disaster to the livelihood of many, to the water supply to the downstream panchayats, to the forest rights act of the primitive and endangered Kadar population and to the rare and threatened denizens of the rainforests, Amminichechi reiterated the need to review development anew. Her deep conviction is what made her participate in the struggle and share her concerns with people like MedhaPatkar and SukumarAzhikode who came to express solidarity. Having seen the destruction caused by 5 dams upstream which has not helped improve the life of the people but only caused displacement and impoverishment Amminichechi stated with sadness and conviction “ I do not have party or politics. Education or learning.Religion or caste. But I know that the River is the greatest benevolence. Can we make a River? I want to live for the animals and plants that hold Nature’s energy. We can construct a dam. But can we make water? Clean air and soil? “…Amminichechi’s voice faded as the rain strengthened on a monsoon afternoon in 2002 when I first met her in her tea shop.
Amminichechi’s sad and faded eyes would lit up when she spoke about her special communication with the creatures around her….as a young girl she would spend a lot of time by the riverbank watching the hornbills fly overhead, the lion tailed monkeys move silently in the tall canopy, the giant squirrels and Nilgirilangur announce a leopard prowling in the undergrowth and listen to the whistle of forest birds. She would inhale the scent of unknown forest flowers, the fragrance of honey from the huge Myrobalan , observe the honey collectors set their tall bamboo ladder each season and marvel at their agility and wisdom. She expressed hope and happiness about formation of the VanaSamrakshanaSamitis which could channelize the traditional ecological knowledge of forest communities to create sensitivity about forests and rivers. She was in awe about the amazing diversity of birds, butterflies, fishes and other animals along with plants and seemed livid about the incapacity of decision makers who design such short term plans.
Travelling to the capital city to meet the then Chief Minister with her friends Subrahmonium , Janaki, Geetha and many others, Ammini was appalled by the wastage of energy as neon lights lit up the advertisements of shops in all the towns they passed through.
“ Is it for this that we are killing a river and drowning a forest?”….echoing the voice of her companions ,Ammini answered the people whom they met in Trivandrum “ The dam is being build in our own palms. The river will never flow again and all acquifers and underground springs that recharge our water sources will go. Electricity – maybe we can live without it ..but can we survive even one day without water?”
When the movement to protect the river took shape in early 2000s with Dr.Latha and team taking the lead as the River Research Centre it is the bold and unwavering voices of women like Ammini and Janaki, the consistent convictions of Geetha and Kanchana, the silent yet strong stances of Kausalya, Devayani and Raji that provided the base for it. Breaking down into sobs over the phone, Amminichechi’s comrade Janakichechi recollected their days in the small shed created to proclaim their protest against the dam. A true sisterhood born out of their love for the river and their way of life, Janakichechi finds it hard to accept the loss. The young women in the area lament the death of Amminichechi who was a kind and strong mentor and mother to them. Braving ridicule and isolation, Ammini as a young woman had boldly set up the hotel in the tourist spot years back- this has inspired many a woman. Her involvement in the VSS also triggered many to join hands in protecting the forests.
Women like Amminichechi who had the courage to say with simple honesty the need for a river to flow connected to the need for her “ to have the ice cold waters to stand knee deep and pray each morning “ was what made the struggle unique and uncomplicated. Amminichechi ended the dialogue that day with an honest and straight forward sentence “ Nature has a truth that is infallible. Standing by that will make you stronger. You may forget a lie you said but an honest stance will be with you till your last breath. I have a gut feeling that the dam will not come “
True to her conviction, Athirapally and Chalakudy river still flows unfettered….troubled by the floods and her ailing health, the last few years of Amminichechi’s life was not easy. But she spared no effort to enquire about the river and the forests, her companion animals and birds and the forest people who were her friends.
Ammini lived on the banks of the Chalakudyriver near the famed Athirapally waterfall in Thrissur district for over 5 decades. Her love for the river made her one of the staunch voices against the proposed Hydroelectric project in 2000s. She passed away at the age of 79 on July 22nd with her heart still full of memories about the wilderness she fought for and won too…
This is part of the semistructured interview done by Anitha.S in 2002. Thanks to late Dr. A. Latha and Dr.Amita Bachan along with Dr.Santhi, late Usha Zacharias and Dr.JDevika who made this documentation possible. Conversations with Ravi,S.P, Zabna, A.B, Janaki and S.Unnikrishnan after July 22nd added to the original writing done in 2002.