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I am author of the books Political Internet(Routledge, 2017), Intimate Speakers ( Fingerprint! 2017), has finished the typescript of three books—first, on Internet and sexuality; second, on the negative impacts of social media; and third, a novel—and is presently working on a narrative non-fiction with the working title Lovescape: Why India is afraid of love.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Short History of Silent Valley Movement for Undergraduate Students




Relevance of the movement

Before the Internet was popular, a remarkable people’s movement saved a pristine moist evergreen forest in Kerala’s Palakkad District from being destroyed by a hydroelectric project. The battle for the now famous Silent Valley raged for over ten years and involved thousands of people who did not even live in the vicinity of the area that was to be destroyed. Although the campaign did not have any centralized planning, it was highly effective. The sustained pressure exerted on the government by citizens using every possible means available at the time – letters to the editors of newspapers, seminars, widespread awareness programmes, and finally petitions and appeals in court and other high offices – proved ultimately successful. In 1986 Silent Valley was declared a National Park, a striking testimony to the power of peoples’ action. The lessons from this inspiring and hard-fought campaign are still relevant today. Here is a gist drawn from an article by the poet Sugatha Kumari in ‘Silent Valley – Whispers of Reason’.
 

1970: the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) proposes a hydroelectric dam across the Kunthipuzha River that runs through Silent Valley, that will submerge 8.3 sq km of untouched moist evergreen forest.
Arguments it makes for the Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project (SVPH):
  • It will generate electricity for the state of Kerala with the installation of four units of 60 MW each. (The KSEB avers that the state’s electricity requirements will not be met without this additional power).
  • Irrigate an additional 100 sq km in the Mallapuram and Palghat districts.
  • Provide employment to several thousand people during the construction phase and boost the economy of the state.
1971 – 72: Steven Green, a scientist from the New York Zoological Society, conducts studies on primates, especially the lion-tailed macaque in Silent Valley. Green expresses concerns about the possible threats to the rare macaque from the project. Around the same time, herpetologist Rom Whitaker explores Silent Valley to study the snakes of the region. He writes a letter to the Bombay Natural History Society about the need to conserve the Valley. Reports like these alert other naturalists.
February 1973: The Planning Commission approves the project at a cost of about Rs 25 crores. However, due to lack of sufficient funds, implementation is delayed.
Protests begin to mount against the project.
October 1976: National Committee on Environment Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) sets up a task force, chaired by Zafar Futehally, to study the ecological problems that could be precipitated by the project. Work on the project is suspended pending the task force’s impact analysis. Task Force recommends that project be scrapped. However it provides a loophole that stipulates that, if abandoning the project is not possible, a series of safeguards should be implemented. Unsurprisingly, the Kerala government opts to proceed with the project by promising to implement all safeguards. State argues that the area submerged by the dam is only 1022 hectares, of which 150 ha is grasslands. Also argues that only 10 percent of the ecosystem will be damaged, while ecological safeguards will protect the rest.
However, several NGOs strongly oppose the project and urge the government to abandon it. Conservationists argue that:
  • The entire lower valley will be submerged by the dam, destroying its biodiversity.
  • The 10 percent loss projected by the government will actually be far worse.
  • The workforce brought in for the construction of the project will reside in the area for several years and the destruction they cause – illegal wood felling, cattle grazing, poaching, encroaching – will destroy the Valley.
1977: Sathish Chandran Nair visits Silent Valley. With missionary zeal he starts a movement to create awareness in academic circles through talks and slide shows. V.S. Vijayan of the Kerala Forest Research Institute does a study on the impact of hydroelectric projects on the environment, and writes to the authorities not to begin the project till his report is submitted. He is admonished and his report is suppressed.
The message of the conservationists is taken to villages and cities all over Kerala. S Prabhakaran Nair tours the villages of north Malabar; Prof. John Jacob trains young nature lovers. Soon Nature Clubs spring up all over the state.
Undeterred, the state government plunges ahead with the project.
The result is that the outcry against the Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project – which started as a localized movement through individual and small group protests – goes national and international.
The General Assembly of the IUCN urges the Government to conserve the undisturbed forest area. Many eminent people, including conservationists and corporate and political leaders, write to the Central Government requesting that no sanction be given to the project. These include Salim Ali, Madhav Gadgil, CV Radhakrishnan, MS Swaminathan, Subramaniam Swamy, Sitaram Kesari, Piloo Modi and Krishna Kant. Salim Ali writes that the project is ‘shortsighted’ and has ‘limited objectives’. Institutions like the BNHS and Geological Survey of India ask that the area be declared a Natural Bioreserve.
However, Prime Minister Morarji Desai rejects all the appeals and recommends that the proposal begin with no delay.
June 1979: Kerala begins the project in earnest.
August 1979: N.V. Krishna Warrier of the Prakriti Samrakshana Samiti, Prof. Joseph John, and P. Gopalakrishnan Nair, an advocate, file a petition and get a stay order from the High Court of Kerala, stopping work on the project.
Soon after, the Silent Valley Samrakshana Samiti and Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad start awareness campaigns with vigour. They hold protest meetings, rallies and debates all over the state, turning the campaign into a mass people’s movement.
Famous writers from Kerala join the movement and contribute their skills: poems, plays, stories and articles, to convey the message to the ordinary citizen.
Meanwhile, at the Centre, Morarji Desai is replaced by Charan Singh as PM. He institutes a Central Committee to re-investigate the issue, headed by M.S. Swaminathan, much to the chagrin of the Chief Minister of Kerala. In a move reeking of money-backed counter-propaganda, the State Government sets up its own panel of ‘environmentalists’ and scientists who support the government’s views.
January 1980: the High Court rejects the writ plea, saying that it is not for the courts to go into the merits of scientific arguments and that it is “satisfied that the matters have received attention before the State decided to launch the project”. Work on the project begins again in earnest.
Meanwhile, a small group of campaigners meet the Kerala Governor and request her to issue a stay order against continuing work on the project until the Committee set up by the Centre gives its report. She agrees, and work is halted once again. On the streets, the awareness campaigns continue.
The role of the media: In the media too, the fight for Silent Valley marks a distinct curve. The leading Malayalam newspapers first carry positive columns on the hydroelectric project. By 1977, four years after the project is approved and environmentalists begin their opposition to it, the newspapers still largely carry only news of the government’s efforts to start the project. Editorial opinion, on the rare occasions that it is expressed, strongly support the project and ‘development’. Some publications even take potshots at the lion-tailed macaque, which has become a symbol of the wildlife that the environmentalists are trying to protect in Silent Valley.
The Express, a local daily, is an exception. It carries editorials that constitute a deliberate and strong tilt towards saving Silent Valley; it also carries a feature with a measured argument explaining the importance of rainforests in layman’s terms.
In 1979, a slight shift in newspaper reportage is noticeable. Along with support for the project, some newspapers raise concern for the ecological consequences of destroying the rainforest. Malayalam Manorama, a popular magazine, although inclined to view the project favourably, opens up its letters and features columns to environmental opinions.
At first, few national newspapers consider the environment a particularly interesting subject, and the Silent Valley battles that are raging in Kerala may well be in another continent. The political push and shove that the project endures eventually gets the newspapers to cover the opposition to the project. The Indian Express, with its many southern editions, is ideally placed to pick up the issue. It’s Kochi editions regularly feature Silent Valley and its concerns – even lambasting the Morarji Desai government for approving the project.
The Hindu regularly features editorials on the subject. In August 1979, the paper carries a full-page report on the flora and fauna of Silent Valley. The letters section of the paper attracts several eminent people, among them Rom Whitaker, M.K. Prasad, Madhav Gadgil. The eminent naturalist, M. Krishnan writes, “In my lifetime I have seen many fine wildlife habitats demolished for hydel projects. Silent Valley is more important than them all – the last authentic sizeable evergreen forests left.”
More political twists and turns: Meanwhile, in Delhi, Charan Singh’s term as Prime Minister is over in a short six months. He is replaced by Indira Gandhi. Luckily for the conservation movement, she takes an active personal interest in the Silent Valley project, as national and international pressure mounts.
January 1981: Bowing to unrelenting public pressure, Indira Gandhi declares that Silent Valley will be protected.
However – when the fine print is read – it is learned that the area under the hydroelectric project is not covered under the protected area! When the people become aware of this ‘little detail’, hundreds of protest telegrams are sent to the Central Government. More pressure is heaped on the government by NGOs, reputed scientists and intellectuals, and ordinary citizens.
June 1983: the Centre re-examines the issue through a commission chaired by Prof. M.G.K. Menon.
November 1983: the Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project is called off.
1985: Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi formally inaugurates Silent Valley National Park.
Silent Valley movement was the continuation of the development debate which had already started in India with the Chipko movement. The success of the movement opened a new paradigm of development which ensures environmental sustainability and rights of the non-human world. Especially in Kerala, the movement created public awareness that the development which harms the environment is short-term, and hence it will adversely affect the social and economic life of the future generations. The development vs. monkey debate and the victory of the cause of endangered species proved the fact that the non-human world has the same right to live on earth. The inclination of the movement towards the left rewrote the Marxist notion of nature as a resource base to nature as a treasure which has to be protected. The ideological split within the Marxist party regarding the Silent valley issue was the reflection of the alteration in the idea of development. It was a hefty task imposed on KSSP to educate the local people, who were fascinated by the industrial benefits of the power project and its employment opportunities, about the significance of the rainforest which would be submerged. The incessant struggle fought by KSSP and various groups taught them the first lesson of environmentalism that without protecting the nature we cannot protect ourselves. The environmental history of the nation, as well as the state shows that the success of Silent Valley movement influenced the people to protest against the environmental injustices in their vicinity. The movement also contributed to the activities of ecological Marxists in India which follows the Gandhian non-violent strategy.
The Silent Valley movement became a meeting place for different ideas regarding the development and the management of natural resources. KSSP itself published and distributed several pamphlets and study reports on the issue. One of the important pamphlets, The Silent valley Project: Parishad’s Stand and Explanation8 argue that “the Silent Valley issue raised some serious concerns like people’s attitude towards development, the conflict between various interest groups, the development of Palghat- Malappuram districts, providing adequate amount of energy to the Malabar zone, the electricity generating policies of Kerala government etc.” KSSP faced many challenges from the Marxist party itself; one of its foremost leaders E Balanandan wrote in favor of the project ignoring the idea of Silent Valley as an ecological paradise. The people who preferred the project conversed that the project wouldn’t do any harm to the rain forest; the project area covers only 830 hectares of land among the total area of 8952 hectare. Against this argument KSSP argued that “this attitude is like saying the size of human heart is insignificant comparing the size of the whole body, and therefore the ruin of the heart will not affect the body.9 All these debates on the Silent Valley project keep the movement active throughout the period and forced people to think in favor of the environment.

Silent Valley Movement is the tale of a battle against the state to protect a pristine evergreen rainforest of Kerala. Silent Valley is situated in Palghat district and contains India’s last substantial stretch of tropical evergreen forest. It is the only vestige of near virgin forest in the whole of Western Ghats. It is estimated to have a continuous record of not less than 50 million years of evolution.5 The name Silent Valley gained an epic dimension, when the Save Silent Valley Movement stirred by the missionary zeal and fervour of NGO’s, the scientific community and conservation activists with social awareness resulted in the decision to abandon a hydroelectric project which would have otherwise submerged 830 hectares of rich tropical rainforests in Silent valley.6 It was the decision of the British government to build a dam across Kunti River, which originates from the Silent Valley forest. Somehow, the project was not implemented at that time. In 1951, the first survey for hydroelectric project was done by the state government and in 1973; Planning Commission of India approved the project plan. That was the beginning of a historical debate on whether to opt for the conservation of nature or to promote development.
The uniqueness of Silent Valley is that it harbours at least 108 varieties Orchids. The forest is a repository of medicinal plants, with 80 per cent of the drug listed in standard Pharmacopoeias and 66 per cent of the species and aromatic plants used world over. It is a valuable source of some genetic variants. At least 21 flowering plants discovered in the valley are new to Science7. The presence of 23 mammalian species, including three endangered species like Tiger, Lion-tailed Macaque, and Nilgiri Langur has been recorded. The teachers and scientists who realized the importance of Silent valley came forward to protest against the project. Later in 1976 National Committee on Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) recommended a stay on the project in order to study its environmental impact. Kerala Natural History Society and Bombay Natural History Society demanded the cessation of the project in 1978. Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a renowned People’s Science Movement (PSM) from Kerala published their report on the ecological, economic, and social impacts of the hydro-electric project. Several Committees had been appointed by the Central and State Governments, among which Dr. M S Swaminathan Committee and Dr. MGK Menon Committee strongly opposed the project citing the environmental impact. In between, several campaigns were led by KSSP, teacher-student organizations and so on. It might be the first time in the Indian history, that eminent creative writers joined together to fight for such a cause. Through poems and drama, stories and articles, speeches and kavi sammelan (Poet’s meet) they conveyed the message to the Kerala’s literate public. The supporters of the project argued that the people who oppose the power project were against the nation’s interests and prefer monkeys rather than the human beings. The KSEB pointed the low unit cost of power offered by the high watershed of Silent Valley which covered four districts of Malabar. The debate went on for a long time and at last in 1983, the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi advised the state to abandon the project and she announced Silent Valley as a National Park. In 1985 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gifted the national park to the nation.

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