The Silent Valley Saga: A Landmark in India’s Environmental Movement

Last week, we paid our tribute to Prof. MK Prasad—one of the key people behind saving Silent Valley. This week, I thought I would re-visit some details about Silent Valley and the campaign.

The Silent Valley deep in the Western Ghats of Kerala is a very special forest. In fact, it is one of the oldest stretches of rainforest in the world, ‘the last authentic sizeable evergreen forests left’, in the words of MK Krishnan, the eminent naturalist.

Lion tailed Macaque
Lion-tailed Macaque. Illustration: CEE

It is home to about a 1000 species of flowering plants, 107 species of orchids, 100 ferns, 200 liverworts, 75 lichens and about 200 algae, many of them endemic to the area. It counts 34 species of mammals, 292 species of birds, 31 species of reptiles, 22 species of amphibians, 13 of fishes, 500 of butterflies and moths, besides a multitude of other orders of animal life (keralatravels.com). And these are only the species documented! The valley’s flagship species is the lion-tailed macaque, a species endemic to the Western Ghats.

Many are the myths and legends associated with this forest. It is said that the Pandavas, during their peregrinations after they lost their kingdom to the Kauravas, happened to come to this forest. So enchanted were they that they decided to make it their temporary home. The river that runs through the forest is called Kuntipuzha, in memory of their mother, and the forest itself was called Sairandhari, this being another name for Draupadi.

In 1847, the Englishman Robert Wright came upon the thick forest. He or his colleagues named it Silent Valley. There are several theories about why this name was given. It could of course be an Anglicization of Sairandhari, the traditional name. Or it could be because there are no cicadas in this forest. The constant hum in most forests is due to cicadas, and the absence of this noise can be quite stark. Cicadas do not thrive in wet climate, and that is why they are not common here. Yet another theory is that the British gave it this name due to the presence of the rare lion-tailed macaque whose Latin name is Macaca silenus. But in spite of its name, the Silent Valley resounds to the cadences of the river, bird-calls, monkey-whoops, and insect chirrups.

Silent Valley burst into the national consciousness in the 1970s, when the Kerala Government proposed to construct a dam on River Kuntiphuzha, to generate electricity for the State’s growing needs. When scientists and environmentalists came to know about this, they were very concerned, as it would mean that the Silent Valley would be flooded, and that would be the end of that very special habitat and the unique flora and fauna there.

Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parshat (KSSP), a people’s science movement, took up the cause. On the one hand they did techno-economic and socio-political studies to show the impact of the project, and its pros and cons. On the other hand, they mobilized public opinion, and garnered the support of eminent scientists and people. They also came up with alternatives to building the dam e.g., building a series of small dams, rather than one large one.

It was a long and hard battle. It became a bitter war between the State which wanted the project, and the people who did not. The Centre through the course of the controversy saw many changes, and some of the PMs were for and others against the project. Each set up Committees of scientists. Media was also ranged on the two sides, beginning with local media predominantly in favour of the project, and then slowly veering against it. For a long time, national media paid little attention to the issue, but later weighed in favour of the environment. International environmental organizations also came into the fray. The matter went to court to—with the High Court at some stage giving the go-ahead.

It was when Mrs. Indira Gandhi came back as PM that it began to look as if the conservation movement would win. In 1981, she declared Silent Valley a protected area. But it was found that the hydroelectric dam was not covered in the area under protection. Protests began anew, till finally the project was scrapped in 1983. In 1984, Mrs. Gandhi declared it a National Park—the highest level of protection that can be given. And Silent Valley was saved!

Kerala government has recently decided to declare the buffer zone of Silent Valley National Park as a wildlife sanctuary—the Bhavani Wildlife Sanctuary spread across 148 square km.  So hopefully, Silent Valley continues to remain safe!

Hats off to the scientists, environmentalists, poets, artists, students, NGOs , media, politicians and the common people who fought the long and hard battle to preserve our common heritage.

There are other such success stories, but sadly not very many. And even more sadly, hardly any in recent times.

–Meena

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s