The Storyteller Who Saved Silent Valley: A Tribute to Prof MK Prasad

For those of us who started working on environment-related issues in the ‘80s, ‘Silent Valley’ was one of the success stories which was held up to us as an example of how arguments based on good science, people’s power, and unrelenting campaigning could save the world. Or some part of it.

For those who have forgotten what this was about, hydroelectric dams were proposed on the River Kunthipuzha, which would have involved the submergence of the forests of Silent Valley, a biodiversity rich habitat, home to many, many unique species of flora and fauna, including the rare and unique lion-tailed macaque which is endemic to the Western Ghats.

Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), a people’s science movement, led the campaign against the project under the leadership of Prof. MK Prasad. They published well researched techno-economic and socio-political assessment reports of the proposed project. The campaign by KSSP evoked a huge response from citizens at large, as well as eminent scientists and environmentalists like Romulus Whitaker of the Madras Snake Park, Dr. Salim Ali (who was probably the first to flag the issue), Dr. MS Swaminathan etc. The renowned poet Sugathakumari was at the forefront of the movement, and her poem “Marathinu Stuthi” (“Ode to a Tree”), was a rallying call for the people.

In an early and unique victory for the environmental movement in India, the then-PM, Mrs. Indira Gandhi finally weighed in, and the project was halted. Subsequently, the area was declared a National Park.

Prof MK Prasad
Prof MK Prasad

The story is one of the amazing dedication and hard work of a large number of people. But Prof. MK Prasad’s was a symbol of the movement. Prof MKP as he was fondly referred to, was a botanist who spent his life in academics. He taught botany, was Principal of Maharaja’s College, Eranakulam, and Pro-Vice Chancellor, Calicut University.

But he was not confined to classrooms, and believed passionately in taking science to the people. He was an environmental and science activist all his life, and a founding member of KSSP. His distinction as a scientist supported his environmental activism, which no one could dismiss as woolly-headed.

He was a member of the Governing Council of Centre for Environment Education for many decades and we at CEE were fortunate to have him as a teacher, guide, and mentor. Never for him the exalted distance of a Board Member. He was always interested in the minutest details of our projects and lives, and was happy to spend any length of time chatting with us. Prof Prasad passed away last week due to COVID. Here are a few poignant memories which bring him to life.

Prof Prasad, my mentor and a dear friend. It seems a little presumptuous to call this stalwart my friend, but as unassuming as he was, he truly was that. I’d scold him when he sat next to me during the Governing Board meetings, when lesser mortals like us were let in, because he would chatter away irreverently while serious matters were being discussed. He guided me through the challenge of trying to break into the ivory towers of higher education, and when things didn’t work, he’d say our efforts were “before their time”. That, always accompanied by his naughty smile, had become his code word. He also treated me as his unofficial research assistant, which I enjoyed.  He would call to ask me to find out about things that often I knew nothing about, and it was always great learning. Will miss you, Sir!

Kiran Chhokar.

When I think of Prof Prasad, I can see him walking down the corridors of ASCI where we held our Steering Committee meetings in Hyderabad. As always, he is dressed in a half-sleeved shirt, has no smile on his face – but his kind, sharp eyes are twinkling! I am immensely grateful for all his advice and guidance to the school environmental education project. But more importantly, I feel blessed to have spent some time with such a stalwart. His greatness and his humble demeanour co-existed so well! 

Something I found remarkable in him and so distinct from my generation is that he always gave a considered, detailed response to every request for advice. He never rushed to give an immediate response. Sometimes, he would respond the next day – probably after mulling over the issue. 

On one of his first visits to ASCI, I told him that there was a National Park (the KBR National Park) close by and he could probably take a stroll there in the evening. When I met him the next morning, he gave me a gentle, but proper scolding about my recommendation. I learnt my lesson – one does not present KBR as a ‘National Park’ to the person who saved the Silent Valley National Park! 

Kalyani Kandula

While I was working at the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), Ahmedabad,  I had the good fortune of knowing Professor Prasad. I have known him for many years now.  At Governing Council meetings held at CEE often I would sit next to him and would be very inspired by his valuable suggestions, critical comments and review of many projects CEE was handling. He would not mince his words. A gentle soul, very down to earth and a great inspiration to many. Professor Prasad in fact attended my sister’s wedding in Kerala. My father Dr.S.M.Nair and Professor Prasad shared a great professional and personal bond. 

Meena Nair

Some weeks after CEE’s office in Pune was started, Prof MKP dropped by. He was in Pune for some other work. Though it was a single person office and I a relatively junior staff member, Prof MKP was interested to see how I was settling in and getting on. When I told him that Amma (my mother in law) would have been happy to meet him, considering his association with KSSP, he just said that he would be happy to come over for coffee. So we did that, and Amma (and I) was very touched by the gesture. Later Prof Prasad and I went to meet Prof Pisharoty and I just felt blessed to listen to their conversation.

Sanskriti Menon

For me, he was the quintessential story teller. We would invite him to come and speak in various training programmes we organized—those for Forest Officers, for Environmental Educators from around South and Southeast Asia, for NGOs, for school and college teachers. Of course his sessions had to be around the Silent Valley Campaign. I must have sat through his sessions a dozen times if not more. But the passion, involvement and detail with which he told the story of the campaign inspired not only every new batch of trainees who had never heard it before, but equally, us the organizers who had heard it and read about it and discussed it ad-infinite. Such was the power of his passionate storytelling! And not just the Silent Valley–he had done so many interesting things, met so many interesting people, been so many interesting places–he could keep an audience engaged for hours!

Thank you Sir, for inspiring us. We are comforted by the knowledge that you are looking down at us with a twinkle in your eye!

–Meena

Another old piece on Dr. Pisharoty at : https://wordpress.com/post/millennialmatriarchs.com/43

A Shout-out for the Environment: NEAC

India has always been a little ahead of the curve in its thinking about environmental issues. Four decades ago, it recognized that raising public awareness and educating key target groups as well the future generations on environmental issues, were key to a sustainable future. It designated a Centre of Excellence in this area way back in 1985–viz the Centre for Environment Education.

In 1986, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (as it was then) launched another unique initiative called the National Environmental Awareness Campaign (NEAC). The unique feature of this was that it called upon various types of organizations to plan their own Environmental Awareness programmes for their own local communities or other target groups, and implement them with the support of small grants from the Ministry.

Every year, NEAC started on Nov. 19th. Nov 19 to Dec 18 was marked as Environment Month in the old days in India—Nov 19 being Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s birthday, and she certainly had a big role in setting the environmental agenda for the country, and was a voice for developing countries on these issues at global forums.

NEAC was unique that it was conceived as a pan-national programme, at a time when there were not very many such. Even in the first year of its launch, it already touched almost every state and union territory. And it was unique in its proactive involvement of a variety of agencies as implementers. NGOs, educational institutions, professional associations, scientific bodies, community-based organizations—all were welcome to put in proposals, which were scrutinized and passed. There was a degree of trust which is not often seen.

And there were few constraints on media and methods for outreach—from street plays, to seminars to drawing competitions to films to essay-writing to teacher training to door-to-door campaigns to wall-painting to bringing out booklets and posters to….. The NEAC probably saw a flowering of outreach methods which was unique. And it reached every nook and corner of the country—from women in remote forest villages, to students in the Andamans; from famers in Assam to small industries in Gujarat.

NEAC
NEAC Campaign. CUTS.

The numbers were mind-boggling. From the involvement of 120 NGOs in the first year, it went to 9784 implementing agencies in 2006-2007. A total of 13,336 campaigns are reported to have been conducted in 2014-15. And each of these reached hundreds of people.

And the administrative backbone also evolved with the growing numbers. To begin with, there was one central Committee set up by the Ministry to scrutinize and pass the proposals. Slowly, the concept of Regional Resource Agencies (RRA) took root—reputed NGOs or academic institutions which were well networked in specific areas were given the responsibility to set up their own expert-committees and pass the proposals. Within 10 years of the programme starting, there were 27 such RRAs, making for very decentralized operations.

The amount of money involved was not high. Each implementing NGO got about Rs. 30,000 to implement the programme. But the energy, creativity and outreach it gave rise to were truly remarkable.

The NEAC has been more or less been given up in the last few years. Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave in a written reply to Parliament said that the NEAC could not be conducted during 2015-16 and 2016-17 due to lack of funds.

Nov 19 is almost here. It does not seem that there is much action on this front this year either.

There were a lot of problems with NEAC, with the key ones being: Were the funds being utilized properly? Did the kind of awareness programmes being done make a difference?

Many evaluations of NEAC were done, the latest one being in around 2017. But the report of the evaluation is not exactly locatable. So has NEAC been dropped due to lack of funds? Because it was not making a difference? Because something else has taken its place? It is not clear.

The one thing that is clear is that with environmental crises looming, the need for environmental awareness and education have never been greater. OK, if the NEAC was not effective, let’s revamp it. Surely the evaluation report should tell us how to do it. But let’s not forget that building public opinion is critical to saving the world!

–Meena




RIP Dr. SM Nair: Father of Natural History Museums

There are the pioneers, and he was among them. Museology is not a widely-known or popular field of study even today. Way back in the 1950s, it was even less so. This is the time at which a young boy from Kerala, after finishing his B.Sc in Trivandrum, travelled all the way to Baroda to pursue his M.Sc in the subject, at the M.S. University. He went on to do research on the Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials, and was awarded the first Doctorate in Museology from M.S. University for this work.

Dr. Nair started his career as an academic, first teaching at his alma mater in Baroda, and then moving on to Department of Museum Studies, BITS Pilani.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then-PM, and a leader who took great interest in the environment, had been very impressed by the Natural History Museums she saw during her visits to Europe. She wanted to create similar ones in India. She conceived of a plan for one in New Delhi and one in Bhopal. She put together an eminent team of museum professionals and scientists to take this idea forward. One thing led to another, and Dr. SM Nair, only 37 years old at that time, was chosen as the Project Director for this initiative in 1974.

Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH
Dr. Nair and Mrs. Gandhi at NMNH

Four hectic years followed, when the conceptualization, planning and execution was done by a dedicated core team including Shri D.P.Singh, S.K. Saraswat, B. Venugopal and several others. Dr. Nair visited the best Natural History Museums around the world. He got several artists and model-makers trained at the best centres in the world. And the National Museum of Natural History opened its doors to the public on June 5, 1978 (Environment Day). Subsequently, Regional Museums of Natural History came up in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar  under Dr. Nair’s guidance.

The stuffed rhino that greeted one on the ground floor of the FICCI building where NMNH was housed, will surely be in the memories of many a Delhi school child. The rhino had died a natural death at the Delhi Zoo, and was stuffed and kept here.

The effort in NMNH was always to make the experience interactive for children. For those times, when most museums were static displays, this focus was unusual. The Museum also had a major thrust on outreach and extension. It had an active teacher training and orientation programme, which reached out to thousands of educators in its time.

Dr. Nair had a personal connect with every exhibit and activity at NMNH, and continued to take an interest in it even after his retirement in the late ‘90s. What he must have gone through on 26th April 2016, when the news of a fire breaking out in the museum and destroying the entire collection, can only be imagined.

Dr. Nair continued to be active in his mission of Environmental Education long after his retirement, working at WWF-India and Centre for Environment Education.

Not just at a national level, he was extremely respected internationally, serving as Chairman of Natural History Museum Committee of ICOM (international Council of Museums) and as

a Member of the Joint Museum Committee of the lndo-US Subcommission on Education and Culture.

Among his books are ‘Endangered Animals of India and their Conservation’, brought out by the National Book Trust, and  ‘Bio-deterioration of Museum Materials’ by Agam Kala Prakashan.

We knew Dr. Nair since the mid-eighties, as one of the fathers of the Environmental Education movement an India.

He mentored us first as a member of the Governing Council of CEE, and then as a senior colleague. Even today, old-timers in CEE-VIKSAT recall his contribution to these institutions with great respect—when it was a struggling NGO, he spotted the potential of the team and gave them a project to develop labels and take-away materials for the NMNH exhibits. This not only paid salaries for a couple of months, but gave them their first project from a national-level, government institution. This project was a critical stepping-stone.

We have also known him as the father of a colleague, Meena, who was inspired by him to follow in his footsteps in a career in Environmental Education.

NMNH and other natural history museums excited the imagination and curiosity of generations of children. NMNH may no longer exist, but Dr. Nair’s legacy lives on.

Dr. Nair passed away last week. May his soul rest in peace.

Dr. SM Nair (1937-2021).

–Meena

Close Encounters with Al-Seshan: Tribute to the Man Who made Elections Free and Fair

TN-seshan-_16e58b8495a_largeWe who worked at the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) were lucky. The list of luminaries with whom we had the opportunity to interact was beyond belief.

Mr. TN Seshan was one of them. During his stint as Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, he was on our Governing Board, as CEE was a Centre of Excellence under the Ministry. Apart from that, since CEE was part of Nehru Foundation for Development founded by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai (whom Mr. Seshan counted as a guru), he took interest in the institution beyond his term also.

When he was on the Board, he made it a point to visit CEE whenever he was in Ahmedabad. And review the programs. He could pick holes in any presentation in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, and ask the most unanswerable questions. And his questions were certainly not put gently! While it was traumatic, when we dried our tears and reflected back on the experience, what he pointed out were indeed basic shortcomings in the program design or implementation.

All of us at CEE used to get all primed in the weeks preceding The Visit. We tried to ensure that everything was in order, but sure enough his perfectionist eye would catch just that smallest detail that we had overlooked. And someone had better have had a convincing answer for that! As Mamata remembers: “My personal Encounter with Mr Seshan was when I had to present some parts of a compilation of what was, in future, to become a publication titled ‘Essential Learnings in Environmental Education’. As someone who was still very new and untutored in the subject, this was an absolute trial by fire. Mr Seshan ruthlessly ripped apart every sentence, and reduced me to tears in front of the entire gathering of CEE! In the many years that followed, the Day that Mr Seshan Made Mamata Cry, became one of the memorable milestones in the institutional, and my personal history! As I grew older, and perhaps a little bit wiser, and Mr Seshan became a national icon, every time he was in the news, I remembered with greatest respect how he ingrained in me the importance of working towards ‘excellence’ in whatever one did”.

During his tenure as Secretary Environment, he gave CEE the task of doing a review of the state of Environment Education in the country. And a ridiculous deadline. In those unimaginable days before internet and Google and emails, we set about physically gathering reports, syllabi, textbooks from each state and UT. Almost 30 people worked day and night for about 20 days trying to make sense of the mounds of material. And then the day of the first presentation was upon us! Our director, Kartikeya Sarabhai and a small team of us were to take the 8 a.m. flight to Delhi. We were in the office till 4.30 a.m. putting the report together. While we went home for a quick shower, a team continued work printing and photocopying the report. We and the reports just made it onto the flight!

The meeting was set for 11 or 11.30 in the morning. It was a large Board room where about a dozen officials and our team were gathered. We had about 3-4 copies of the report. We put one at the head of the table where Mr. Seshan would sit. And waited, with butterflies in our tummies. He walked in almost on time; gave us barely a look of acknowledgement, picked up the report and rifled through it. For exactly about 7 minutes. And then tore us and the report to shreds! He started with the shortcomings in the framework that we had created for the analysis, the data gaps, the facets we had not even tried to look at, etc. etc. The meeting lasted about 15 minutes. He spoke in a flow for the latter 8 minutes, tossed the report back on the table, and told his office to fix another date for the next presentation the following week.

It was a learning like no other! We had worked on the report for days, but he was able to get a better perspective in 7 minutes!

The story had a fairly happy ending in that we completely re-thought our approach, and worked on the report over the next month, with interim presentations. The report became a baseline for our work on Environmental Education, and definitely impacted subsequent policy directions.

I had the chance to interact with Mr. Seshan on many occasions, including teaching him how to use the new Apple Computers, a big novelty at that time! He would often call us home for meetings early in the mornings, and his gracious wife would give us wonderful coffee. After the official work, over the coffee, he was not averse to chatting about this and that, including Mamata Kulkarni and Shilpa Shetty!

It is indeed a privilege to have seen Mr. Seshan in action, and worked with him in a small way. When media referred to him as Al-Seshan, he would joke that Bulldog might be more appropriate than Alsatian! Well, from my memory of him, his bark and his bite were both scary. But they did set India’s democracy on a solid footing!

–Meena