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