As we read an increasing number of news reports of projects that threaten the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats, the lungs of the west coast of peninsular India, it is easy to fall into an even greater state of despair in this age of a pandemic. India has not learnt any lessons even after suffering from the after effects of “developmental” projects that set the path for epidemics, floods and other natural disasters. However, those who feel that small movements cannot stop powerful forces from ruining the planet’s fragile ecosystem need to look at what a movement led by Kerala teachers achieved in the 1970s.
As early as the late 1950s, a proposal emerged out of Kerala to build a hydroelectric project in the Silent Valley, where the Palakkad district merges with the Nilgiris. As was the case with some major projects in newly independent India, the idea only managed to gather steam after a decade and a half. By the 1970s, the Kerala government was looking at going ahead with the project, as long as certain safeguards were in place. The project, which envisaged a dam on the Kunti River, would have submerged more than 8 square kilometres of untouched moist evergreen tropical rain forest. It would have also had a major impact on rare species of flora and fauna, including the Macaca silenus or the lion-tailed macaques, one of the most endangered species of primates.
When the project received the blessings of the central government, a group of school teachers and the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a people’s science movement spearheaded the opposition. Using scientifically sound and well-informed arguments, they were able to reach out to a wide audience.
One of the movement’s biggest backers was Romulus Whitaker, an American-born Indian herpetologist and conservationist who founded the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust. He visited the Silent Valley in the early 1970s to study the snakes in the region, and learned of the dangers that the project posed on the wildlife. The movement got national attention when Whitaker wrote a letter to the Bombay Natural History Society.
The lion-tailed macaque was chosen as a mascot for the movement, which received expert assistance from the United States. Steven Green, a scientist with the New York Zoological Society, moved to the area around the Silent Valley in 1973. Green and his wife Karen Minkowski, who dedicated their lives to studying primates, took a particular interest in saving the lion-tailed macaques.
The couple had to jump through bureaucratic hurdles to get a research visa, a task made all the more difficult thanks to American support of Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. On top of this, when they did move to southern India, they were regularly harassed by timber contractors as well as the local police, who suspected them of being spies! Their research findings, which were widely read by environmentalists around the world, gave an extra momentum to the KSSP’s movement.
Domestic and international pressure began to grow on both the Kerala and central government to abandon the power project. At the 14th general assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, (then in the USSR), a resolution was passed against the Silent Valley project. The resolution urged the government of India to “conserve more effectively the forest areas of the Western Ghats, including the undisturbed forests of the Silent Valley of the State of Kerala and the Kalakkad Hill forests in the State of Tamil Nadu.”
Despite the mounting pressure and growing public awareness, those behind the project were keen to go ahead. The people’s movement continued to fight the project in court and by engaging even more eminent personalities. A major source of help came from Dr Salim Ali, one of India’s most well known ornithologists. He appealed to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1980 to stop the project.
The government of India then appointed a multi-disciplinary committee led by Professor M G K Menon to study the impact of the project on the environment. It was after the committee submitted a report in 1983 that the government finally decided to abandon the Silent Valley hydroelectric project.
In 1984, the Silent Valley forests were declared a national park. They are now part of the core area of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, and have additional protection thanks to a 148 square kilometre buffer zone.
It took over a decade of activism and mobilisation of support before this potentially disastrous project was abandoned. If anything, the movement started by teachers and those passionate about science and the environment has shown India that a focussed and persistent campaign can go a long way in protecting fragile ecosystems in the country. In this day and age, the survival of the planet may actually depend on people uniting to save its forests, mountains, rivers and oceans.
(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)