Saving The Silent Valley

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Poets, activists and scientists came together to save Kerala's oldest evergreen forests from being submerged.

Time is running out; the axes are already falling; the forest fires have been ignited… the forest stretches out its arms in supplication.

In 1980, this impassioned plea by the writer and poet Sugathakumari, published in a Malayalam daily, heralded the birth of a new kind of environmental movement. The Silent Valley Reserve Forest – Kerala’s only evergreen forest and a major biodiversity hotspot – was in danger of being encroached by a hydro-electric project.

Hydro-electric dam protest movements are seldom successful in India. Since independence, development related projects have displaced up to 50 million people in India, despite many protests. What hope did a forest have, that had never been inhabited by humans in its 50 million years of unbroken evolution?

What happened instead was a landmark movement for environmental activists in India. The Save Silent Valley movement was not only a success but laid the ground for future successful movements in other parts of India, such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan. What made this movement different was that it had writers and poets on its side, in a state famed for its cent-per-cent literacy today. As Sugathakumari wrote:

It was my firm conviction…that creative writers could communicate better with the public… than the scientists.

Sugathakumari’s article inspired the formation of the Association for the Protection of Nature. They enacted a motto towards the preservation of all nature – The Protection of Nature, for the Sustenance of Life – and held their first conference in 1960. Poets composed and recited poems on the occasion.

Poems and scientific papers went hand in hand. Formed in 1962, the Kerala Science Literature Movement played a key part in forming a consensus around the dam. Their initial mission was to translate scientific papers into Malayalam, and the Save Silent Valley movement was a chance to turn environmental agitation into a mass movement. With a membership of over 7,000 including 600 teachers, they organised plays, exhibitions, debates and marathons for the cause.

The combined efforts brought the public into the debate, perhaps India’s first mass movement that questioned the dichotomy of development versus the environment. It culminated with the involvement of the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who took over from the briefly incumbent Charan Singh in 1981, with a personal interest in the Save Silent Valley movement. Indira declared that the Silent Valley would be protected.

But there was a niggle in the fine print – the area covered by the proposed hydroelectric project would not be protected. It might have slid past in an earlier time, but not in the 1980s. Hundreds of telegrams were sent to the Prime Minister’s Office and the public’s agitation kicked off anew. In 1983, Prof. M.G.K. Menon chaired a commission to re-examine the issue; months later, the project was called off. Notably, Madhav Gadgil was a part of this committee – the same Gadgil whose report on the protection of the Western Ghats was shelved in favour of a less stringent one.

In 1985, after Indira’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi, the newly-appointed as Prime Minister inaugurated the Silent Valley National Park. It was done on the basis of M.S. Swaminathan’s 1979 recommendation that 389 square kilometres be turned into a protected area.

There are many names who worked to save this movement, not all of them in the spotlight. Throughout the 1970s, it was the work of scientists like Steven Green and Ron Whittaker that raised awareness of what the dam was going to destroy. They gave an animal face to the victims of development; the lion-tailed macaque researched by Green and the snakes that were Whitaker’s speciality. Salim Ali, the ‘bird-man’ of India, was also actively involved in the protest.

Animals are at the heart of what Silent Valley is about. Humans have never lived within its limits; at best they reside on the edges of the ‘buffer zone’. The story of how the valley got its name has many answers; one narrative is that British explorers named it thus after realizing there were no cicadas chirping in the evening, another is that it’s named after the macaque it’s home to (whose scientific name is macaca silenus. The Lion-Tailed Macaque became the mascot of the movement, as it was seen as the first victim of the proposed dam.

Kerala’s oldest evergreen forest managed to remain silent of the noise of ‘development’, thanks to the loud voice of the people, scientists and artists of India, who as one, chose a forest over the short-term gains of hydro-electricity.

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