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The Silent Valley Movement

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Eons ago, the slopes and plains adjoining the Sahyadri mountains separating Malayalam from Tamilakam, were home to many dense forests. Most of it is gone now, but some remain in Wynad and Nilambur as well as a region between Nilambur and Mannarghat in Palghat, near the northern rim of the Palghat Gap, the so-called Attapadi, and Silent Valley areas. That is where we are headed.

The story of the valley is replete with so many legends, and I have to start with one, which connects it to the age-old epic Mahabharata and the exile of the Pandavas to life in the forests, after their gambling losses. Well, as it appears, they wandered around and spent time in the dense forests in the Attapadi area, the south end which became known as the Sairandhri vanam, or the forest where Sairandhri – i.e., Draupadi stayed. The Kuntipuzha river was named after their mother and Pathrakadavu, where her Akshayapatara was washed, or so they say.

Anyway, tribal aborigines lived there for ages, the Mudugas, Todas and Irulars, virtually in isolation. After the Chera kings laid claim over the Malayalam areas and as lands got segmented into Nadu’s, these areas were considered to be a part of the Zamorin’s establishment, although the territory was directly under the Mannarghat Nair, for all practical purposes. After the passing of Malabar rights to the British with Tipu’s departure, questions arose as to whether the property belonged to the Zamorin and/or the Mannarghat Nair or if it was just wasteland, which automatically became British property.

The Attapadi Valley Suit

In 1879 the Madras courts heard a dispute related to its title, between the British Crown, the Eralpad (Virarayan), the Mannarghat Moopil Nayar, the Valluvanad chief, and one Colonel Scott. In the discussions, questions were raised as to whether the lands were part of Coimbatore or Malabar. Using historic records, the court decided that it was indeed part of Malabar and that the Zamorin had once exacted revenue or taxes from the area. Also, it had been administered by Malabar officials. In the end, Judges Turner and Muthuswamy Ayyar (Bhashyam Ayangar and Sankaran Nair argued for the respondents) threw out the British claims over the valley, and maintained that the crown could not take over the area on the wasteland theory.

But as time went by and the British established their iron hand over land matters, this matter was again discussed in 1882, by a committee comprising Whiteside, Collector of North Arcot, Logan, Collector of Malabar, Stokes, Collector of Salem, Brandis, Inspector-General of Forests, on special duty and Maj Campbell Walker, Conservator of Forests. Accordingly, recommendations were submitted and the Madras forest act of 1882 was promulgated. That was how the conservation and protection of the entire area came to the fore and fortunately or otherwise, Attapadi and Silent Valley became the property of the Madras state, an area which could not be sold off by any landlords, especially the Rajas who claimed Jenam rights. That decision ensured that the land remained pristine.

An interesting article mainly about recommending the Nilgiris plateau as a location for a military base by one W Alexander, states that Walaghat was located over the ‘valley of the shadow of death’. Did he mean that the Mannarghat and Valluvanad areas were areas full of darkness and death in those days? But it was synonymous with Walakkad - Walaghat early on, and the administration manual of the Madras presidency states: SILENT VALLEY (Vallaghattam, Mal). So named by Europeans, who first used it as a shooting ground. Malabar dist., Valavanaud tal. Large tract of mountain forest and grassland jenm ' [q.v.], property of government, situated on western slopes of Coondabs, most inaccessible. Over 70 square miles. At northern extremity of valley lay the Wallaghaut coffee [q.v.] estates now abandoned. The old Sisparra ghaut [q.v.] crosses north end of valley.

Silent Valley is incidentally a shola forest (shola is the thick vegetation found at the base of the valleys
in the western hills of south India). It is not to be considered a lush tropical forest. We also read that some four hundred hectares of land near Walakkad were first given to private planters for planting from 1847 to 1873. At the turn of the 20th century, though protected, the area was still used as a shooting range. The rules dating to 1879 were well defined in the Nilgiris Game association covering the said areas from the south bank of the Bhavani river to the southernmost point in the Silent Valley and stated (in brief) that you could shoot mature male animals if you had a license of were part of the Ootacamund hunt.

Anyway, we can note that the Silent Valley was conserved after Logan first got involved with it in 1882. KKN Kurup goes on to say - His laborious tracing of acts and evidences relating to the Attappady Valley Suit helped in the preservation of this forest including the silent valley, as government property against the encroachment by local Rajas and landlords. However, I am not too sure about Logan’s intentions as other documentary sources (Report on the Rubber Trees at Nilambur and at Calicut, South Malabar – DJ Proudlock) attest to the fact that he allowed one TJ Fergusson to start experimental Rubber plantations in the Silent Valley, after Walker the forest conservator had contacted him for approval. Fortunately, Fergusson decided to try the experiments at his estate near Calicut and Wynad, failing and giving up.

British Colonial officials identified a site in the Silent Valley as ideal for the generation of hydropower as early as 1928-1929 and an ES Dawson is cited as the person behind that report. The Bhavani river as you can see on the map, originates from the Nilgiri hills of the Western Ghats, enters the Silent Valley National Park in Kerala and loops back towards Tamil Nadu. The section in the silent valley is the one known as the Kuntipuzha. The river had already been dammed at many locations in Tamil Nadu, but not in Kerala.

The surveyors saw that the river originates at a height of almost 7000 ft, descends rapidly to 3500 ft on the northern edge, then down to the Mannarghat plains through a gorge, which made an ideal site for a Hydroelectric project. Nothing much was however done, and the ‘talked about’ project in the vicinity was a steam tramway between Attapadi and Thekkadi, but that was also dropped. All that existed was a narrow foot trail between Walaghat and Thekkady. Silent Valley remained silent until the 1970’s.

Some have mentioned Silent Valley’s connection to the great botanist Robert Wight. In 1847, Robert Wright is thought to have made some investigations in the Silent Valley area and some claim that he named the valley. The theory is that Wight named it so, because of the absence of any sound when he visited, especially the chatter of the Cicadas (Cicadas came to the valley, later on). Wight an Anglo-Indian exile, a brilliant surgeon and Botanist, lived for many years in Coimbatore and visited the Attapadi jungles and the Palani hills often, with his guides and artists Govindoo and Rungiah. His dairy does state that he descended the Malabar pass and collected plant specimens in 1845 and it is quite likely that he visited the southernmost point, i.e., the Silent Valley, but details are scarce. More about Wight, another day, let’s get back to the valley.

The Silent Valley Hydro Electric Project

The first half of the 20th century was a busy period for India, with world wars, the quest for freedom and so on, and Silent Valley was mostly forgotten. No game shooting occurred, nothing much other than some Arrack distilleries existed in the area, the odd bungalow or cottage in the vicinity had been abandoned and the tribal population lived in peace.

In the mid 60’s KSEB started dusting the files on the SVHEP and kicked it off in order to take care of a power deficit situation in Malabar. The plan was to produce 60 MW of firm electric power (522 million units annually) and to facilitate irrigation of 10,000 hectares of land in Palghat district. While reports mention 240 MW it was supposedly planned for 120 MW installed and 60 MW firm generation capacity. The formal report was submitted to the center in 1970.

American primatologists Steven Green and his wife Karen Minkowski studying the rare lion tailed Macaque (LTM) monkey found in the Kalakkad area raised awareness on the rare LTM, also found in the Silent Valley.  The famous herpetologist Romulus Whittaker who visited the Silent Valley in 1972 was one of the first to raise the alarm when he wrote to the Bombay historical society that the valley should be conserved for its natural wealth. This was how naturists intervened for the first time, in the workings of the project.

A look at the timeline will show that the 25 crore, Silent Valley Hydro Electric power project was first sanctioned by the Indian planning commission in 1973, and Morarji Desai had assured the Kerala state government that he will ensure its approval in due course when funds were available. In 1976, the National Committee on Environment Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) tasked a group headed by birdman Zafar Futehally, to create an environmental report on the project. Futehally’s team suggested that the project be abandoned, but mentioned seventeen safeguards if the project went ahead. Seizing the loopholes, the state government opted to proceed with the project, promising to implement all safeguards. The state mentioned that the project would submerge or inundate just 1022 hectares of forest, of which 150 hectares were just grasslands.

But the people who did not agree with the building of a dam, argued that the entire lower valley would be submerged, destroying its biodiversity and that the actual land loss will be far more than 10%. They also pointed out that the large construction workforce would reside in the area for several years and be the reason for even more destruction, such as wood felling, cattle grazing, poaching, encroaching as well as eventual destruction of the valley and its tribal settlements.

The Silent Valley Moment

Sathis Chandran Nair, a field biologist who visited the Silent Valley in 1977 was perhaps the first to formally start an awareness campaign. V.S. Vijayan’s 1977 neglected study, a first on the topic, detailed the scientific reasoning for its conservation, as well as protection of flora fauna and wildlife at the SV. It was at this point that the Silent Valley Movement took off in Kerala. The Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSS) a science for people organization and the Friends of the Trees organization run by Joseph C. John spearheaded it, with moral support from the “save Silent Valley committee” of Bombay, The Natural history society in Bombay, the World wildlife society etc. to name a few.

One should remember that in those days, there was neither internet nor social media and word could only travel through the press, personal contacts, the rare telephone, public processions or meetings. Nevertheless, Nature Clubs spring up all over the state while processions, meetings, street shows and dances to highlight the problem became commonplace. The Parisara asoothrana samrakshana samithy was formed. Mathrubhumi published an article by NV Krishna Warrier highlighting the issue and other poets joined him in support, most notably Sugatakumari. The grassroots movement picked up steam and the common man stepped in. While the involvement of each of these ‘foot warrior’s’ is worthy of detailed articles, I will just state for now that they provided the common man much-needed leadership, passion, and direction. Many articles and poems were published and gleefully narrated. MB Sreenivasan composed the haunting melody ‘Maari pemaari’ and conducted a concert, while KJ Yesudas wrote a letter to the Indian Express editor. Gangadhara Menon (and KK Chandran) trekked into the forest and made a 16mm documentary only to get the film rejected by the censor board. However, they managed to hold a screening for Indira Gandhi, who was moved.

As petitions were filed against the warring and indebted Kerala State Electricity Board, the power utility pushed the Central Government hard for approval. Notably, both the Congress and CPI were in support of the project. The government roped in scientists and experts who continued to harp on the statistic that only 10 percent of the Silent Valley forest area will be inundated by the reservoir and the rest would remain intact and that the people of Malabar would have a surplus of electricity, heralding development and job creation.

A Danseuse from Palghat

An unlikely supporter for the movement was a daughter of the land, Anakkara Vadakath Mrinalini, the famous dancer, sister of Lakshmi Sehgal (Captain Lakshmi of INA) and Vikram Sarabhai’s wife. Anakkara is not far from Silent Valley and Mrinalini who had little connection to Kerala, having being raised and bred outside the state, chose the activist paths taken by her sister Lakshmi, mother Ammu Swaminathan, and her grandmother Kuttimalu amma.

Her struggle to save Silent Valley was described in detail by Karthikeya Sarabhai - Director, Centre for Science and Environment. Writing an interesting anecdote, he says that way back in 1979, the entire issue related to this, to raise the awareness levels was choreographed by his mother Mrinalini Sarabhai and presented before Conservation Congress, as requested by Indira Gandhi. “The dance piece was only fifteen minutes but created an everlasting impact on the audience. You have done it in a few minutes what all our speeches could not do,” remarked an impressed American delegate. She wrote the libretto and Darpana dancers performed in various villages and cities in Kerala, driving attention of public to the disaster brought upon them by cutting trees.

In a short article on her contribution to the movement, she said – It is for our children… We have many more silent valleys to save…

Morarji approves SVHEP

Around this time, the movement which was quite local, found some international support with the involvement of the IUCN, who urged the conservation of the entire undisturbed forest area, passing also a resolution to preserve the Silent Valley, at its 14th General Assembly held at Ashkabad in the USSR in September 1978 (they had offered $10,000 to the Futehally task force – the donation which was targeted by the anti-movement group later).

Many eminent people and organizations, including conservationists, as well as corporate and political leaders, wrote to the Central Government asking them not to approve the power project. Salim Ali, well connected with the bigwigs, was one of the most vocal supporters for the movement.

However, Prime Minister Morarji Desai rejected all the appeals and recommended that the project be started with no delay. Heartened at last, the Kerala government restarted the project in 1979 and spent over 215 lakhs, building an approach road and some shelters. But the agitators would not give up and in August 1979, N.V. Krishna Warrier of the Prakriti Samrakshana Samiti, Prof. Joseph John, and P. Gopalakrishnan Nair, filed a petition, obtaining a stay order from the High Court of Kerala, stopping work on the project.

Soon after, the Silent Valley Samrakshana Samiti and Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad started many awareness campaigns, holding protest meetings, rallies and debates all over the state, thus turning the entire campaign into a mass people’s movement. Famous writers and poets joined the movement and contributed their poems, plays, stories as well as news articles, in order to get the word to the man on the street.

The media though took some time to weigh in. While some Malayalam papers did write articles about the project (Mathrubhumi did an article by MK Prasad), their initial support for the movement was lacking, some instead highlighting the Man vs Monkey arguments. The Express, a Trichur based local daily, and Manorama did carry articles in support, and the Indian Express Kochi editions featured the Silent Valley issue. The Hindu however was very vocal in support, since 1979 working with the KSSP.

Meanwhile, at the Centre, Morarji Desai was replaced by Charan Singh as PM. Singh quickly ordered a pause on the project and instituted a Committee to re-investigate the issue, headed by M.S. Swaminathan. Swaminathan recommended that the project be scrapped and that the entire area be converted to a Biosphere Reserve. The incensed Nayanar Government in Kerala then set up a seminar manned with ‘environmentalists’ and scientists who lent support to the government’s views, remarking that ‘a small disturbance to nature is always part of the game’.

The Davis vs Goliath war was on!

The High court decided in January 1980, rejecting the writ plea, saying that it is not for the courts to go into the merits of scientific arguments. As the leaders of the movement are in a panic, Indira Gandhi contacts the state governor, who authorizes yet another temporary stay.

Indira Gandhi intervenes – An ecocide is averted

Meanwhile, in Delhi, Charan Singh is gone and Indira Gandhi who had taken a personal interest in the Silent Valley project, is the new Prime Minister. Some suggest that TN Seshan, in the bureaucracy and hailing from Palghat gave her the situation report (I am not sure, as he took over the environment and forests portfolio only in 1985). In fact, she was quite aware of it even before coming to power and had been corresponding over it at length, with Salim Ali, the ornithologist, though having some misgivings on her own ability to bring about a change.

The role of Indira in the movement is very well detailed by Jairam Ramesh in his book and I am tempted to believe that Kerala had always been in her thoughts. Many years back, it was her involvement in the fledgling leftist politics of Kerala and her ideological differences with Feroze which led to their separation and hastened Feroze’s death. She was to play yet another role, again in a fight with the leftist state government, but this time around, to save the silent valley. While campaigning in 1980 for the state elections, she brought up the issue, mentioning that the project was not a good idea, even though the local congressmen were also in support of the project, and this perhaps resulted in her party’s loss in the state elections. In fact, prior to the elections, as I mentioned earlier, she had convinced Jothi Venkatachallam, the governor to stay the project for a while.

After Nayanar was sworn in, Indira pestered him repeatedly on the project, but he sidestepped the issue. As pressure on Indira mounted with Salim Ali and environmentalists around the world writing to her urging her to stop the project. In the third letter to Nayanar, she invited him to discuss the matter at Delhi and to help create a National park. After the meeting with Nayanar, Indira announced an 8-member committee headed by MGK Menon to investigate. On the streets, towns, and villages, the save valley campaigns continued, unabated. The pro-dam lobby floated dark theories of an imperialist plot by America to keep Kerala backward and deficit in power, citing the $10,000 grant to NECPC. The MGK report, which was to be completed in 3 months, was getting delayed. Indira was impatient.

The state government made an announcement demarcating Silent valley as a National park, but omitted 830 hectares related to the power plant, from the park and insisted that the project would go ahead. Also, in 1980, the Forest Act had been promulgated, which outlined the restrictions on the de-reservation of forests or use of forest land for non-forest purposes. The legislation was now at hand to support the movement, but the state government had already cordoned off the project lands from the reserve!

M.G.K. Menon finally came up with his report by mid-1982, but obfuscated, neither recommending the shelving of the project nor allowing it to go ahead, stating – It is clear that if one were to exercise caution, the former view (loss of biological diversity and irreparable damage to the area) must prevail. He left the decision to the Prime Minister. In a quandary, with an unclear recommendation, a state government that wanted to go ahead, not supported by her own party members, and the prospect of outcries over an authoritative dictum within a democracy where states had their own rights, she paused for a while.

On 17th Oct 1982, Indira Gandhi after an agonizing three years, finally decreed in favor of canceling the Silent Valley project, stating that she agreed with Menon’s recommendations and decided against the project for ecological reasons, but at the same time suggesting that the center looks at other hydel project possibilities in Kerala.

Some months later, she was gunned down by her bodyguards. At long last, on 7th September 1985, the Silent Valley National Park was formally inaugurated and a memorial at Sairandhri to Indira Gandhi was unveiled by Rajiv Gandhi, the new Prime Minister of India.

A 100 years had passed after Logan and his team made that first step. The valley remained silent.

When the Silent Valley project was scrapped, Balakrishna Pillai, the Electricity minister who had been fighting tooth and nail for the project exclaimed - "thousands of young unemployed men have been sacrificed for the sake of a few monkeys".

But the story does not end there and the Kerala state government has been trying again to revive the

project in different ways, with the next attempt at starting a Pathrakadavu project just 2 miles away from the previous site. Yet another project is now being discussed at Athirapally where the famous scenes of Bahubali were shot. The saga of protests continues, the media being invested in it this time. The tools they have today are so many and awareness is high, thanks to the Silent Valley stalwarts.

But the cost of development will always be high as the lessons of the 2018 Kerala floods teach us. Dams, irrigation, wastewater management, managing river flows etc. are still to be tackled in a proper fashion. As I am finishing up, I read the headlines on BBC- Scores dead as glacier crashes into Uttarakhand dam, the Rishiganga project.

Sugathakumari wrote – One falls in love with a forest. It happens easily, spontaneously, that love deepens, send its roots deep into ones being, it begins to hurt, leads to anguish and despair when one knows that the very existence of the loved is threatened. A fight unto death alone brings relief

The great lady succumbed to an illness, just a few weeks ago, she must be at peace finally, after her own ‘fight unto death’.

References

Silent Valley – Whispers of Reason – KFD
Indira Gandhi – A life in Nature – Jairam Ramesh
Significance of Silent Valley: M. P. Parameswaran
Storm Over Silent Valley: Darryl D'Monte
Silent Valley – A People’s Movement that Saved a Forest - Shekar Dattatri

Pictures – Wikimedia – Sugathakumari (Syed Shiyaz Mirza), Google maps, Salim Ali - Indira courtesy 'thehinducetre'

 Thanks to Arun at Intach Palakkad for gently steering me to writing this 

6 comments:

  1. Luiz Fabiano de Freitas Tavares

    A wonderful piece, as usual. I love this blog and I deeply regret my lack of time to read all its posts. This one was particularly admirable, both by the theme and the meticulous reseach. Warm greetings from a brazilian colleague!

  1. Sudhir Narayanan

    The "Silent VALLEY"name also added mystery and charm to the forest and contributed to people supporting it's conservation from dam lobby.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Luis Fabiano..
    Pleasure hearing from you and appreciate your comment!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Sudhir..
    You are quite right, the name does lend an aura of mystery..

  1. haridev t

    Wasn't Mrinalini Lakshmi Sehgal's sister and Ammu Swaminathan's daughter? Mrinalini was born four or five years after Lakshmi was born.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Haridev,
    You are totally right Haridev, a faux pas from my side, a stupid slip. I have corrected it and thank you for pointing it out..