Athirappally Project: Lessons for Kerala from the Silent Valley Movement

Long before India understood the concept of ecology, a group of scientists and intellectuals saved a forest. Here’s how they did it and how it can be done again.

There is a debate raging in Kerala right now over the state government’s no objection certificate to the Athirappally hydel project.

The Pinarayi Vijayan government is at the receiving end of the exchanges on the issue since Kerala has a rich history of environmental movements, beginning with the successful struggle against the construction of a hydel project in Silent Valley.

The environmental impact of hydroelectric projects has been discussed threadbare since that time, resulting in a new environmental consciousness across the state. The story of the Silent Valley movement offers valuable lessons for governments and environmental movements in the country and outside.

The movement against the construction of a dam in the Silent Valley Forests near Palakkad in the late 1970s and the early ’80s was the first of its kind in India. Before that, the general experience had been that movements against big dams and hydroelectric projects were initiated by the affected people of the region, normally the evacuees. But in the case of the Silent Valley Project, there was no need to evacuate even a small population. The prime concern of the people who initiated the movement was the adverse effect the project would have on the environment.

Environmentalism hadn’t become fashionable at the time and the general public was not worried about environmental protection and the preservation of the country’s ecology, whereas big dams and hydroelectric projects were considered inevitable for development. The government of Kerala and the general public had wholeheartedly supported the project and the movement thus started against great odds. That it went on to become a great success is a tribute to the people who masterminded the resistance.

The birth of a movement

In 1974, the construction of the Idukki hydroelectric project was nearing completion and the state government was looking for new hydroelectric projects to meet the state’s power requirement. The Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) submitted a proposal to the Kerala government for the construction of a hydroelectric project at Silent Valley in Palakkad district. In 1977, the government accepted the proposal and decided to go ahead with the project.

In the same year, the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) in Peechi near Thrissur conducted a study on the possible impact of the project on the forests in the area. The study concluded that the project would completely destroy the evergreen rain forests in Silent Valley. V.S. Vijayan, who later became the director of the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and vice chairman of the Kerala Bio Diversity Board, was a researcher at KFRI and a member of the research team that had conducted the study. He brought it to the notice of professor M.K. Prasad, a botany teacher and an active member of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (Kerala Science and Literary Association – KSSP), an organisation formed to spread scientific knowledge in the state.

Also read: Controversy Returns to Athirappilly as Kerala Reactivates Hydel Project Proposal

Professor Prasad was alarmed at the adverse ecological consequences of the project and brought the issue before the executive committee of the KSSP. The organisation had by then established itself as one with a mission to take science to the people. It had a grassroots level network and many well-known scientists and intellectuals of the state were its members.

In the initial stages, opinions were divided in the executive committee of the KSSP and some of the members argued that stalling the project would be detrimental to the development of the state. In 1978, after conducting adequate research on the feasibility as well as the ecological aspects of the project, the KSSP came to the conclusion that the project would have serious adverse environmental consequences. It was found that the benefit of the project would not be commensurate with the cost involved. So the KSSP decided to start a movement against the Silent Valley Project.

Political repercussions of the movement

In 1978, a government headed by P.K. Vasudevan Nair of the Communist Party of India (CPI) was in power in Kerala. A Congress faction led by A.K. Antony, the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress were the other constituents of the ruling front. The CPI (Marxist) and Congress (Indira) formed separate opposition blocks. All the political parties in the ruling and the opposition dispensations supported the project.

The powerful trade unions, especially the electricity board workers’ unions vehemently supported the project. The CPI (M) stance caused particular problems for the KSSP as a considerable number of its members were active members or sympathisers of the party. Because of this, the KSSP’s first task was to convince its own members of the adverse effects of the project.

The government of Kerala had three main arguments in support of its decision to construct a dam across the river Kunti, a tributary of the Bhratapuzha, and a hydroelectric project in Silent Valley.

  1. It would help meet the growing power demand in the state and solve the acute power shortage in the Malabar region.
  2. The project would bring about development in the two most backward districts of Kerala – Palakkad and Malappuram.
  3. Around 10,000 hectares of land could be irrigated via canals in the Mannarkadu region.

In their bid to counter this development rhetoric, the KSSP faced serious challenges. First, big dams have always been associated with the general notion of development. As ‘environment’ and ‘ecology’ were unfamiliar terms to the general public, the organisation could not advocate its cause in the initial stages on the basis of environmental concerns. Kerala is a highly politicised society and with all major political parties supporting the project, organising a people’s movement was an extremely difficult task.

The KSSP also had to contend with highly influential vested interests in the corridors of power. First and foremost among them was the KSEB. In a rare gesture of unity, all the workers in the KSEB – from the chairman on the top to linesmen at the bottom – had a personal interest in the project because big money was involved.

Also read: Why It’s Time to Reengineer Our Dams

Next among the KSSP’s problems was the Hindustan Construction Corporation, the construction contractors of the dam, and the landed gentry of the region. With all these factors and interest groups working against them, KSSP had to work out a strategy to organise people against the project and advocate their cause in the various organs of government.

The Silent Valley National Park in Palakkad, Kerala. Photo: Prashanth dotcompals/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The struggle

Once KSSP started the movement against the Silent Valley Project, many environmental and other groups such as Friends of Trees, Parisara and Society for Promotion of Environmental Conservation joined the movement. New organisations such as the Save Silent Valley Committee were formed. Though they did not officially form a joint action committee, all these organisations worked together to achieve their goal.

The movement’s first task was to raise public opinion against the project. They produced around 20 pamphlets and other polemic material and distributed it widely among the people to present their case. They were aware that they would not be able to gather public support if they presented their case as a pure and simple environmental issue. Instead, through an incessant campaign, the organisers of the movement changed the focus to a debate between two modes of development. The issue of development was focused with particular stress on the theme of energy production.

Through propaganda materials, the movement exposed the hollowness of the official arguments in favour of the project. The government’s most important claim was that the Silent Valley project would solve the power shortage in the Malabar region and help meet the impending energy crisis in the state. Power shortage in the Malabar region was acute and the people of the region were willing to support any project that would solve the problem. The movement had to convince the people of the Malabar region that the Silent Valley Project was not the best and easiest solution.

Alternatives were proposed to solve the power crisis in the Malabar region. Kerala had surplus electricity at this time and was selling electricity to Karnataka. The incongruity of the government’s claim of having surplus electricity and the existence of a shortage of power supply in the Malabar region was used to expose the insincerity of the government’s approach. The proponents of the movement convincingly argued on the basis of sound scientific data that even if the construction of the project started in 1978, it would not be completed before 1990. So the Silent Valley Project couldn’t be an immediate solution for Malabar’s power problem.

Instead, the movement pointed out, the electricity being sold to Karnataka was more than one and a half times the estimated production capacity of the Silent Valley Project and could be distributed in the Malabar region. The necessary sub stations and electric lines for this could be made within two or three years and the problem could be solved seven or eight years earlier than scheduled.

Also read: Lessons From Kerala Floods Should Pave the Way for a Better Environment Policy

The state government’s argument that the state would be able to meet its power requirements through the construction of hydroelectric projects was also questioned. The movement predicted that Kerala’s power crisis could be solved only by the construction of thermal power plants. The government had to acknowledge this fact later.

Development vs. ecology

The projected development of Palakkad and Malappuram districts was also exposed for what it was – a tall claim. The kind of development that could be achieved through hydroelectric projects was proved to be limited and transitory. The movement argued that only large-scale industrialisation could solve the backwardness of the region. They put forward a suggestion to turn the Shornur-Palakkad-Mannarkat region into an industrial belt of small-scale engineering industries with thousands of units and capital investment of millions of rupees.

This region, they pointed out, is highly fertile for metallurgic industries. Other viable industries that were proposed by the Silent Valley movement included a steel rolling mill, foundries of iron and other materials, pump set production, electric motors and transformers production. They told the government and the people that only this sort of large-scale industrialisation could ensure the development of the region.

The potential of the project to irrigate 10,000 hectares of land, as claimed by the government, was also questioned. The movement argued that the government’s claim was not based on adequate research. As the Mannarkat region is a hilly area, the practicality of water reaching these areas through canals was highly improbable. The easier way to irrigate these areas, it was pointed out, was to install pump sets after digging enough wells and ponds. While Rs 15,000-20,000 would be required to irrigate one hectare of land with canal water, it would cost only Rs 5,000 using wells. The example of Tamil Nadu, where 1,00,000 pump sets had been installed by the government was pointed out to prove the viability of the suggestion.

So from the very beginning, the movement was not projected as a negative and purely environmental one. Alternatives for the projects were convincingly listed. At the same time, the need to preserve the Silent Valley forests was highlighted and concerted attempts were made to make people aware of the rich biodiversity and uniqueness of the area.

The Silent Valley Project would have led to the total destruction of the tropical wet evergreen forests in Silent Valley. The movement stressed the scientific uniqueness of tropical wet evergreen forests. What the rain forests all over the world have in common is the fact that they are the richest biological communities in terms of diversity of species. Silent Valley is one of the few remaining areas of such genetic diversity and the movement argued that it was in the interest of human beings to protect this diversity at all costs.

Also read: The Problem With Mainstream Environmentalism? It Separates Us From Nature.

The other environmental backlash that Silent Valley Project would have caused was the extinction of the lion tailed macaque. The movement argued on the basis of a survey conducted by the KFRI that Silent Valley has the largest population of the lion tailed macaque, in just one last refuge. They stressed the need to preserve this population as these primates form an important link in the study of human evolution. The fragmentation of the habitat of a species or community has tremendous implications that had not been understood earlier. The maintenance of the integrity of the biological community is vital to its preservation. Silent Valley lies at a crucial point in this context between Attappady and Amarambalam reserve forests. Hence a break in the continuity of this biological community would have implications far more serious than the loss of a small proportion of its area.

A Lion Tailed Macaque. Photo: Our Breathing Planet/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Mass mobilisation

Although these arguments had sound scientific base, the scope of taking them to the people through campaign materials was limited in nature. So the movement organised a series of mass mobilisation campaigns. KSSP by this time had a state-wide organisational network that extended to the villages. They started with organising corner meetings. But they faced stiff resistance from trade unions at many places.

At this time, KSSP conceived the idea of organising Sasthra Kala Jathas, processions across the state to highlight the issue. This was a novel way to present issues related to science, arts and environment. The rallies presented these ideas via street plays, dances and songs, visiting most urban and rural centres of Kerala. This was a highly successful move as it had the effect of a direct dialogue with the people. Apart from this, prominent persons from the movement conducted classes all over the state to create environmental awareness among the public.

In the initial stages of the movement, most of the Malayalam newspapers and magazines except Express, published from Thrissur, supported the project. The Hindu opposed the project as a matter of principle. The movement formulated a two-pronged strategy to influence the media. KSSP unofficially formed a media cell to counter the arguments of the supporters of the project. They regularly wrote articles in newspapers and magazines.

As most of these people had established their reputations as eminent scientific personalities, the newspapers and periodicals carried their articles. At later stages, most newspapers tried to give a semblance of neutrality by giving space for both views. This was a major victory for the movement as they could change the mood of the press, albeit to a small extent. They also succeeded in getting the support of eminent media persons such as V.K. Madhavan Kutty of Mathrubhumi.

The second part of the strategy was to get intellectuals, especially litterateurs, involved in the movement. N.V. Krishna Warrier, a noted poet and editor of Mathrubhumi magazine, convened a meeting of literary personalities at his residence. Many prominent literary persons attended the meeting. They extended full support for the movement and formed the Society for the Conservation of Nature.

When the Mathrubhumi newspaper wrote an editorial supporting the project, Mathrubhumi magazine carried an editorial opposing the project. Along with NV, renowned literary figures like Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, S.K. Pottekkad and many others regularly wrote articles stressing the need to preserve the Silent Valley forests. Poets wrote poems supporting the movement that were widely read and appreciated. All this made the reading public environmentally conscious.

Also read: Who Killed the Elephant in Kerala – Someone With Firecrackers or You and Me?

In those days the campuses of the state were very sensitive to new ideas and thoughts. The influence of the intellectuals on the students made them sympathetic to the cause of Silent Valley and many of them became active participants in the movement.

Former Chief Minister of Kerala P. K. Vasudevan Nair. Photo: stateofkerala.in

The involvement of intellectuals helped the movement in two ways. It earned them more space in the media and it gained them public support. After the heyday of the Communist movement in the 1940s and ’50s, this was the first time that intellectuals actively participated in a popular movement in Kerala. The general atmosphere of debate and discussion that prevailed in Kerala at that time also helped the movement to convince the people of the superiority of their arguments.

Many organisations conducted debates on the issue, presenting pro-project and anti-project views. In one of these debates, chief minister P.K. Vasudevan Nair argued that for the development of the state, one has to choose between economy and ecology. Dr V.K. Damodaran, who participated in the debate on behalf of the anti-project movement, refuted the argument by pointing out that ecology and economy are not incompatible concepts that cannot coexist.

Political support

The movement succeeded to a great extent in gaining popular support. Its next target was support within political parties. Though all the political parties officially supported the project, the movement was able to effect a schism within parties. As the movement had contacts within all political parties, it wasn’t very difficult to convince many important leaders. In the CPI (M), KSSP had strong supporters despite the strong trade union lobby that supported the project. As the movement progressed, the CPI (M) stance became more and more flexible and E.M.S. Namboothiripad, the Marxist ideologue, conceded that the opinion of the scientific community was of utmost importance in matters like this.

In the ruling party as well, the movement had strong supporters. The movement regularly sent pamphlets and other polemic materials to the elected representatives and important political leaders. However, their efforts to raise the issue in the legislative assembly didn’t succeed as none of the members was ready to take a stance against the official position of their parties on the floor of the house.

The movement’s next step was to take legal steps against the project. Joseph John, a member of Friends of Trees, filed a case in the Kerala high court, seeking cancellation of the project. Though the high court issued an interim stay for one month, asking the government to stop work at Silent Valley, the court later rejected the petition on the grounds that it was a policy matter on which a decision should be taken by the government and the court could not dictate to the government on such matters.

Also read: In the Wake of Kerala Floods, the Jury Is Still out on the Dams’ Guilt

The movement formed support groups in important cities outside the state, such as Delhi and Mumbai (then Bombay). In Delhi, V.K. Madhavan Kutty and O.V. Vijayan actively campaigned against the project. The movement also benefited from the support of the scientific community of India and abroad, after studies conducted by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Smithsonian Institute of the US supported the movement’s position.

The movement identified the central government departments that would be helpful in pressuring the Union government not to give approvals to the project. The department of environment was the first one. The Biological Survey of India and Zoological Survey of India were also convinced by the movement’s arguments. The scientific research materials the movement had at its disposal helped it present a convincing case before these departments. The report of the Fateh Ali Committee on the uniqueness and rich biodiversity of Silent Valley also helped.

When Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister in 1980, the movement smelled the possibility of a favourable decision as she was the first world leader to raise environmental issues on an international platform way back in 1972. So the movement presented the case before her through various channels. The chairperson of the Silent Valley Protection Committee in Mumbai, Dilnavaz Variava, acted as the main link between the prime minister and the movement.

Gandhi appointed a committee headed by noted scientist M.G.K. Menon to study the feasibility of the project and the environmental backlashes it would cause. Half the battle was already won, as Menon was a known sympathiser of the movement. Still the Menon Committee conducted extensive studies and submitted its report, stating that it would be advisable to refuse the Kerala government permission to construct a hydroelectric project at Silent Valley as it would have serious environmental consequences. But the report said it was up to the political leadership to take a final decision on the matter.

Gandhi accepted the recommendations of the committee and rejected the Kerala government’s applications for permission to construct the project. The Union government suggested that the Silent Valley forest area should be declared a national park. The state government called off the project in November 1983. Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister, declared the Silent Valley a national park two years later.

Hanging Bridge across the Kuntipuzha River in the Silent Valley National Park. Photo: /Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Victory of education and science

Thus, the movement which had begun against heavy odds succeeded in achieving its goal. In the final analysis, there were many factors that helped the movement. The first and foremost was the presence of an organisation like KSSP, which had credibility and a grassroots level organisational network.

Also read: Why the Commercial Viability of the Etalin Hydropower Project Is Suspect

The second was the support of intellectuals. Unlike other successful movements, this movement didn’t start from the grassroots. It took shape in the minds of an enlightened few. As they had strong conviction, commitment and credibility, they could take the issue to the people. On the basis of sound scientific material, they could get the support of scientists and bureaucrats all over the country. The movement identified people who would be able to and willing to help in the highest echelons of power.

At the same time, they were able to put pressure on the government through popular support. They could evoke a favourable response from the media with the help of intellectuals and litterateurs. This was possible because of the high level of literacy and the existence of a reading culture in Kerala. Above all these, the presence of a leader like Indira Gandhi, who was aware of environmental issues, helped the movement to become a great success, the first of its kind in India.

Nissam Syed is a commentator based in Kottayam, Kerala.