Threat to a valley's silence

Published : Jul 02, 2004 00:00 IST

Silent Valley, one of the few remaining tracts of undisturbed tropical evergreen forests in India, is once again testing the resolve of environmentalists and the never-say-die dam builders of Kerala.

in Thiruvananthapuram

THE war is not over, after all. Silent Valley, one of the few remaining tracts of undisturbed tropical evergreen forests in India and the focus of the beacon green movement of the late 1970s, is once again testing the resolve of environmentalists and the never-say-die dam builders of Kerala.

Barely had the spirited campaigners of the 1970s celebrated the 20th anniversary of the declaration (in 1984) of their green paradise as a National Park (in place of a hydro-electric project originally proposed there) and its subsequent international acceptance as a core area of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, was a pro-dam "public hearing" organised at Mannarkad, the nearest town in drought-hit Palakkad district. The May 21 "hearing" was held at the initiative of the State government to discuss the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report on an all-new hydro-power project in Silent Valley. The dam is to be built across the Kunthipuzha, the river that originates and cuts through the Silent Valley, at Pathrakkadavu, about 3.5 km downstream of Sairandhri, the site originally proposed over two decades earlier.

Well-known environmentalists and representatives of organisations like the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), which played a key role in the anti-dam agitation of the 1970s, were not allowed inside the venue of the public hearing or had the microphone snatched away from them and were booed down when they started to speak against the project. "Local citizens", among them people's representatives from the nearby Mannarkad and Kumaramputhur panchayats, who argued (just as in the 1970s) that the project would bring much-needed development and jobs to the locality, alone were allowed to be heard by the hecklers, many of them reportedly "brought there for a purpose". A doughty crusader of the 1970s, environmentalist and poet Sugatha Kumari, had to be escorted out of the venue by the police, when the pro-dam mob threatened to attack her. The same day, a report favouring the Pathrakkadavu project was prepared by some officials on the basis of the public hearing, to be sent to the government.

The new dam is to be located outside the Silent Valley National Park, but, significantly, only a kilometre beyond the park boundary. According to the EIA report, unlike the original Silent Valley project that was conceived as a storage scheme that would have submerged 830 hectares, including 500 ha of pristine tropical evergreen forests and envisaged the generation of 240 MW of electricity and irrigation of about 100,000 ha in Palakkad and Malappuram districts, the new project is to be a run-of-the-river scheme meant to generate 70 MW of electricity based on the surface flow of the Kunthipuzha.

The report, prepared by a Thiruvananthapuram-based private environmental agency, says that the location of the project, though only a kilometre from the Silent Valley National Park boundary, "has the special feature of a sharp gradient dissociating the park sector from the proposed sector by which there is hardly any harmful impact on the park area from the development scheme". The site of the powerhouse is also a "safe" 4 km downstream, it claims. The EIA says the project would have a "negligible" water spread of only 4.10 ha. "All the component structures of the proposed scheme have been planned outside the National Park with the involvement of 22.16 ha of forest land." The powerhouse is to be located in an "agri-horticulture area" "with scanty habitation" on the right bank of the Kunthipuzha. The report concludes that the project, "technically feasible and economically viable" would not involve "major negative environmental concerns which cannot be remedied through proper management".

In short, the argument is that since the new project is smaller in scale and is to be located outside the boundary of the National Park, it would cause very little damage in Silent Valley, a biological hotspot described by ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali as "one of the richest, most threatened and least studied habitats on earth" during the anti-dam campaign of the late 1970s.

The Silent Valley Hydro Electric Project was scrapped and a National Park established there in 1984 after it was convincingly established that the proposed dam would cause extensive and irremediable damage to the unique ecology and biodiversity of the region. A small committed group of environmentalists were then famously able to steer the course of events away from the eager influence of the proponents of the dam, who were hotly contesting the biodiversity value of the valley and claiming that the dam would generate the much-needed employment and electricity in an industrially backward State.

The anti-dam activists were, however, able to show, even with the inadequate data available then, that the area protects a wealth of plants and animals, many of them rare and unique, which were the last remaining example of flora and fauna that had evolved to the fullest possible extent in a tropical rainforest undisturbed by human interference. One of the many endangered valley residents, the lion-tailed macaque, the most threatened species of monkeys in the world, therefore, later came to symbolise the Silent Valley agitation. The green lobby was also able to argue compellingly that the deforestation in evergreen Silent Valley would result in decreased rainfall and more dry spells and to the degradation of land, and that the electricity proposed to be generated through the project could in fact be obtained through other means.

NEARLY three decades later, even though several extensive studies have reinforced the early stand of the ecologists about the riches of the Silent Valley, a strange argument is now being raised by the pro-dam lobby, which seems to accept the uniqueness of the biodiversity of the valley yet claim that the forests within the 89 sq km administrative area of the National Park alone need to be protected and that the contiguous regions could be utilised otherwise, "for development". Therefore, their proposal is for a new dam at a location just outside the National Park boundary, which, environmentalists say, is "at the most constricted part of the already dangerously degraded buffer zone of the National Park". They say that the notified National Park area, an artificial administrative unit, is but only a small portion of the naturally occurring contiguous biodiversity-rich forest landscape, extending across many ridges and valleys, including the Kunthipuzha valley, and that protecting the park area alone would not guarantee the long-term protection of the ecosystems or the plant and animal diversity within them.

Moreover, they say, rainforest diversity is highest in forests situated at lower elevations, one of the main reasons why the earlier project was abandoned, and that it is applicable with regard to the new proposal too. According to the EIA report, over a 1,000 people would require accommodation in the vicinity of the project area for over four years of project construction. They also argue that, given Kerala's track record, the construction period is likely to be much longer, and the presence of workers would have a debilitating effect on the already tenuous buffer zone ecosystem of the National Park. The EIA report itself cautions about such a problem, that the presence of nearly 1,100 migrant labourers over an extended period could result in the degradation of the forest and that the impact of the project on the wildlife in the area should also be "an important concern".

The proposed project also means yet another dam in the most severely damaged (and the second largest) river basin in Kerala, that of the Bharathapuzha, of which the Kunthipuzha is the only tributary still with some lean season water flow. The tributaries of the Bharathapuzha originate in the highly denuded slopes of the Western Ghats and in recent years, almost all of them (except the Kunthipuzha), impounded by irrigation dams, have failed to provide water to their command areas even immediately after a monsoon. There are 11 dams in the Bharathapuzha system and the proposed project would severely restrict the already scanty stream flow in the Kunthipuzha. Environmentalists argue that as the unprecedented drought that swept Palakkad and Malappuram districts a few months earlier (Frontline, March 26) indicates, the new project could prove to be the final human intervention that kills the Bharathapuzha, the only source of water for the scores of villages and towns in the two northern districts of the State.

Opposition against the new proposal is also targeted at the argument that additional power generation is such a pressing developmental or survival issue in Kerala. The State could survive the worst drought period in recent memory with a mere half-an-hour peak-period load shedding alone, when all the hydro-electric projects except Idukki nearly stopped power generation with scanty storage in the reservoirs. Anti-dam activists say that the almost-dry Kunthipuzha during the summer of 2004 should have been proof enough of its low electricity generation potential. The EIA report gives a highly exaggerated picture of the water available in the river for power generation and the cost of construction and of the electricity that would be produced, they argue.

Champions of the saga of Silent Valley have no doubt about the agency behind the new proposal. It is the "same old villain", the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), the debt-ridden public utility that sustains a curious web of politicians, officials, contractors and real-estate and forest "business interests" and mounting "transmission and distribution (T&D) losses", the curbing of which alone would find enough electricity and obviate the need for more ecological destruction in Kerala. Yet, cries against "environmental extremism" and "monkey-or-man?" slogans are already in the air. The wheel has turned full circle. The unfortunate debate over the future of Silent Valley is being revived.

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