Citizen Action: Individual and Community Initiatives 61 Romulus Whitaker, founder of the Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank, was probably the first person to draw public attention to the small and not-much-known area in Kerala called Silent Valley. It was a secluded forest tucked away in the Ghats, not far from Ooty, a popular hill station. The total area of the Valley is 90 sq km, and it is surrounded by high ridges. It is one of the few places in India with no human habitation—not even a tribal village. Because Silent Valley has always been difficult to reach, even on foot, it had remained a well- preserved forest. Silent Valley is a shola forest (shola is the thick vegetation found at the base of the valleys in the western hills of south India). It is a storehouse of rare and valuable plants and animals. Scientists have found several varieties of wild pepper here. Cardamom grows wild as do black gram, rice and bean. Several plants have medicinal value. The evergreen forest tree—Hydnocarpus, whose seeds contain the oil used to treat leprosy, and the herb-like shrub Rauvolfia serpentina used for treating high blood pressure, are two examples. Rare fauna include the Lion-tailed Macaque, Great Indian Hornbill, and Nilgiri Tahr. This remote valley triggered off one of the fiercest environmental disputes the country has known. It all began with an innocent enough proposal put forward by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) to build a dam across the Kuntipuzha river to create a reservoir in Silent Valley, and then use the impounded water to generate electricity. The dam, which would be 130 metres high, would be built between two hillocks in a gorge through which the river runs. It was almost by accident that the proposal came to the attention of an official in the Central Government. Concerned about the protection of India’s environment, he asked for the project to be reconsidered. KSEB had started work on it in 1973, but the shortage of funds had delayed activity until 1976, when the Board wanted to resume building of the dam. By then a large number of big trees had already been cut. The issue came up before the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who had shown more interest in environmental matters than other political leaders before her. She appointed a Committee in 1980 to look into whether the Western Ghats as a whole were in danger of damage. The Committee pointed out that Silent Valley was the last remaining example of flora and fauna that had evolved to the fullest possible extent in a tropical rainforest, and was an ecosystem undisturbed by human interference. Were the dam to be built, the unique ecosystem might be irretrievably lost. The Controversy Begins Storm Over Silent Valley A people’s movement saves a rainforest 18
Towards Sustainability: Stories from India 62 Making India Innovative Rajabhai Harkhani, a 45 year old farmer of Junagadh, Gujarat with a formal education of only 10 years, has developed a new variety of lemon which is seedless. And the tree that bears this fruit does not have the thorns that characterize lemon trees. He worked for seven years to develop this variety and has grown 250 trees. This has also become a source of livelihood for him. Ramesh Yadav of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, has developed a unique power-saving technical pump for use in the agricultural sector for drawing water from wells, borewells, ponds and canals. Not only does the pump save energy but it also provides flexibility in the choice of fuel. The pump can be operated by animals as well as human power. The pump has also been tested at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and found efficient. These are just two examples of  innovations documented in the National Register being maintained by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) which is funded by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. NIF has taken up the task of preparing a database of such innovations, and linking local innovators with scientific and technological experts in formal and informal public as well as private sectors, to blend excellence in both sectors. NIF is a part of the Honey Bee Network, which provides a voice to creative farmers, artisans and grassroots innovators and a platform for people working on sustainable technologies based on traditional practices or ‘green’ innovations. Honey Bee’s associate Gujarat Grassroots Innovations Augmentation Network (GIAN) set up with the support of the Government of Gujarat provides incubation support to grassroots innovations while the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) provides institutional support to the Network. The Committee argued that the 120 megawatts of power which the dam would help generate were not so important for Kerala. The state had an even bigger hydroelectric project in Idukki, capable of producing more power than the state required. The Committee suggested that the dam either be dropped altogether, or if it had to be constructed, it be completed keeping in view certain safeguards. The KSEB, which was anxious to build the dam, readily agreed to the Committee’s conditions. Around this time, a group of schoolteachers and others who constituted the Kerala Sastra Sahithya Parishat (KSSP), became involved in the Silent Valley. For many years, this NGO had been writing and publishing science texts in the local language, Malayalam, so that they could be read by a wider group of people, and science could become a tool for social revolution. Gradually KSSP began to get involved in environmental issues, of which Silent Valley was the most controversial. Many of KSSP’s members were teachers of physics, chemistry and biology. They initially thought it would be good idea to dam the Silent Valley because it would help produce electricity which would help the state to develop. However, some members such as Professor M.K. Prasad, a botany teacher in a Calicut college, realized that many of Kerala’s environmental problems were being caused by the cutting down of trees in the Western Ghats. KSSP’s arguments, based on academic knowledge and reasoning, did not appeal to everybody. The idea of conserving a virgin forest for its flora and fauna seemed irrelevant to the people living near the proposed dam and the inhabitants of the northern districts of Kerala who were suffering due to an acute shortage of electricity, and unemployment. The Silent Valley struggle needed to consider not only the ecological and aesthetic value of the Valley but also the socio- economic implications of the project. Keeping these in view, KSSP conducted its own studies which showed why the Valley should not be destroyed and how the same benefits could be obtained in other ways. KSSP’s studies showed that the benefits of producing electricity would go only to a small number of people as two-thirds of Kerala’s electricity was consumed by industries which employed only a few thousand people. Another argument was that the submergence of vast areas of forest would destroy the source of energy of a large number of people who depend on firewood to cook. An NGO Steps In
Citizen Action: Individual and Community Initiatives 63 Gaining Support The Other Point of View Scientific bodies of botanists, zoologists and geologists, set up by the Central Government, lent support to KSSP’s findings. They backed KSSP’s contention that rather than an overall decline in rainfall, deforestation in evergreen forests such as Silent Valley results in an increase in the number of dry days in the monsoon season. This means fewer rainy days but heavier rainfall. In the absence of tree cover, the runoff of soil increases, thereby degrading the land in the area. Besides many NGOs in Kerala, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and other environmental groups in Mumbai and other parts of the country supported KSSP. The support of Dr. Salim Ali, eminent ornithologist and personal acquaintance of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, was particularly valuable. KSSP was able to rouse public opinion on the need to save Silent Valley. It had science groups in many villages and its journals and newsletters reached out to a large number of people. It had an impressive membership of 7,000 thinking people. KSSP collected signatures of around 600 teachers, prominent citizens and students, and sent a memorandum to the Kerala Government. It organized street plays, exhibitions, public debates, and a unique jatha—a marathon march—covering 300 to 400 villages along a 6,000 km route. Leading intellectuals of Kerala, who were members of KSSP, wrote letters and articles in the press and participated in the public debates. Because of KSSP’s involvement with students, across Kerala students proclaimed their opposition to the project. This was the first time in India that teenagers came out on the streets to protest against the destruction of the environment. Even people who were not closely involved in environmental issues were moved to act—perhaps because the very name of the Valley aroused such sympathy. One such persons was the late K.P.S. Menon, former Indian Ambassador to the Soviet Union, who wrote several letters the Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, pleading the case against the project. The KSEB on its part, tried to convince people about its stand. The Board said that there was nothing special about Silent Valley and that people would benefit from the extra megawatts of electricity. In protest against the Save Silent Valley committees that had mushroomed in the state and in cities such as Chennai and Mumbai, a local committee was formed in Mannarkad to save the project. Their argument focused on the high unemployment rate and the absence of industries in the state, leading to the high rates of out-migration.  Industrialization, for which electric power was a must, was seen as the only solution. In this, KSEB was supported by the local people near the dam who were convinced that they would find jobs either directly during construction, or in industries which would subsequently come up in the area. KSSP worked hard to convince the people that the promised benefits were only illusory and were not going to be sustainable. At this stage, another actor made a dramatic appearance on the stage—the Lion-tailed Macaque, one of the most threatened species of monkeys in the world. It is found only in the southern half of the Western Ghats. The survival of the monkey became an issue
Towards Sustainability: Stories from India 64 From Parched Lands to Green Fields In drought-prone Mahur village of Pune district of Maharashtra, people were not able to get satisfactory returns from their fields. Drinking water was scarce. Vilasrao Salukhe’s Pani Panchayat (water assembly) changed the whole scenario. He realized that environmental regeneration and watershed development were the only solution to combatting drought in the long run. He initiated the idea of Pani Panchayat experiment on a barren and uncultivated piece of land belonging to a temple. Conservation of soil and water harvesting were given priority. He raised a series of contour bunds to trap water and check soil erosion. At the base of the hill, he envisaged a micro-watershed with a capacity of a million cubic feet of water. A well was dug for watering the fields. Plantation of fruit trees on fertile land, and grass and shrubs on uncultivated land, was undertaken. He did dry farming using a watershed management approach. Out of the 16 ha of land, 9.6 ha were brought under protective irrigation, 2.4 ha under afforestation and the remaining 4 ha under percolation tanks, wells, field bunds etc. Gradually, every villager began seeing the change. 200 quintals of food grains were produced on 24 acres of Saluke’s land, whereas 40 acres of their own land hardly produced 10 quintals. A scheme aimed at better operation and maintenance of irrigation was formulated. Villagers started joining the Pani Panchyat. Landless villagers were given land on lease. The five basic principles of Pani Panchyat were: !   Irrigation schemes would be given to a group of farmers. A family of five has water rights to irrigate one hectare. !   Crops that require large amounts of water would not be allowed to be grown. !   Water rights are not attached to land rights. !   All members of the community, including the landless, have right to water. !   The beneficiaries of the Pani Panchyat have to bear 20 per cent of the cost of the scheme. They have to plan, administer and manage schemes and distribute water in an equitable manner. Farms in Mahur are now yielding three times the crop they yielded earlier. In about a decade the number of lift irrigation schemes has gone up to over a 100,  most of which are functioning well. It is remarkable that the project has sustained itself for a quarter of a century. contested by the pro- and anti-Silent Valley dam campaigners. Questions were raised about the importance given to the monkey over the benefits that would accrue to humans by building the dam. The debate attracted wide attention, and ultimately a resolution was passed by IUCN-The World Conservation Union, asking the Indian government to conserve more effectively the forests areas of the Western Ghats, including the undisturbed forests of Silent Valley in Kerala. As the debate grew more heated, both sides began to pressurise the Central Government which had the final say in approving the proposal. The joint Expert Committee under the chairmanship of Prof. MGK Menon studied the pros and cons of the project and found that construction of a hydel project at Silent Valley would cause irreparable damage to the ecology of the forest ecosystem. Finally, on the basis of an examination of the costs and benefits, as well as the Prime Minister’s support, the scales tilted against the project. The Government of India advised Kerala state to abandon the project. Silent Valley was declared a National Park in 1985 — which meant that no project could come up in the area. But no battle in the field of conservation is ever final, and there is no guarantee that the Valley will remain silent for all time to come. There have been faint rumblings in recent years to revive the Silent Valley project. But should the need arise, the people of Kerala with a well-planned strategy and dogged determination, will undoubtedly be able to achieve what they did in the past.