Citizen Action: Individual and Community Initiatives
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
habitationnot even a tribal village. Because Silent Valley has
always been difficult to reach, even on foot, it had remained a well-
Silent Valley is a
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 treeHydnocarpus, whose seeds contain the oil
used to treat leprosy, and the herb-like shrub
used for treating high blood pressure, are two examples. Rare fauna
include the Lion-tailed Macaque, Great Indian Hornbill, and Nilgiri
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 Indias 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 peoples movement saves a rainforest