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The Silent Valley Project

In the late 70's, the Silent Valley project in India became a major 'environment versus development' controversy. The proposed project was to construct dam over the Kuntipuzha River in Kerala's Palghat district. As it flows through the valley, the river drops 857 meters, making the valley attractive for generating electricity. Those promoting the project claimed that it would produce 240 MW of power, irrigate 10,000 hectares of land and provide over 2000 jobs. Environmentalists, on the other hand, asserted that as home to one of the few remaining rain forests in the Western Ghats, the valley ought to remain pristine. They further contended that silent valley was one of the world's richest biological and genetic heritages. The adverse effects from the conversion of the Silent Valley into a hydroelectric project were first, the deforestation was bound to affect the climatic conditions in the state and even outside, by depriving the state of its legitimate share of rain during the monsoon; Second the preservation of the forests was needed for conducting research in medicine, pest control, breeding of economic plants and a variety of purposes, and third that deforestation was bound to interfere with the balance of nature, as between the forest land on the one side and arable and others types of lands on the other.

No other environmental issue has raised more heat and dust in the country than silent valley. One reason is the very elemental nature of the controversy: whether or not to preserve this tropical forest belt, one of the few uninhabited areas in the entire country, for the future benefit of mankind. Legal strategies played an important role in saving Silent valley. The success of the Environmentalists was due to a combination of several factors, including the grass-root campaign led by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP); intense lobbying by several non-governmental organizations and influential environmentalists within and outside government; and international pressure exerted on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Prominent environmentalist, Zafar Futehally, headed the National Committee on Environmental Planning and Coordination (NCEPC), on the ecological planning of the Western Ghats appointed in 1976. This team were apparently under the impression that Silent Valley multi-purpose project, then expected to cost Rupees twenty five crores, was practically a fait accompli. This triggered off an enormous row, the echoes of which have by no means died down. The two main opponents were KSSP and the Friends of the Trees.

These two organizations got their moral and material support from a 'save silent valley' committee in Bombay, backed by individuals from the World Wild Life Fund, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), and the save Bombay committee. Various international bodies were consulted and some of the important ones were the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in

Switzerland, which at its conference in Ashkabad in USSR in September 1978, called upon the Kerala government to abandon the project. Before the NCEPC could provide recommendations, the Kerala government convinced the Prime Minister then, Moraji Desai that the scheme should be given goahead. The debate grew really hot- on public platforms, where both KSSP and KSEB members spoke in the press. The happenings at home and at international forums was good enough to persuade the next Prime Minister, Charan Singh to abandon the work on the project. At this juncture, the Central Government decided to send the country's most reputed agricultural scientist, Dr. M.S.Swaminathan to look at it. He endorsed the task force's opinion, recommending that the project be scrapped and the entire area of Silent Valley to be converted into a rain forest Biosphere Reserve.