Silent revolution

The first environmental movement in the country

Silent revolution

As Kerala celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Silent Valley National Park, the focus is not just on the rich biodiversity of the park’s evergreen forest or the wildlife which thrives in it -- but about the best-recorded conservation struggles in  India. The ``Save Silent Valley’’ slogan which rent the air for seven long years from 1976 had also opened up several new dimensions to the concept of environment protection in the country.  
The movement was undertaken by environmentalists, poets, artists, academics, thousands of students and the media against the proposed hydroelectric dam across a pristine stream called `Kunthipuzha’ (Kunthi River) in the Western Ghats. The agitation led to the establishment of the 89 tropical rainforest National Park in 1984 after abandoning the hydel project.

Sairandhry Forests
Known as Sairandhry Forests based on characters of the Mahabharata, the scientific and environmental importance of the region was first recognised by British botanists who named it Silent Valley in their records. The `provocation’ was the brooding silent woods in a dark valley -- at times not even crickets chirped. However, the park is known for its rich forest ecosystems with a large number of specially adapted plants and animals. Flowering plants, particularly a number of orchids, strobilanthes, the only species of South Indian rhododendron and many other plants not normally found  in the Western Ghats are found here.

Although the Silent Valley National Park is famous for its lion tailed macaques, it has all the large mammals found in this part of the Western Ghats including tiger, leopard, wild dog, sloth bear and lesser predators like smaller cats, otters and mongooses. Herbivorous animals including elephant, gaur, sambar, barking deer, Nilgiri Tahr, chevrotain and wild boar are also found. Four species of primates, many chiropterans, rodents and squirrels including the giant squirrel and two species of flying squirrels are common in the park.

Historic struggle
The Save Silent Valley struggle was one of the first environmental movements in the country to receive prolonged national attention -- it enjoyed the media limelight for seven years. Public attention was focussed not only on  the Silent Valley but in general on  deforestation, the uniqueness of the rainforest, lion tailed macaques and other endangered species, catchment forests and impact of dams on the habitat. Questions were raised on the ecological cost of development for the first time.
There were court cases to block construction activity, public protests, debates and scientific seminars which received widespread media coverage. Finally, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi set up a committee chaired by Prof M G K Menon, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, to weigh the pros and cons of the project. After sifting through considerable scientific data, the committee recommended abandonment of the project by agreeing that the area had unique scientific value and any external interference would cause irreparable damage to it. In 1984, the Silent Valley Reserved Forest was formally notified as a National Park and the very next year it was dedicated to the nation by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 200 7, the park was expanded with the addition of 148 sq kms as a buffer zone.

It can be rightly claimed that the Silent Valley project evoked global concern on rainforest destruction from various corners of the world. It brought to the centre stage the issue of forest - river catchment protection and effected a quantum change in conservation concerns by replacing 'wildlife' with 'biodiversity'. The controversy and the subsequent scientific studies spawned long-term monitoring of ecosystems resulting in the first biosphere reserve in India -- the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Coincidentally, the Ministry of Environment and Forests was born when the Silent Valley controversy was raging. The issue attracted the world's attention to the Western Ghats and the exercise of identifying biodiversity hotspots for urgent conservation action got a fillip. Environment Impact Assessment became a routine procedure prior to sanctioning of mega-development projects.

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