An Approach To Environment, Ecology & Wildlife
     The media often reports that all over the industrialized
    world, the environmental movement is facing a backlash.
    Major environmental organizations like Greenpeace and
    the Sierra Club report that fewer people are joining them
    now. It is as if people have had their fill of protesting
    against the latest form of environmental degradation
    and are looking for some positive developments instead.
    In the US in particular, with the economy prospering at
    the moment, the sentiment is in favour of boosting
    further growth to protect jobs, if not to create them.
    In India too, the media, all too anxious to take its cue
    from the West, has adopted a somewhat similar attitude
    towards the environment. It would be hard to find a
    single environment correspondent in any newspaper, as
    there was a couple of decades ago. In the ’80’s and the
    ’90’s, especially after the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992,
    the environment became a political issue with treaties
    being placed on the international agenda, and the media
    covered these issues in detail. Now the media believes it
    is taking a “pragmatic” position on the environment and
    is not bending over backwards to be green.
  subject moderators        
  social landscapes        
  pot pourri        
      However, in both North and South, the media appears to be somewhat off the mark. Although 
    there may not be the same fervor on the part of the public to take part in demonstrations, there
    is no doubt that they feel strongly about protecting the environment. The best proof of this are
    the regular global surveys conducted by a opinion poll agency in Canada, which monitors public
    perceptions on environmental issues throughout the world. Repeatedly, environment figures
    among the top five, and often three, concerns globally, irrespectiveof the economic status of 
    the country.
How does one reconcile this with the media perception?     
All too often, both politicians and the media are not in     
touch with what really concerns people. There is no    
question that increasingly, people everywhere are not    
action too. Even in a city like Mumbai, which is poised     
to become the most populous in the world by 2020,     
citizens in many localities are banding together to      
protect their mangroves from being destroyed,     
clearing their garbage and the like. A slogan in this     
metropolis is: “If the mangroves go, man goes too!”    
      Children in particular have got the message and far more sensitive to their environment than
      their parents. This column will look at various aspects of India's environment, including its
      dwindling wildlife, and keep you abreast of developments in this country.
Some 16 years ago, this columnist wrote a book titled     
Temples or Tombs: Industry versus Environment,     
Three Controversies, which was published by the     
Centre for Science & Environment in New Delhi.     
By far the most interesting of the three case studies     
was the Silent Valley hydroelectric project in Kerala,     
largely because of the high level of consciousness     
among the people in the state. I had, at the time,     
surveyed similar controversies around the world, which     
typically revolve around the claims of the project     
authorities, who exaggerate the benefits that such     
so-called development schemes generate, versus those     
of the greens who want to preserve sites. Nowhere else     
had a project stirred such strong sentiments on both     
sides. The title of my book was derived from Pandit     
Nehru's oft-quoted remark about such projects being     
“the temples of today”.     
          The Kerala government's recent announcement that it was exploring the possibility of re-opening
          the Silent Valley will exhume ghosts that most thought had long been interred. The scheme to dam
          the Kunthipuzha river and generate 120 megawatts of power had raised a fierce debate in the late
          1970’s and is probably the first test case in the country of the supposed conflict between the needs
          of development and environment. Thanks mainly to Mrs Indira Gandhi, the issue was resolved in
      favor of the environmentalists, who wanted to preserve this rain forest in the western ghats.
      Kerala, till today, presents a classic paradox in that
      it is, in terms of human resource development, the
      leading state in the country with near-total literacy
      and very low infant mortality and other indices.
      However, when it comes to economic development
      or, more particularly, industrial growth, its record
      has been abysmal. Due partly to its rampant 
      unionis mand high wage rates, entrepreneurs have
      thought thrice before investing in the state. The
      result has been widespread unemployment, with all
      the disaffection that this generates. When the Silent
                        Valley project was proposed in the 1970s, the
      proponents argued that Kerala lacked industry at
      least partly because it was short of power. Because
      the state was heavily influenced by Marxist doctrine
      it was, after all, the first to elect a communist party
      to power by the ballot in the world, as far back as in
      1957 the politicos quoted Lenin who famously 
      declared that soviets (collectivised farms) plus
      electrification equalled communism! They argued,
      further, that this was a renewable source of power,
      unlike nuclear or thermal energy, and the river was
      otherwise flowing “wastefully” to the Arabian Sea.
         It was a group of science teachers and other progressive professionals who had banded together
        under the banner of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat (KSSP) who decided to take a close look at
        the pros and cons of the project. As the name of the organisation suggests, it first translated
        scientific books into Malayalam but then began engaging in debates about environment and
         development. Today the KSSP is one of the foremost environmental groups in the world, with 
        over 50,000 members.
         The KSSP correctly assessed that the economic and ecological value of preserving this unique strip
      of forest, which was uninhabited even by tribals, outweighed the benefits of the power that it
    would produce. It possessed many types of wild flora and fauna, including a very rare primate,
    the lion-tailed macaque, the loss of which would deprive Kerala of its biodiversity. As can well be
    imagined, many of the arguments in favor of such preservation, which have today become
    commonplace, were difficult to defend three decades ago.
       Pointedly, the Kerala State Electricity Board asked:
       “Are monkeys more important than men?”
      Ultimately, Mrs. Gandhi was persuaded more by the opinion of global environmental organizations
      like the World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to call off the
      project. She was always more susceptible to pressure from abroad than from within the country,
      which is why, for instance, she decided to hold elections to legitimize her authoritarian rule during
      the emergency in 1977. When she returned to power in 1980, she instituted a committee under
      Prof M.G.K. Menon, which ruled against the project and she went along with it. Subsequently, Silent
      Valley was declared a national park, which is its status till today.
    This legal position cannot be easily changed. As witnessed in state after state, attempts by politicians
    and industrialists to dereserve national parks have not been favourably received by courts. How the
    Kerala government ever hoped to get around this reservation is a matter of considerable speculation.
    According to newspaper reports, the Union Environment Ministry had issued a directive, suggesting 
    that the state government obtain clearance from the Indian Board of Wildlife, as well as the Supreme
    Court. The former is bound to put its foot down, for Silent Valley is one of the last vestiges of what is
    known as shola forest the unique ecosystem sheltered in the folds of the western ghats.
      Since these areas of the western ghats are internationally recognised as one of the “hot spots” for
      biodiversity in the globe, Silent Valley is in far greater need of protection than the temperate zones
      of the Himalayas in north India. It is also understood that the Kerala forest department itself will
      oppose the project. For all these reasons, the State Electricity Minister, K. Sivadasan, who had earlier
      dismissed environmentalists' fears as “imaginary”, to be backtracking on the move.
      It is strange that the many politicians and bureaucrats have failed to learn the lessons of history. The
    Silent Valley issue raised a fierce controversy, not only in Kerala but elsewhere in the country notably
    in Mumbai and Delhi and internationally. As the Menon committee report pointed out, it was better to
    err on the side of caution and prevent some of the country's most valuable natural heritage from being
    lost to future generations. What is more, if there was an economic cost to be put to such preservation,
    it was the presence of priceless plants such as the wild varieties of rice  available in the area (and in
    the forests of Sri Lanka). These contain genes which can resist pests which attack new high-yielding
    varieties of rice, and are therefore like a natural storehouse whose economic benefit is simply
    No one can deny that Kerala needs power, but there are several alternatives which need to be explored.
    Unfortunately, the state government, which has perhaps never recovered from the slight at the hands
      of the Centre in preventing it from exploiting what it believes are its own natural resources, has been
      turning to other ill-conceived energy schemes. These include another hydroelectric project in a western
      ghats forest, an offshore thermal plant and even a nuclear station in one of the most densely populated
      states in the country. Instead, it could consider small run of the river hydel units along its 43 rivers,
      which would generate sufficient power for small agro-industrial units that are in any case the mainstay
      of Kerala's economy.
In the final analysis, the attempt to resuscitate     
the long-buried Silent Valley project raises, as it      
did three decades ago, vital questions concerning      
the development paradigm which the state intends      
to adopt. If big industry has been deterred from      
entering the state for reasons already stated, the    
government ought to consider how to promote a    
more localised form of development where the    
abundant natural resources are exploited in a    
more ecologically sensitive manner.