Benoy Viswam was a young communist (CPI) caught between his concern for nature and the party’s stand in favour of the Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project in the seventies. Now, as Minister for Forests of Kerala, similar dilemmas still confront him. He spoke to The Hindu on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of declaration of Silent Valley as a national park.

When the Silent Valley movement was underway, the then Chief Minister P.K. Vasudevan Nair had argued that ecology was a luxury for Keralites. How do you view the changes in attitudes of political parties and the administration towards conservation over the past 25 years?

P. K. Vasudevan Nair should be respected for his courage as communist in admitting his error later on. If he had said that, it was on the basis of the level of understanding at that time.  It need not be seen as the mistake of a single person. When PKV realised the importance of environment, he acknowledged his error. I have heard him admitting his mistake in public more than once. That was not something an average politician could do.  Only a sincere and honest communist with social commitment could do that.

It is now more than 50 years since the formation of Kerala. One of the most important positive changes in social attitudes during that period was the growth environmental consciousness.  The Silent Valley movement contributed much to that. It demanded the attention of the society on matters that had not been discussed or attended to previously.  The Stockholm Convention had generated a world-wide awareness about environment.  

And Kerala became the first society to respond to the message of the Convention.  Thus, a strong environmental movement could develop in the State ahead of other States.  We could demonstrate that we had the profundity to be on par with rest of the world in environmental matters.

The media has been very vigilant about environment along with the people. Though there are criticisms about the media, they played a big role in creating awareness about environment. Their vigilance was a

major contributory factor in creating a positive response towards protection of forest and environment. I am grateful to the media – both print and visual.

In the seventies and eighties, only loners like K.  V. Surendranath and S. Sarma in the CPI stood for environment. What is the position today?

They were respected leaders. The party viewed the ideas expounded by them with appreciation.  The name of P. T. Bhaskara Panicker should be specially remembered.  Though he was not a party functionary, he

influenced the thinking of many communists. He can be termed as a think tank.  Everybody knows about the contributions of Surendranath and Sarma.

What is the position now? Is a there a green lobby in the party?

A communist party doesn’t need lobbies. A communist Party is a single minded party.  Marxism has a special approach to environment. The objective of Marxism is to expose exploitation and build a society free of exploitation. One of the victims of capitalist exploitation is environment. Capitalism has never taken environment seriously. It was always concerned about profits and profits alone. This had been well-delineated by (Frederick) Engels. He said that capital was raping nature for profit and nature was sure to take its revenge. (Karl) Marx had also made similar observations in the second volume of Das Capital. So the Left has an ideological commitment towards the cause of environment. It could not be opposed to environmental protection.

The present Government approved the Pathrakavadu project (revised proposal for a small hydroelectric project in the Silent Valley area) in 2006. But subsequently, you put up the proposal for a buffer zone around the National Park, and that was approved. Did it mean a change in policy?

I don’t want to enter into a controversy.

But what exactly happened?

Nature lovers and environmentalists have been demanding a buffer zone since the time of the declaration of the Park.  However, for some reason, that did not materialize for the past 25 years. It should have been.  The very reasons that led to formation of the Park demanded the demarcation of the buffer zone also.  The declaration of the buffer zone was an inevitable step towards fulfilling the very objectives of the Park. The present Government – Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandnan and the Ministers, were instrumental to fulfilling that task which was long due.

What do you propose to consolidate the gains so far in conserving Silent Valley?

These are the gains of the whole society of Kerala. The Left or any other governments are duty bound to preserve the gains. Every Keralite, every Indian, who is concerned about the threats to environment, would come forward to protect it. None can forget the threat of global warming.

We have already declared six per cent of the land areas of the State as protected forests against national average of four percent. The government has tried to turn social forestry into a movement. In recognition, the Centre has chosen Kerala for the Indira Gandhi Vriksha Mitra Award.  ‘Ente Maram’ has been recognised as the most imaginative social forestry programme. The State also won a second Vrisha

Mitra Award for small States of India for increasing the forest cover.

Kerala was also the only State to launch a slogan against global warming for a big campaign, and organise a national workshop for the first time in India.

Now we have to strengthen these activities. We have to set up a cell on climate change to study and address effects of climate change on agriculture, industries, education, health and other spheres. Any society concerned about its future should accept the fact of climate change and address them.

Do you have any plans to increase the forest or protected area?

We cannot increase the area under forests. The attempt was to increase the reserved area by notifying forested areas.  We took a number of steps in that direction. About 22000 acres in Mankulam in Idukki

district was thus notified. The Kurinjimala and Choolannur Sanctuaries were declared and grasslands at Vagamon were accorded reserve status.

None can squat on these lands now. The reserve forest area has thus been increased by three per cent.  Measures had also been taken to strengthen protection by declaring the Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary and

Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. The Centre and the Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh had appreciated those measures, despite political differences.

What about conservation of biodiversity?

A committee for preparing the project report for proposed international research and monitoring centre would be set up shortly enlisting national and international experts. Experts including Prof. Madhav Gadgil had extended their cooperation. The report would be submitted to the Centre by January. Western Ghats have been recognized as a biodiversity hotspot.  None is yet sure of how vast the biodiversity of the region is. Though many studies had been done, the whole land mass of Silent Valley and Western Ghats are yet to be covered fully. So, at least the biodiversity of Silent Valley – the biome, geology and abundance of flora and fauna and the phenomenal assemblage of microbes, and how they affect the climate, soil and availability of water ought to be studied. As layman, I also feel that how the biodiversity influenced the past and how it influences the present and how it would shape future should also be studied.

Most of the studies about the diversity of birds and butterflies in the State had been done by amateurs. Is there any proposal for more formal studies in this area?

Though not a formal research project, we did an imaginative thing. On the 75th anniversary of survey of Kerala’s birds by Salim Ali, the Forest Department has organised a team of ornithologists to conduct a study along the same trail followed by Ali 75 years ago for his survey.  Indeed, many changes have taken place since Ali visited those areas. The team would be able to record the changes. The team members have been staying on different locations for the same duration as Ali did and interacting with the locals. At some places, they have found new birds. At other places, birds seen by Salim Ali were no more to be seen.  In some places, the numbers have changed.  It is expected that the team would be able to submit a good report, considering the fact that the technology for bird watching has improved considerably since the time of Salim Ali.

We have also tried to improve the status of Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary. We are trying a new experiment at Kadalunkdi-Vallikunnu area (Kozhikode district), known for the arrival of migratory birds, which had not been tried elsewhere in India.  The area had been declared a community reserve. We don’t have a model for that. So, there have been some teething troubles and opposition from people who feared that the area was to be declared as a reserve. These are being overcome and the community is being readied for protection of the area. If migratory birds were arriving at the location from thousands of miles away, the area should have some specialty. The community was being educated to preserve it for future generations.  If successful, it would be model for India.

We have ended the mafia rule in forests. We have shown results in checking unauthorised felling and smuggling of sandalwood trees.

Thefts had been reduced from 8 trees a day to 0.2 trees a day. We have apprehended 150 groups of smugglers. The new mafia dealing with snake venom had been crushed. Organised cultivation of ganja had also been checked.  We can say that large-scale cultivation of ganja by the rich and politically influential people has been purged though isolated cases of ganja cultivation may still be there.  We have brought transparency in forest management and overhauled the system for auction of timber. The revenues from timber went up by Rs. 49 crore. Though we have been doing the right things, I have faced criticisms. However, time would show that we had done the right things.

You have often worked for inter-State cooperation in forest conservation.  However, coordination was still lacking in the management of the Nilgiri Biosphere. Fires had raged in the border areas of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka last year. A few years ago, fires had reached Silent Valley from Mukkurthi National Park ….

The Western Ghats traverse different States. So, I took the lead and convened a conference of forest ministers of the Southern States soon after the LDF government came to power. We turned it into a system with the forest ministers meeting every year.  The subjects raised at the conference included inter-State boundary issues and cooperation in fighting forests crimes. Everyone agreed to what had been proposed at the conference. However, in practical terms, the meetings did not yield results. We will continue to strive for results. We have to maintain certain amount of restraint (while dealing with neighbouring States).  We will surely meet them again and take up those issues.