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New whispers in Silent Valley

Its fabled rainforests are in the limelight once again. C. SURENDRANATH and M. SUCHITRA detail the new developments in this national park.


Pristine but for how long?

"THE story of Silent Valley is a golden chapter in the history of the conservation movement. It is a story marked by struggle and is the continuity of an assaulted Amazon, a burning Borneo, a corporated Congo, extinct bison and dodos." This was how Satis Chandran Nair, ecologist (his impassioned explorations of rainforests contributed much to the recognition and conservation of the Silent Valley forests in Kerala state, South India, as a global heritage site and a national park in 1984) reflects a decade later on the "Save Silent Valley" crusade. And it is with reason, as the Kunthi river that originates in Silent Valley's rainforests is currently the focus of attention and the centre of a struggle being re-enacted.

The story starts with what environmentalists perceive to be a threat to the pristine Silent Valley ecosystem in a scheme, the Pathrakkadavu Hydroelectric Project (PHEP), proposed on the Kunthi just outside the boundary of the park. However, the State authorities argue that the apprehensions are misplaced and misguided.

Shielded from extreme climatic variations as well as human incursions by tall ridges, some as high as 2,000 metres, the 8,952-hectare Silent Valley National Park on the Nilgiri plateau remains an "ecological island." The Silent Valley is perhaps the only forestland in the region with a relatively undisturbed evolutionary history of at least 50 million years.

When compared to all other sub-tributaries of the Bharathappuzha, the lifeline of central Kerala, the Kunthi flows undisturbed perhaps due to the success of the conservation of the Silent Valley.

`Less submergence'

"The Pathrakkadavu dam is an "eco-friendly alternative" to the Silent Valley project, says Kadavoor Sivadasan, Minister for Electricity. The PHEP is being designed as a run-off-the-river project with an installed capacity of 70 MW in the first phase (105 MW eventually) and an energy generation of 214 million units (Mu) from a 64.5-metre high dam with a minimal gross storage of 0.872 million cubic metres. The claim is that the submergence area of the PHEP would be a negligible 4.10 ha, compared to 830 ha of tropical evergreen rainforest in the now abandoned Silent Valley Hydro-Electric Project (SVHEP).

Such features of the project have won some support for the PHEP even among the think-tank of the Kerala Sastra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), the people's science movement which had heralded the "Save Silent Valley" struggle. "The PHEP is a technically feasible project," says Dr. A. Achuthan, Kozhikode district president of the KSSP, but is cautious enough to add that "more studies are needed to confirm this".

"It's a conventional project masquerading as an alternative," counters Prof. R.V.G. Menon, former State president of the KSSP.

The division is subtle.

In contrast to the stark reductionism that characterised the nascent conservation debate in the 1980s on the SVHEP ("man or monkey, which is more important?" — the reference being to humans or the lion-tailed macaque, the mascot of the Silent Valley) the arguments over the PHEP are refined. Now, opposition springs from a variety of perspectives — ecological to managerial.

"The first and the foremost argument" is that the PHEP "posed a major threat to the long-term viability of the National Park" by negating and proposing to sever the ecosystem continuity, according to Satis.

The present National Park is an artificial administrative unit of 89 sq. km, with its boundaries being those fixed for ownership reasons that date back to 1914. From an ecological point of view, the park should have encompassed contiguous biodiversity-rich forest tracts that cut across even states. Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, then secretary to the Department of Agriculture, had suggested this way in 1979, but his suggestion for carving out a national rainforest biosphere reserve in the region spread over 39,000 ha was not pursued.

The success of the struggle over the SVHEP had brought in complacency. The boundary of the park was never expanded and no buffer zone created. The park remained an island under constant threat. The environmental movement too had left no second line of defence, leaving the park to be governed by the forest department.

Rich bio-diversity

But nature hasn't heeded to administrative logic. The non-park forests in the PHEP project site abutting the Nellikkal ridge of the national park too remain a hotspot of bio-diversity. Even the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (REIA), which the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) got done in just five months, had to acknowledge the presence of 381 species of flowering plants here. Of these 55 are endemic and seven rare. The floral and faunal endemism is a high 20 per cent. Other studies have put this to be much higher. During a brief 12-hour trek, scientists of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology (SACON) found nine more species of butterflies, one more reptile and two other amphibians than listed in the REIA. While the latter could find only 18 species of fish in the Kunthi, studies in 2000 had reported 57.

It was based on the REIA, which Dr. V.S. Vijayan, director, SACON, qualifies as "quite inadequate", that the KSEB and the Kerala State Pollution Control Board rushed through the formality of a public hearing on the project on May 21. The hearing was a fiasco with the local MLA ordering out outsiders and "organised groups" intimidating those who tried to criticise the project.

The fundamentals of the PHEP have also been questioned, for instance, on the blatant mismatch between rain gauge data and the river gauge data in the Detailed Project Report. "In months when rainfall is found to be below average, river flow is shown to be 30 per cent higher!" points out R.V.G. Menon. Rainfall at the Sairandhri site is shown to have increased 80 to 100 per cent between 1982 and 2003, a contention that even laymen question. With such exaggerations in the river runoff data (estimated now at 498.25 Million m+3 against 293 Mm+3 estimated in 1982) the power potential and the cost benefit ratio are skewed, argues Dr. A. Latha of the Chalakkudi Puzha Samrakshana Samithi (The Chalakkudi River Protection Forum).

Instead of projecting the PHEP as the "alternative" to the failed SVHEP, the KSEB should have looked at options, it is being pointed out. A three per cent reduction in transmission and distribution losses can provide the equivalent of power generation at the PHEP, argues the Samithi. The next best option is faster completion of scores of incomplete projects, some of which have gone on for a quarter of a century. Then, the State had an identified potential of over 600 MW in small hydropower (SHP), nearly the same amount in wind energy and an untapped wealth of biomass energy. Such options should precede an adventurous project that could have an impact, the magnitude and value of which are as yet unquantifiable.

But such arguments continue to fall on ears deafened by the vociferous ideology of Development. Like dams, ideologies too have time and cost overruns.

@ The Quest Features & Footage

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