The pristine evergreen forests of Silent Valley are once again swaying in the turbulence of controversy. Much to the shock of the environmentalists and conservationists in the state and elsewhere, the Kerala government gave administrative sanction to the controversial Pathrakadavu Hydroelectric Project (PHEP) on 18 April. With this, even as the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic front government keeps asserting its avowed commitment to environment protection, the greens are getting ready for yet another round of the Save Silent Valley battle.

The Pathrakadavu project, proposed by the Kerala State Electricty Board (KSEB), first came up in 2004 (see here) during the erstwhile United Democratic Front government. Ever since, environmentalists and a group of scientists have been questioning its ecological and technical viability. They had specifically pointed out that the Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (REIA) conducted by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Environmental Resources Research Centre in 2003 was inadequate, incomplete and incorrect. They were categorical that the PHEP would pose a grave threat to the long-term viability of the Silent Valley National Park.

The river Kunti at the site of the proposed dam (Picture credit: The Quest Features & Footage).

"The decision to give administrative sanction to the Pathrakadavu project indicates the total ecological illiteracy of the political leadership," points out Prof. M K Prasad, renowned environmentalist and former president of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) which spearheaded the Save Silent Valley Campaign in the late 1970s and the early 80s. "If the government had any commitment to conserving an international heritage of biodiversity, it would have at least consulted its own Science and Technology Council or Environment Department."

The Silent Valley tropical rainforests on the Western Ghats in Kerala's Palakkad district gained worldwide attention in the late 1970s, when they were threatened by the controversial Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project (SVHEP) proposed then. The defence of their biological, geographical and evolutionary significance and richness was taken up by conservationists, civil society groups, NGOs and scientists in a stirring seven-year battle filled with worldwide campaigns and appeals to protect and preserve the forests as world heritage. SVHEP was eventually shelved, and in 1984, the 89-square-kilometre Silent Valley National Park was established; it was subsequently included in the core area of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, one of the world's biodiversity hotspots.

The old struggle all over again

The Pathrakadavu dam proposed to be built across the Kunthi River originating from Silent Valley is a scaled-down version of the originally proposed Silent Valeey Hydroelectric Project (SVHEP). At an estimated cost of Rs.247 crores (1999 estimate), the 64.5 metre high and 275 metre wide dam to generate 70 megawatts (MW) of power will be situated a mere 500 metres from the official boundary of the National Park and 3.5 kilometres from the original dam site. According to the REIA, the total forest area that would be destroyed by the PHEP is 22.16 hectares. The KSEB's argument is that compared to 830 ha of tropical evergreen forests that would have been submerged under the original project, this is negligible.

But sanctuaries and national parks have buffer zones; their boundaries are not abrupt. And there is strong apprehension that if the PHEP is implemented, it would provide a backdoor entry to the hitherto untouched Silent Valley Forests. "The project site falls within the buffer zone of the National Park and its ecological boundary," points out M K Prasad. "The Committee headed by M G K Menon had specifically pointed out in 1982 that constructing a hydroelectric project within the ecological boundary of the Silent Valley will cause irreparable damage to this fragile forest ecosystem." In fact, says Prasad, after the notification of the National Park in 1984, the boundary of the Protected Area should have been expanded to include the actual boundary of the forest ecosystem going beyond the Reserve Forest boundary.

But "even after repeated assurance, the state government has yet not demarcated the buffer zone," points out Sugathakumari, the famed Malayalam poet who played a key role in the earlier struggle for protecting Silent Valley. "It's sad that the government still speaks in the same language it spoke a quarter of century ago."

"The decision to give administrative sanction to the Pathrakadavu project indicates the total ecological illiteracy of the political leadership," points out Prof. M K Prasad, renowned environmentalist.

 •  Silent Valley threatened again

In a recent report assessing the environmental impacts of the project, even the Divisional Forest Officer for Silent Valley, K V Uthaman, has asserted that the first and foremost casualty of the project would be the long-term viability of the existing National Park, and the PHEP would cause the same damage that would have been caused by the original dam. The proposed dam and the seven-kilometer winding road to be constructed up the steep slope to the dam site would destroy a large tract of the forests.

This report and other studies such as the one prepared by Dr V S Vijayan, director of the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) in 2004 clearly reveal that the Pathrakadvu site too is an abode of biodiversity. Even the REIA found 381 species of flowering plants in the Pathrakadavu region of which 55 were endemic to the Western Ghats and seven were classified as 'rare' as per the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN; in recent years the union has referred to itself as the World Conservation Union, but use of the old name and its abbreviation continues). The EIA also listed 23 species of mammals, 79 species of birds, 22 species of reptiles, 43 species of butterflies, 14 species of amphibians, 18 species of fishes out of which 10 are not found even in Silent Valley.

"Before taking any decision on the project, at least a detailed EIA should have been conducted," argues Dr A Latha, activist of the Chalakkudi Puzha Samrakshana Samithi (Chalakkudi River Protection Forum). Also, after the public hearing on the REIA conducted by the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) in May 2004, which turned out to be a fiasco, the National River Valley Authority had asked the government in October 2006 to conduct another public hearing. This has not happened as yet.

Government's arguments are weak

The KSEB is also accused of fabricating hydrological data for making the Pathrakadavu project seem to be feasible. According to the REIA, the average annual rainfall of the area is 5007 mm, whereas the rain gauges located at the old dam site just 3.5 km upstream of the proposed dam site read only 3800mm of annual rainfall. "To generate 70 MW power, water flow at the dam site should be at least 22,000 litres a second. This has not been measured at all," says R.V G Menon, former director of Integrated Rural Technology Centre, Palakkad. "The detailed project report was prepared on old data. Rainfall patterns and river flows do not match each other, and are exaggerated in the project report," he says.

In the face of growing resistance against the PHEP, including from inside the ruling front, Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan (who stood against the dam as the Opposition leader during the previous UDF rule), Electricity Minister A K Balan and the Forest Minister Binoy Viswom all assert that the government will not implement any project that will harm the environment.

"The government is not against environmental protection," explains Balan. "The state is in a power crisis. We will have to add an additional power generation capacity of 1500 MW in the next 10 years to meet the increasing demand." He points out that the number of power consumers will go up from 87 lakh to one crore by 2010, which calls for a total installed capacity of 4500 MW. Besides, power sources would have to be found for several new projects such as the Vizhinjam Port (300 MW), Smart City (150 MW) and Vallarpadam Container Terminal (200 MW).

This argument, however, sounds weak when considered alongside data from The Economic Review 2006 published by the State Planning Board. According to this report, Kerala has a production capacity of 4200 MW from wind, solar, biomass and small hydro power. But this has yet not been tapped. Also, transmission and distribution losses are still as high as 25 per cent. Out of the 14,393 Million units (MUs) of power Kerala purchased and generated in 2005-06, 3349 MUs were lost during transmission and distribution! A mere three per cent reduction in these T&D losses would provide electricity equivalent to the projected generation of PHEP.

It seems also that the state government has ignored an important direction by the Kerala High Court in relation to power projects. Considering a public interest litigation filed against another controversial project, the proposed Athirappilly Hydroelectric Project, the Court in 2001 had observed that the first step to be taken by the Board was the rectification or repair works in existing hydroelectric projects so as to restore the optimum generation of energy and to take steps to minimise the transmission loss and eliminate power theft. "Since we are concerned with public interest in these proceedings, we think it is just and proper to issue a direction to the Board to take all the necessary steps to repair and restore to full capacity, all the existing hydroelectric projects ..." The KSEB has made no serious efforts to ensure any of these. (Quest Features & Footage)