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Sounds of silence: a forest that survived 'development' (downtoearth)

Silent Valley National Park reinforces the fact that forests and their resident biodiversity are our greatest wealth

Since the day I was assigned to write about Kerala’s Silent Valley National Park, a 90-sq km stretch of tropical evergreen forest tucked in the Western Ghats, I have been asked a question over and over again: why is it called Silent Valley? It is a peculiar name in a country like ours. There are more than 100 national parks in India, most of them named after either a physical feature like a river or a mountain; a historical or mythological place or character; an animal; or a former prime minister. Only two names inspire the imagination: the Valley of Flowers National Park in Uttarakhand and Silent Valley.

In a booklet titled “Storm Over Silent Valley”, senior environmental journalist Darryl D’monte notes its widely accepted etymology. The valley was originally known as Sairandhri, another name for Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavas. And the river flowing through it is called Kunthipuzha, after their mother. When an Englishman, who discovered this virgin forest in colonial times, found that that there was no white noise of the cicadas after dark, common in other forested areas, he renamed it the Silent Valley.

A special forest no one has heard of

Silent Valley is one of India’s few rainforests. D’monte writes that it would be more correct to call it a shola forest, a type of vegetation found only at the base of valleys in the western hills of south India. Surrounded by high ridges, the forest is deep and virtually impenetrable. So secluded is Silent Valley that there is no written record of any human habitation in its core area. While there are some tribal settlements in the buffer zone, the mere fact that the forest is unspoilt by humans is enough to raise my suspense. I am also eager to visit the site of the first and most bitterly fought environment v development debate in India.

I arrive in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, and decide to hire a taxi to Mukkali, the base camp of the Silent Valley National Park, around 62 km away. Armed with a 20-word-strong Tamil vocabulary generously sprinkled with English, I start asking around for a way to the park. But the mention of Silent Valley invites raised eyebrows and casual shrugs from taxi drivers and shopkeepers alike. No one has heard of it before. I thought that the city’s taxi drivers would be used to a steady stream of tourists and nature enthusiasts headed for the national park. They are not. I cannot blame them though. Eleven years ago, I spent three days reporting on tribals as a student in Attapadi, within a whispering distance of Silent Valley. Apart from a passing reference to the forest, I had then remained largely indifferent to its momentous environmental history. With so much written and spoken about this forest, why is Silent Valley still unknown to or underappreciated by people? Is the valley’s silence a boon or a curse?

The mention of Silent Valley invites raised eyebrows and casual shrugs from taxi drivers and shopkeepers alike. No one has heard of it before
Credit: Jemima Rohekar

“I first heard about Silent Valley in 1972 when a newspaper article announced the Kerala government’s plan to build a hydropower project over the Kunthipuzha,” says M K Prasad, one of the pioneers of the Save Silent Valley movement. He was then a teacher of botany at a college in Kozhikode. When he visited the forest, he realised that building a dam would be nothing short of a blunder. “The forest was impenetrable and largely undisturbed. If the dam had been built, it would have started degrading the forest system slowly and we would have lost the entire forest over a period of time,” he adds.

The idea for a dam had taken root in the 1920s. The natural drop of the Kunthipuzha river, as it flows into the plains, is the highest in Kerala at 857 metres, making it the ideal site for a hydropower project. After Independence, multi-purpose river valley projects became a top priority to fulfill the country’s requirements for irrigation and electricity. So much so that by 1979, Government of India had invested nearly 14 per cent of the total planned expenditure on dams and canals. One of these projects was in Silent Valley; a 131-metre-high dam, which would generate 240 MW of electricity and irrigate 10,000 hectares of land in Kerala’s Palghat and Malapuram districts. The project was, however, never to be.

One of a kind

Back in Coimbatore, I finally find a taxi driver who offers to take me to Mukkali by following the route on Google Maps. Soon enough, we are going up and down winding roads in the countryside from Tamil Nadu to Kerala. Banana, coconut and areca nut plantations line the road, protected by electric fencing to keep elephants from destroying the crop. 

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