Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Silent Valley Buffer Zone:A Step Forward for Kerala

By N P Chekkutty

The Kerala Government’ decision to declare an area around the Silent Valley National Park as a buffer zone around the famous ecological treasure trove is a major boost for the environmental protection movement in the country. The buffer zone would comprise an area of 148 square k.m. of forest land around Silent Valley National Park ensuring the safety of the rare flora and fauna in the park.

The Silent Valley, declared a national park in 1984, comprises only 89.52 square k.m. of reserved forest land in the ecologically strategic Nilgiri biosphere region. Its boundaries were fixed in 1914 on the basis of administrative and legal considerations while the natural habitat of the variety of flora and fauna in the region extends much beyond the area earmarked as the park. If human encroachment and development activities were allowed in the surrounding region it would spell doom for the national park, as pointed out by the environmental activists and government agencies connected with the forest and environmental ministries of the State and Central governments.

The Left Democratic Front Government in Kerala which came to power in 2006 had made a commitment in its draft forest policy, released a few months ago, that the area surrounding the Silent Valley park would be declared as a buffer zone for the protection of the ecologically fragile national heritage. Forest Minister Benoy Viswam was passionately committed to the protection of Silent Valley though there was resistance from within the Government to the proposal.

The opponents to the buffer zone proposal were led by Mr A K Balan, Minister for Electricity Generation, who was campaigning for a new hydel power generation project in the vicinity of Silent Valley named the Pathrakakdavu Hydel Power Project (PHPP). It was not his original idea, but something he borrowed from his political rivals. The Pathrakkadavu project was originally proposed in 2004 by the earlier Congress-led Government, but it had to face stiff opposition from various government agencies as well as environmental groups from within the State and outside. The reason was simple: The PHPP was a much watered down version of the Silent Valley Hydel Power Project in the seventies which became the focal point of environmental movements in the country attracting international attention and intervention. The movement which raged from mid- seventies till the early eighties was the first major rallying point for the ecological movement in the country: It came to a successful conclusion when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made the decision to declare the valley as a national park.

The PHPP envisaged by the Kerala State Electricity Board was projected as an environmentally friendly initiative, necessitated by the increasing power shortage in the State. It was designed as a run-of-the-river hydel power generation scheme, channeling the water of Kunthipuzha over a 2.5 km stretch, with an installed capacity of 70 mw. in the first phase (105 mw. in the final phase), and an energy generation of 214 million units making use of a 64.4 metre-high dam. The total area of forest land to be submerged in the dam was a minimal 4.10 ha, said the project report. But a subsequent study pointed out that the actual submergence will be higher at 22.16 ha, though it was negligible when compared to the 830 ha. of tropical evergreen forests that would have perished if the original Silent Valley project had been implemented, argued the officials supporting the PHPP.

But a rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) carried out in 2004 in an area of 5 km radius of the proposed project site proved that the actual impact would not be as minimal or as simple as was made out by official sources. The most important objection raised by the environmental groups was that any development activity in the Silent Valley region would destroy the fragile ecological balance of the region and eventually would spell doom for the national park. The significance of Silent Valley is that it is an “ecological island” with a relatively undisturbed evolutionary history of at least 50 million years manifested in a high degree of floral and faunal endemism. Rare and endangered new biological species were discovered from the region making it a hot spot for biologists worldwide. Any intervention in the park or the region surrounding it would be disastrous, asserted the opponents of the project.

The government-sponsored EIA report also brought to light the ecological significance of the Pathrakkadavu region. It found 381 species of flowering plants in the proposed PHPP region of which 55 were endemic to Western Ghats; seven were categorized as rare by the IUCN. The EIA enlisted 23 species of mammals, 79 species of birds, 22 species of reptiles, 14 sp. of amphibians, 18 sp. of fishes (of them 10 found not even in Silent Valley) and 43 sp. of butterflies in the region. The report pointed out that of all these species, 20 per cent were endemic to the Western Ghats.

Ecologists like Dr. V S Vijayan, then director of Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology, Coimbatore, had argued that the rapid environmental impact study was inadequate, as it was carried out in a few days. What was necessary to get a complete picture of the biological richness of the region was a study taking into account a multi-seasonal sampling. What is significant is that even this officially sponsored rapid study could not conceal the biological uniqueness of the Pathrakakadavu region.

It was circumstances like this that prompted the LDF Government, when it came to power in May 2006, to take a fresh look at the issue of environmental threats and to declare its intention to provide for a buffer zone in Silent Valley. The scientific community and the Union Government have been strongly in favour, and the Central Ministry of Forests and Environment had promised to double its financial support for Silent Valley, now around Rs. 30 crore annually, in the event of the State going for a buffer zone. A 1979 proposal made by Dr. M S Swaminathan, then secretary to Department of Agriculture, had called for a National Rainforest Biosphere Reserve in the region bringing together 39,000 ha. of forest land falling in the Silent Valley(8952 ha), New Amarambalam Reserve(800 ha), Attappadi Reserve Forest(12,000ha.),all in Kerala, and Kunda forest (10,000 ha) in Tamil Nadu.

The forest officials in the Kerala Government assert that with the cabinet approval for buffer zone for Silent Valley, the KSEB’s Pathrakkadavu power project is as good as shelved though the Electricity Minister has asserted that it would go ahead. But it appears that the Central environmental clearance for the project is hard to come by, as even the public opinion in Kerala is strongly in favour of alternative proposals for power generation leaving the Silent Valley alone. What caused a change in they local public mood is the proposal to engage the tribal population in nine settlements in the region as major stakeholders involving them in environmentally sustainable projects in the zone.

No comments: