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Silent Valley redux?

K.G. Kumar

THE name might not quite ring a pristine Malayalam tone, but `Silent Valley' is as close to Keralites' collective memory as the rainforest is to Macaca silenus, the lion-tailed macaque that once was the mascot of a unique and sustained environmental battle to save the only remaining undisturbed tropical evergreen rainforest in peninsular India.

Located in the southwestern corner of the Nilgiris in the Western Ghats, in Palakkad district of Kerala, Silent Valley is an "ecological island" that boasts of minimally modified "climax" forest cover. Ecologists define "climax" as the ultimate stage in the evolution of plant communities in equilibrium with the climate and other environmental factors, which have developed in the absence of human interference. As a result, Silent Valley boasts a wealth of biological and genetic heritage, a rare biodiversity that has evolved over the 50 million years that is said to be the evolutionary age of the valley.

Its bio-geographic isolation and the uniqueness of its flora and fauna, unsullied by human activities, lay at the roots of the movement to Save Silent Valley from a hydroelectric project (HEP) of the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). After over a decade (1977 to 1988) of environmental campaigning, media advocacy and assessments by expert committees, the Government of Kerala was forced to declare the Silent Valley area as a National Park.

Today, the Silent Valley National Park is in the core area of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Visitors are permitted only up to Sairandhiri, the spot of the proposed old dam site, 23 km from Mukkali, a small town that houses the office of the Deputy Director of the Kerala Forest Department.

However, a new project appears set to undo all the gains of that epochal environmental campaign and bring back the Silent Valley HEP, albeit in a new garb - as the 70 MW Pathrakadavu HEP. The proposed site of the dam (64.5 m high and 275 m long) is just 3.5 km downstream of the old dam site at Sairandhiri, across the Kunthi River, and 500 m below the National Park boundary.

The Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project was carried out during January to May 2003 by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Environmental Resources Research Centre and its report was released in December 2003.

The EIA study team claims that the forest loss due to the project will be just 22.16 hectares, apart from the land to be acquired for the powerhouse in the human settlement area in Karapadam. The 84-sq.km catchment of the project area includes 79 sq.km of the Silent Valley National Park as per the EIA.

At a recent Public Hearing on the proposed project, engineers and environmental scientists from the River Research Centre (RRC) and the Bharathapuzha Samrakshana Samithy contested the claims of the EIA. They said that the hydrological data had been fabricated and the stream flow calculations were grossly over-estimated.

They argued that the Joint Committee set up by the Government of India and Kerala in 1982 (which led to the famous M.G.K. Menon Report on Silent Valley) had estimated an annual run-off yield of the Kunthi river at 293 Mm3. However, the Water Resources of Kerala Report-1974 had put the annual average run-off from the Kunthi River at 202 Mm3.

Thus, going by the different scientific reports and the measurements from the rain gauge of the Forest Department at Sairandhiri, just 3.5 km upstream of the proposed dam site, revealed that the average annual rainfall was only 3,800 mm.

The estimated cost of the proposed project (Rs 247.06 crore at 1999 estimates) would now cost Rs 450 crore at the current schedule of rates. Taking into consideration the high (30 per cent of production) transmission and distribution (T&D) losses in the KSEB system, the actual power available for end consumption will be further reduced and much costlier.

The actual power generation possible from the proposed Pathrakkadavu HEP will be less than 100 MU, which can be easily met by reducing the T&D losses by a mere three per cent, the environmentalists point out.

These are early days yet, and arguments and counterarguments are bound to clash in the days ahead. But an uneasy sense of deja vu hangs over the entire development. Those with long memories will remember the origins of the Silent Valley debate in the 1970s. Are we set for another similar battle?

The writer can be contacted at kg@tug.org.in

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