This was in the 1970s, after the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) announced plans to begin dam construction across the Kunthipuzha river in the Nilgiri region. This region was one of the few undisturbed areas of tropical moist forests in India, and is estimated to be 50 million years old. This dense forest chunk is also the habitat of lion-tailed macaque (simhavalan kurangu), a species endemic to the region.
Mega dam projects have always been known for their negative environmental impact and the proposed project was not an exception. Considering the importance of conserving the pristine nature of the region, there was a small group of people who tried to bring about a change in the government’s decision. One of them was Sugathakumari, a poetess, also referred to as “Sugathakumari Teacher”. These activists had to face ridicule from many. Members of many political parties and commercial interests were supportive of the dam construction project. The debate pitched between the need to choose between human beings and lion-tailed macaque.
As part of the conservation campaign, Sugathakumari Teacher wrote to the literary thinkers in India, stating, “The losing side in a battle also requires warriors. Please join us in this losing battle.”
The support to the losing side did came – from key literary figures in Malayalam like Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer, NV Krishna Varrier, Vyloppilly Sreedhara Menon, Sukumar Azhikode, Dr Bhaskaran Nair, OV Vijayan, M Mukundan, Anand and innumerable number of people. Mass petitions were collected and sent to public servants, including the President and Prime Minister of India. There were public protests. Soon, the campaign emerged as one of the globally visible environmental movements.
This movement gifted us the Silent Valley National Park. The Silent Valley forest plays a significant role in the creation and sustenance of Bhavani river, which provides drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people, including those living in Coimbatore.