[Obituary] M.K. Prasad: A relentless green activist

  • M. K. Prasad — scholar and environmental activist who spearheaded the long struggle against the Silent Valley project, a hydroelectric project damming the Kunthippuzha river in the Silent Valley forest, breathed his last on the 17th January, 2022.
  • Prasad’s colleagues have always been impressed with the amount of research that he undertook before championing any environmental cause. His infectious passion for sustainable development spread through his trademark speeches, which inspired many environmental campaigns in India and around the globe.
  • One of Prasad’s lasting legacies would be the creation of an intense, grassroots-level environmental consciousness and inspiring a generation of committed environmental acitivists in the southern state of Kerala.

Renowed Kerala-based environmental activist M. K. Prasad, breathed his last on 17 January 2022, following Covid-19 complications. He was 89. Most known for his crusade against the Silent Valley project, a hydroelectric project in the Silent Valley forest in Kerala, Prasad was a relentless advocate of sustainable development.

The Save Silent Valley (SSV) campaign opposed the building of a 120 MW hydroelectric project by the Kerala State Electricity Board, which planned to dam the Kunthippuzha river in the Silent Valley forest. A major plank of the opposition to the project was the potential destruction of the rare rich biodiversity of the forest, including the famous lion-tailed macaque. Called Simhavaalan Kurangu in Malayalam, the lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus), an endangered species, thrived in Silent Valley, an evergreen rainforest of the Western Ghats.

In the 1970-80s, Simhavaalan was used as a derogatory term, to denote environmental activists, especially those involved in the Save Silent Valley campaign. The State-owned power company claimed that the hydel project would ease the perennial power shortage in the northern districts of Kerala. Pro-development politicians, bureaucrats and civil society painted the `Simhavaalans’ as anti-development. In their narrative, those who opposed the hydel project cared more for the monkey than for the power-starved humans.

M.K. Prasad, was naturally a simhavaalan too in the eyes of those who advocated for the hydroelectric project, for, it was the scholar-environmentalist activist who had spearheaded the long struggle against the project. A Botany professor with deep insights into ecosystems and biodiversity, he knew that the project would inundate the rare tropical evergreen forest and ruin its biodiversity stock, including the endangered primates.

The success of the Save Silent Valley campaign

“You could find other sources of power as technology advances,” Prasad told me some 30 years ago while recalling the silent Valley resistance, in an interview, adding, “but, humankind will never be able to replicate that forest which is home to such a rich and rare biodiversity.” The lion-tailed macaque was just one of the hundreds of reasons why Kerala needed to protect Silent Valley. The survival of humankind is directly linked to the survival of biodiversity of the planet, he said. As a biologist, he was deeply aware of the interconnectedness of nature, humankind and development. He was not anti-development; he knew that economic prosperity and jobs were essential for the well-being of the masses. He advocated for sustainable development, without harming the environment.

At the end of a long people’s resistance that gradually gained the support of Kerala’s civil society, scientists and intellectuals, the Kerala Government and the power board abandoned the hydel project in 1983. In 1984, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, a few weeks before her assassination, announced that Silent Valley would be turned into a national park. The following year, the national park was declared open by her son Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded her as the Prime Minister of India.

The Silent Valley National Park. Photo by Lijo Lawrence.
The Silent Valley National Park. Photo by Lijo Lawrence/ Wikimedia Commons.

The park now has a core area of 90 sq. km and a buffer area of around 150 sq. km. “But for Prasad, the massive resistance to the Silent Valley project would not have happened in the first place,” nuclear scientist Dr M.P. Parameswaran, 87, who had worked with Prasad on the campaign, told Mongabay-India. Parameswaran explained that it was hard to gather support for the campaign when people clamoured for development and more jobs. Sustainable development and biodiversity conservation were not commonly used terms.

Political and media commentator Advocate K. Jayashankar  notes, “When Prasad began his campaign, all the political parties, almost all the newspapers and most of the civil society were in favour of the hydel project. He still had the conviction to go ahead for the cause.”

Using science to bring a social change

The Silent Valley campaign had the backing of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a people’s science movement comprising progressive writers, artists, intellectuals and activists. Set up in 1963, KSSP had started out as a Left-leaning science writers’ forum. After joining KSSP in 1970, Prasad headed the organisation a few times and helped give it a clear set of purposes: create a scientific mindset in the masses, help people benefit from technological advances, and use science and technology for social change. In 1974, the forum opted to become a people’s science movement and adopted `science for social revolution’ as its motto.

”Even when KSSP was divided over its support to the Save Silent Valley (SSV) campaign, Prasad backed his arguments with data, the courage of conviction and persuasiveness,” recalls Parameswaran who worked alongside Prasad on various KSSP initiatives for about four decades.

P.S. Rajasekharan, who is on the executive committee of KSSP, shares, “There are academic environmentalists, activist environmentalists, and sentimental environmentalists. Prasad was all three put together in the right proportions.”

Prasad’s trademark, attention-grabbing persuasive speeches inspired many. He addressed hundreds in street corners to spread the SSV message among the grassroots-level community.

Read more: [Obituary] Poet Sugathakumari: She gave voice to the Silent Valley

Working with meticulous attention to detail

Prasad was born in 1933 at Cherayi, an island village off Kochi, known for its anti-caste agitations and social reform initiatives of the last century. His Botany education added to his natural love of trees and water bodies. He was initially involved in creating awareness among common people about the contamination of the Periyar waters caused by the effluents released from the chemical factories located along the banks of the river. He held pollution awareness meetings for factory workers during their lunch break. While working as a college teacher at Kozhikode, his attention was drawn to the contamination of the Chaliyar river caused by Mavoor Gwalior Rayon, a wood pulp factory. A village in the vicinity of the factory, at one time, had the largest density of cancer patients in the country. (The factory folded in 1999 after decades of people’s agitation.)

“Whichever environmental cause he championed, Prasad used to do his homework thoroughly,” Charles George, president of the influential Kerala Matsya Thozhilali Aikya Vedi (Fish Workers’ Union), who had worked with Prasad on the campaign for the conservation of the Vembanad backwaters, told Mongabay-India. “A scientist and researcher, he used to study his cause objectively before coming to his conclusions. He brought science and research down to earth and practised and popularised them in a way that common people understood them,” George added.

George also recalled how he fought a legal battle up to the Supreme Court against a project to build a network of bridges and commercial places by converting 250 hectares of the Vembanad backwaters off Kochi. Finally, the project was reduced to 25 hectares.

The numerous newspaper and magazine articles he wrote on environmental protection stood out for their clarity and simplicity.  The poet Sugathakumari, who later became the public face of the SSV campaign, stated that she was inspired by an article written by Prasad highlighting the ecological damage likely to be caused by the project.

Kusumam Joseph, environmental activist and a State-level leader of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, who worked with Prasad in the campaigns against the Athirappally and Pathrakkadavu hydel projects, said Prasad could always convince the activists of the rightness of an environmental cause. “This he did by dispassionately analysing the pros and cons of the controversial development project in question, and then comparing its economic costs with the environmental costs.

Grassrootslevel campaigning

Apart from speeches, writings, lobbying with policymakers and educating lawmakers, Prasad led rallies, took out protest marches and went on walkathons. Years after he left Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, as its Principal, Prasad once threatened to sit in a protest dharna under a huge tree on the campus if the college authorities cut the tree down as part of a campus development plan. In another incident, when the Kochi city authorities chopped an old tree to widen a road, Prasad laid a wreath around the stump of the dead tree, and encouraged news photographers to click pictures. He always encouraged creative environmental action and acts like tree planting, rainwater harvesting and urban vegetable farming.

The Lion-tailed macaque population thrives in the Silent Valley. Photo by Mithun/ Wikimedia Commons.
The Lion-tailed macaque population thrives in the Silent Valley. Photo by Mithun/ Wikimedia Commons.

Inspiring green generations

The success of the Save Silent Valley campaign has been a shining example of how a knowledge-based, mass-supported resistance movement could force governments to back down from disastrous development projects. Silent Valley inspired scores of environmental campaigns in India and around the globe. Prasad was also associated with numerous international environmental organisations where he could ignite the Silent Valley spirit.

One of Prasad’s lasting legacies would be the creation of an intense, grassroots-level environmental consciousness in Kerala. “Perhaps the biggest achievement of Prasad and the Silent Valley movement has been the emergence of an environment-conscious generation,” says Parameswaran.

The current wave of protests against the controversial 8.5 billion-dollar high-speed rail project of the Kerala Government is the byproduct of the awareness created by Silent Valley. The Silverline rail, stretching from one end of Kerala to the other, is feared to cause extensive damage to the environment. A couple of days before his passing, Prasad had signed as a petitioner, part of a mass petition asking the Chief Minister of Kerala to withdraw the project.

Read more: Silent Valley: A controversy that focused global attention on a rainforest 40 years ago

Banner image: Professor M.K. Prasad at an event organised by the Kerala Nadi Samrakshana Samithi (KNSS) in December 2021. Photo by KNSS.

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