[Obituary] MK Prasad: a relentless green activist
- MK Prasad – academic and environmental activist who led the long fight against the Silent Valley Project, a hydroelectric project damming the Kunthippuzha River in the Silent Valley Forest, breathed his last on January 17, 2022.
- Prasad’s colleagues have always been impressed with the amount of research he undertook before championing an environmental cause. His contagious passion for sustainability has spread through his iconic speeches, which have inspired many environmental campaigns in India and around the world.
- One of Prasad’s lasting legacies would be the creation of intense environmental awareness at the local level and the inspiration of a generation of committed environmental activists in the southern state of Kerala.
Famous Kerala-based environmental activist MK Prasad breathed his last on January 17, 2022, following complications from Covid-19. He was 89 years old. Best known for his crusade against the Silent Valley Project, a hydroelectric project in the Silent Valley Forest in Kerala, Prasad was a fierce advocate for sustainable development.
The Save Silent Valley (SSV) campaign opposed the construction of a 120 MW hydropower project by the Kerala State Electricity Board, which planned to build a dam across the Kunthippuzha River in the Silent Valley forest. A major element of opposition to the project was the potential destruction of the forest’s rich and rare biodiversity, 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 in the Western Ghats.
In the 1970s and 80s, Simhavaalan has been used as a pejorative term, to refer to environmental activists, especially those involved in the Save Silent Valley campaign. The state-owned power company claimed that the hydel project would alleviate the permanent power shortage in the northern districts of Kerala. Politicians, bureaucrats and pro-development civil society portrayed the ‘Simhavaalans‘ as anti-development. In their account, those who opposed Project Hydel cared more about the ape than the power-hungry humans.
MK Prasad, was naturally a simhavaalan also in the eyes of those who advocated for the hydropower project, as it was the academic environmental activist who had led the long fight against the project. A professor of botany with an in-depth knowledge of ecosystems and biodiversity, he knew the project would flood the rare evergreen rainforest and ruin its stock of biodiversity, including endangered primates.
The success of the Save Silent Valley campaign
“You might find other energy sources as technology advances,” Prasad told me some 30 years ago while recalling the Silent Valley Resistance, in an interview, adding, “but humanity will never be able to replicate this forest which is home to such rich and rare biodiversity.The lion-tailed macaque was just one of hundreds of reasons why Kerala needed to protect Silent Valley. Humanity is directly linked to the survival of the planet’s biodiversity, he said. As a biologist, he was keenly aware of the interdependence of nature, humanity and development. He did not was not anti-development; he knew that economic prosperity and jobs were essential to the well-being of the masses. He advocated for sustainable development, without harming the environment.
After a long popular resistance which gradually won the support of civil society, scientists and intellectuals in Kerala, the government of Kerala and the power board abandoned the hydel project in 1983. In 1984, the Prime Minister of Kerala At the time, 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 his son Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded him as Prime Minister of India.
The park now has a core area of 90 km² and a buffer zone of approximately 150 km². “Without Prasad, the massive resistance to the Silent Valley project would not have happened in the first place,” nuclear scientist Dr MP Parameswaran, 87, who had worked with Prasad on the campaign, told Mongabay-India. Parameswaran said it was difficult to garner support for the campaign as people demanded development and more jobs. Sustainable development and biodiversity conservation were not commonly used terms.
Political and media commentator Lawyer K. Jayashankar note: “When Prasad began his campaign, all political parties, almost all newspapers and most of civil society were in favor of the hydel project. He always had the conviction to move forward for the cause.
Using science to bring about social change
The Silent Valley campaign had the support of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a grassroots science movement made up of progressive writers, artists, intellectuals and activists. Created in 1963, the KSSP was originally a forum for left-wing science writers. After joining the KSSP in 1970, Prasad led the organization a few times and helped give it a clear set of goals: to create a scientific mindset in the masses, to help people benefit from technological advances and using science and technology for social change. In 1974, the forum chose to become a grassroots science movement and adopted “science for social revolution” as its motto.
“Even when the KSSP was divided over its support for the Save Silent Valley (SSV) campaign, Prasad backed up its arguments with data, the courage of conviction and persuasion,” recalls Parameswaran who worked alongside Prasad on various KSSP initiatives for about four decades.
PS Rajasekharan, who is part of the executive committee of KSSP, shares: “There are academic ecologists, militant ecologists and sentimental ecologists. Prasad was all three put together in the right proportions.
Prasad’s trademark, his catchy persuasive speeches have inspired many. He spoke to hundreds of people on street corners to spread the SSV message to the grassroots community.
Read more: [Obituary] Poet Sugathakumari: She gave voice to the Silent Valley
Work with meticulous attention to detail
Prasad was born in 1933 in Cherayi, an island village off Kochi known for its anti-caste agitations and social reform initiatives of the last century. Her education in botany added to her natural love of trees and bodies of water. He was first involved in raising awareness among ordinary people about the contamination of Periyar’s waters caused by effluents discharged from chemical factories located along the banks of the river. He organized pollution awareness meetings for factory workers during their lunch break. While working as a university professor in Kozhikode, his attention was drawn to the contamination of the Chaliyar River caused by Mavoor Gwalior Rayon, a pulp mill. A village near the plant at one time had the highest density of cancer patients in the country. (The factory closed in 1999 after decades of popular unrest.)
“Whatever environmental cause he championed, Prasad did 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 Vembanad backwaters. , says Mongabay-India. “Scientist and researcher, he studied his case objectively before drawing his conclusions. He brought science and research down to earth and practiced and popularized them in a way that ordinary people would understand,” George added.
George also recalled how he fought a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court against a plan to build a network of bridges and commercial premises by converting 250 hectares of Vembanad backwaters off Kochi. Eventually, the project was reduced to 25 hectares.
The many newspaper and magazine articles he wrote on environmental protection stood out for their clarity and simplicity. Poet Sugathakumari, who later became the public face of the SSV campaign, said she was inspired by an article written by Prasad highlighting the ecological damage likely to be caused by the project.
Kusumam Joseph, an environmental activist and state-level leader of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, who worked with Prasad in campaigns against Hydel’s Athirappally and Pathrakkadavu projects, said Prasad could still convince activists to the justness of an environmental cause. “He did this by dispassionately analyzing the pros and cons of the controversial development project in question, then comparing its economic costs with the environmental costs.
Besides speaking, writing, lobbying policymakers, and training lawmakers, Prasad has organized rallies, staged protest marches, and participated in marches. Years after leaving Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, as principal, Prasad once threatened to join a protest dharna under a huge tree on campus if college authorities cut down the tree as part of a campus development plan. In another incident, when Kochi city authorities felled an old tree to widen a road, Prasad laid a wreath around the stump of the dead tree and encouraged press photographers to click the Pictures. It has always encouraged creative environmental action and acts like planting trees, harvesting rainwater, and growing urban vegetables.
Inspire green generations
The success of the Save Silent Valley campaign was a shining example of how a knowledge-based, mass-supported resistance movement could force governments to abandon disastrous development projects. Silent Valley has inspired dozens of environmental campaigns in India and around the world. Prasad was also associated with many international environmental organizations where he could ignite the spirit of Silent Valley.
One of the lasting legacies of Prasad would be the creation of intense environmental awareness at the grassroots level in Kerala. “Perhaps the greatest achievement of Prasad and the Silent Valley movement has been the emergence of an environmentally conscious generation,” says Parameswaran.
The current wave of protests against the Kerala government’s controversial $8.5 billion high-speed rail project is the byproduct of the awareness created by Silent Valley. There are fears that the Silverline rail, which stretches across Kerala, is causing major environmental damage. A few days before his death, 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 brought global attention to a rainforest 40 years ago
Banner image: Professor MK Prasad at an event organized by Kerala Nadi Samrakshana Samithi (KNSS) in December 2021. Photo by KNSS.