In the High Court of Kerala. Decided on 2nd January,1980. Equivalent citations O.P Nos. 2949 and 3025 of 1979 Bench Hon’ble Justice Mr. V.P. Gopalan Nambia. Petitioners Society for Protection of Silent Valley Respondents Union of India, State of Kerala and Kerala Electricity Board, Trivandrum.
Silent Valley: In the Palghat District of the State of Kerala, 45 Kilometers to the north of Mannarghadu, there can be found a stretch of forest, nearly 8952 Hectares known as ‘Silent Valley’. It derives its name from the peace, quiet and serenity that the forest has to offer. The Silent Valley is home to India’s largest tropical evergreen forests and consists of a large variety of flora and fauna. The rare Nilgiri Tahr and Lion Tailed Macaques are also residents of this forest. The Silent Valley National Park in Kerala is rich for its bio-diversity.
The case famously known as the ‘Silent Valley’ case is till today known as one of the most remarkable cases where a ‘people’s movement’ against deforestation came to fruition. This movement helped prevent the destruction of a bio-diverse forest from a hydro-electric project. Thousands of people, through seminars, newspapers, awareness- programs and petitions exerted pressure on the government to terminate the project. Their pleas and protests proved successful when in 1986 Silent Valley was declared a National Park. The power of people’s action and how effective it can be is portrayed by this movement.
Constitution and statutory provisions discussed: Article 37, 48-A and 49 of the Constitution. The Wildlife Preservation Act, 1972.
In 1970, the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) had proposed a hydroelectric dam across the Kunthipuzha River which encroached upon Silent Valley and which would submerge 8.3 sq km of the moist evergreen forest. In 1973 the project gets approved by the Planning Commission at the cost of Rs.25 Crores. Protests erupts against the Silent Valley Hydro-Electric Project (SVHEP). Despite various protests and pleas the state government proceeds with the project. In 1977 the people’s outcry against the project though started locally garners international attention with the General Assembly of IUCN urging the Government to conserve the undisturbed forest area. Rejecting all the appeals the government begins the project in 1979. Following which Petitions were filed seeking a writ forbidding the State of Kerala from proceeding to construct a hydro-electric project at Silent Valley.
- Can the Judiciary in the present case interfere with the policy decisions of the government?
Contentions put forth by petitioners:
- It was contended that preservation of forests was vital and of great national importance. Article 48-A which calls for preservation of forests and wildlife and Article 49 of the Constitution was mentioned to support this contention.
- It was contended that such hydro-electric project would have adverse impact on the Silent Valley and it was stated that such deforestation would affect the climatic conditions in the State and outside. It would deprive the State’s share of rain during the monsoon.
- It was contended that the preservation of forests was required to effectively carry out research in medicine, pest control, breeding of economic plants and a variety of other purposes.
- It was contended that deforestation bound to occur by the project would interfere with the balance of nature, between the forest land on one hand and arable and other types of lands on the other.
- It was contended that the project conflicts with the Wildlife Preservation Act. It was argued that the petitioners have a legal right to breathe pure air and drink pure water, etc. and that such rights would be affected by the proposed deforestation of the Silent Valley.
Contentions put forth by respondents:
- It was contended that the project received sanction in 1973 by the Planning Committee and administrative sanction was given in 1976 and any ecological upset likely to result from the execution of the project was already considered.
- It was contended that the location was ideal for the construction of a hydro-electric project which would produce considerable amount of power at the cheapest rate.
- It was contended that according to Article 37, it would be the duty of the State to apply the directive principles in making law. It was argued that administrative sanction was accorded to the project in 1973 thus it was before the 42nd Amendment.
- It was contended that electricity was necessary for the state and with the rapidly changing needs and requirements of the State such developments were crucial.
The court in this case agreed with the view that the hydro-electric project if allowed and set up would have its impact on the environment. However, the court rejected the petitions on the following grounds:
- The question of ecological upset likely to result from the execution of the project was already considered.
- The location would be ideal for a hydro-electric project, which would produce considerable amount of power at the cheapest rate.
- The project is of crucial importance to the state was a unanimous view held by the legislature of Kerala and a resolution was adopted on 18-8-1978 expressing anxiety on the continuing delay, besides an all-party delegation from Kerala to the Prime Minister on 7-4-1978.
- The action taken to implement the seventeen safeguards recommended by the Task Force which was appointed by the National Committee on Environmental Planning and Co-ordination (NCEPC) was a clear indication that the government had borne in mind the ecological aspects involved in the execution of the project and its impact upon the same.
The court before pronouncing its judgement had perused copious extracts from various works, reports and other materials regarding the technical feasibility of the project and the importance of ecological considerations in assessing the worth and utility of such a project. The court refused to interfere with the decision of the government and stated that, “In this region we cannot substitute our judgment for that of the Government, on the question as to whether a national asset is to be more conveniently utilised as a hydroelectric project with prospects of greater power generation, or retained in its pristine glory for preservation of forests and wild life, prevention of soil erosion, and avoidance of other deleterious effects on the community. The scope for interference with such policy decision of the Government, should, in the nature of things be limited”.
The court regarding the contentions of the petitioner pertaining to Article 48-A and Article 49 stated that these aspects have already been borne in mind by the Government while planning and processing the project. It stated that there was no satisfactory ground to prove that ‘the assessment of these considerations made by the government and the policy decisions taken thereafter were liable to be reviewed by the court in the proceedings.’
Regarding the danger of extinction of the lion-tailed monkey the court stated that the matter was already dealt in paragraph 8 of the counter-affidavit and didn’t consider to view the matter in great detail. It further stated that it was not for the court ‘to evaluate these considerations again as against the evaluation already done by the Government’.
The court was satisfied that the relevant factors had received adequate attention from the government before it decided to proceed with the project and stated that, “We are not to substitute our opinion and notions on these matters for those of the Government”. Thus, the court found no reason to interfere and dismissed the applications with no order as to costs.
Thus, the judgement of the court in this case didn’t offer any protection to the forest. But the mounting pressure faced by the government from scientists, conservationists, and the general public both locally and internationally led The Silent Valley Hydroelectric Project to be called off in 1983. Subsequently, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi formally inaugurated the Silent Valley National Park in 1985.