ARTICLES : Gandhian view on Environment

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Gandhi and Ecological Marxists: A Study of Silent Valley Movement

By Sasikala A.S.
Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences,
IIT Madras, Chennai-36


The environmental concern was minimal at the time of Gandhi, but his ideas on Village Swaraj, decentralization, Swadeshi, Sarvodya etc made him an advocate of environmentalism. He is often considered as a man with deep ecological view. The ideas of Gandhi have been widely used by different streams of environmental philosophy like green, deep ecology, etc and different environmental movements across the globe. An eminent environmental thinker Ramachandra Guha identified three distinct strands in Indian Environmentalism, the Crusading Gandhians, Appropriate Technologists and Ecological Marxists. He observed that, unlike the third one, the first two strands rely heavily on Gandhi. The purpose of this paper is to identify the Gandhian elements used by the Ecological Marxists in India. The Silent Valley Movement from Kerala is taken as a case study to analyze how ecological Marxists resort to Gandhian techniques to fight against environmental injustice. The role of Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a People’s Science Movement (PSM) from Kerala with a Marxist background is studied to understand different strategies they used in the movement. It is observed that the methodologies adopted throughout the movement are inspired by Gandhian methods as previously used by other environmental movements like Chipko. The paper concludes that, like the Crusading Gandhians and Alternate Technologists, the Ecological Marxists also adopted the Gandhian strategies to work for ecological stability.


Environmental Movements in India is a response to the environmental challenges faced by the country from the time of colonialism to the present in the name of development and modernity. These movements are often direct manifestations of Gandhian non-violence and peace making. Gandhian non-violence had been accepted by the environmental movements as their prime objective. Green movements in India and outside have claimed an affinity with Gandhi. Petra Kelly, founder of German green party, wrote in 1990 that the green party had been directly influenced by Gandhi in thinking that “a lifestyle and a method of production which rely on an endless supply of raw materials and a lavish use of these raw materials generate the motive for the violent appropriation of raw materials from other countries.”1 Arne Naess, father of deep ecology also admits that his work on the philosophy of ecology or ecosophy, was developed out of his work on Spinoza and Gandhi. He explains that Gandhi manifested the internal relation between self-realization, non-violence and has been called bio-spherical egalitarianism, and points out that he was inevitably influenced by mahatma’s metaphysics which contributed to keeping him (the mahatma) going until his death2. It was the contribution of Gandhi to the philosophy of Deep Ecology that made him a champion of environmentalism. Both Gandhi and Naess believed that ‘self-realization’ is essential to understand any kind of problems or conflicts.
Environmentalism as a movement started in India in 1970’s and flourished with the Chipko movement. Unlike the western environmental movements which represented the upper and middle class, Indian environmental movements signified the “environmentalism of the poor”3.These movements are often led by the peasants and indigenous people, especially the women folk. It “links issues of ecology with question of human rights, ethnicity and distributive justice”4. Often it begins with efforts promoting community development, literacy and political empowerment and sometimes, moves to a battle to determine who own/controls the use of land. Most of these movements relied on the Gandhian values of ecological prudence and frugality and followed the Gandhian model of decentralized democracy and village Swaraj. At the same time, some movements like Silent Valley movement from Kerala exemplify the synthesis of both Gandhian and Marxian ideologies. This paper is an attempt to understand the Gandhian linkage to the Silent Valley movement which was initiated and inspired by the Marxist group.

A Short History of Silent Valley Movement

Silent Valley Movement is the tale of a battle against the state to protect a pristine evergreen rainforest of Kerala. Silent Valley is situated in Palghat district and contains India’s last substantial stretch of tropical evergreen forest. It is the only vestige of near virgin forest in the whole of Western Ghats. It is estimated to have a continuous record of not less than 50 million years of evolution.5 The name Silent Valley gained an epic dimension, when the Save Silent Valley Movement stirred by the missionary zeal and fervour of NGO’s, the scientific community and conservation activists with social awareness resulted in the decision to abandon a hydroelectric project which would have otherwise submerged 830 hectares of rich tropical rainforests in Silent valley.6 It was the decision of the British government to build a dam across Kunti River, which originates from the Silent Valley forest. Somehow, the project was not implemented at that time. In 1951, the first survey for hydroelectric project was done by the state government and in 1973; Planning Commission of India approved the project plan. That was the beginning of a historical debate on whether to opt for the conservation of nature or to promote development.
The uniqueness of Silent Valley is that it harbours at least 108 varieties Orchids. The forest is a repository of medicinal plants, with 80 per cent of the drug listed in standard Pharmacopoeias and 66 per cent of the species and aromatic plants used world over. It is a valuable source of some genetic variants. At least 21 flowering plants discovered in the valley are new to Science7. The presence of 23 mammalian species, including three endangered species like Tiger, Lion-tailed Macaque, and Nilgiri Langur has been recorded. The teachers and scientists who realized the importance of Silent valley came forward to protest against the project. Later in 1976 National Committee on Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) recommended a stay on the project in order to study its environmental impact. Kerala Natural History Society and Bombay Natural History Society demanded the cessation of the project in 1978. Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a renowned People’s Science Movement (PSM) from Kerala published their report on the ecological, economic, and social impacts of the hydro-electric project. Several Committees had been appointed by the Central and State Governments, among which Dr. M S Swaminathan Committee and Dr. MGK Menon Committee strongly opposed the project citing the environmental impact. In between, several campaigns were led by KSSP, teacher-student organizations and so on. It might be the first time in the Indian history, that eminent creative writers joined together to fight for such a cause. Through poems and drama, stories and articles, speeches and kavi sammelan (Poet’s meet) they conveyed the message to the Kerala’s literate public. The supporters of the project argued that the people who oppose the power project were against the nation’s interests and prefer monkeys rather than the human beings. The KSEB pointed the low unit cost of power offered by the high watershed of Silent Valley which covered four districts of Malabar. The debate went on for a long time and at last in 1983, the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi advised the state to abandon the project and she announced Silent Valley as a National Park. In 1985 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi gifted the national park to the nation.

Relevance of the movement

Silent Valley movement was the continuation of the development debate which had already started in India with the Chipko movement. The success of the movement opened a new paradigm of development which ensures environmental sustainability and rights of the non-human world. Especially in Kerala, the movement created public awareness that the development which harms the environment is short-term, and hence it will adversely affect the social and economic life of the future generations. The development vs. monkey debate and the victory of the cause of endangered species proved the fact that the non-human world has the same right to live on earth. The inclination of the movement towards the left rewrote the Marxist notion of nature as a resource base to nature as a treasure which has to be protected. The ideological split within the Marxist party regarding the Silent valley issue was the reflection of the alteration in the idea of development. It was a hefty task imposed on KSSP to educate the local people, who were fascinated by the industrial benefits of the power project and its employment opportunities, about the significance of the rainforest which would be submerged. The incessant struggle fought by KSSP and various groups taught them the first lesson of environmentalism that without protecting the nature we cannot protect ourselves. The environmental history of the nation, as well as the state shows that the success of Silent Valley movement influenced the people to protest against the environmental injustices in their vicinity. The movement also contributed to the activities of ecological Marxists in India which follows the Gandhian non-violent strategy.
The Silent Valley movement became a meeting place for different ideas regarding the development and the management of natural resources. KSSP itself published and distributed several pamphlets and study reports on the issue. One of the important pamphlets, The Silent valley Project: Parishad’s Stand and Explanation7 argue that “the Silent Valley issue raised some serious concerns like people’s attitude towards development, the conflict between various interest groups, the development of Palghat- Malappuram districts, providing adequate amount of energy to the Malabar zone, the electricity generating policies of Kerala government etc.” KSSP faced many challenges from the Marxist party itself; one of its foremost leaders E Balanandan wrote in favor of the project ignoring the idea of Silent Valley as an ecological paradise. The people who preferred the project conversed that the project wouldn’t do any harm to the rain forest; the project area covers only 830 hectares of land among the total area of 8952 hectare. Against this argument KSSP argued that “this attitude is like saying the size of human heart is insignificant comparing the size of the whole body, and therefore the ruin of the heart will not affect the body.9” All these debates on the Silent Valley project keep the movement active throughout the period and forced people to think in favor of the environment.

Gandhi and Ecological Marxism

The independent India witnessed several developmental policies which both protects and destructs the natural environment. Gadgil and Guha observed that the development policies of India created three kinds of people, the omnivores, ecosystem people and the ecological refugees. Omnivores comprise the elite group who are the real beneficiaries of the economic development. The ecological refugees encompass the displaced and environmentally exploited tribal and downtrodden while the ecosystem people depend the natural environment for their material needs. The independent India became “a cauldron of conflicts” between these groups, “triggered by the abuse of natural resources to benefit the narrow elite of the omnivores10”. The environmental movements mushroomed in India as a response against this abuse. Guha identified three ideological trends in Indian environmental activism; crusading Gandhians, ecological Marxists and appropriate technologists11. He argues that the crusading Gandhians upholds the pre-capitalist and pre-colonial village community as the exemplar of ecological and social harmony. The methods of action favoured by this group are squarely in the Gandhian tradition-or at least of one interpretation of that tradition-fasts, padayatras, and poojas, in which a traditional cultural idiom is used to further the strictly modern cause of environmentalism. The appropriate technologists strive for a working synthesis of agriculture and industry, big and small units, and western and eastern technological traditions. The ecological Marxists are hostile to traditions and rely heavily on the scientific facts. Guha mentions the works of KSSP as an instance of ecological Marxism.
While closely analyzing the movement one can see the elements of these three strands in Silent Valley movement. Like the crusading Gandhians, the movement adopted the Gandhian methodologies to protest against the environmental injustice. The activists of the movement include people from different strata of society, like students, teachers, intellectuals, journalists, social workers etc. They organized padayatras, prayer meetings etc to educate the public. KSSP (Ecological Marxists as explained by Guha) used science as a medium to analyze the facts that the present project is not enough to satisfy the existing power needs. They taught the people of how the Silent Valley forest contributed to the southern monsoon and blissful climate. The grass root acceptability of KSSP and its wide audience helped the movement to achieve its objectives.
The ideological difference between the Gandhian and Marxian system of environmentalism is that Gandhi believed modern industrialization as the root cause of environmental degradation while Marxists think capitalism as the major element which deteriorates the environment. Marx suggests the development of science and technology as a tool for mastering nature while Gandhi considers science and technology as a hindrance to nature conservation. Gandhi advocates the limitation of human wants for the sake of nature while Marx stood for “each man according to his needs, and each man according to his ability”. Among these differences, there are a number of similarities between these two groups. Both Gandhian and Marxian system seeks justice to the poor people who are living in tune with nature. They promoted the idea of self-sufficiency and sustainable economy and work for an egalitarian society.
The Silent Valley movement comprises both Gandhian and Marxian elements in methodologies and practices. The success of the movement reminds us the relevance of a “fourth world”, a concept put forward by Dr. M P Parameswaran, an active participant of KSSP12. He proposed of a fourth world, his vision about a future world, which is a synthesis of Marxian, Gandhian, Environmentalists, Eco-feminists, Human right activists etc. It is an alternative world order which is based on the participative democracy, views on progress and approach towards the progress of productive forces and technology. M P argues that, today we are facing a challenge from the capitalist world. Certain capitalist’s countries disseminate the message that there is no alternative to capitalism. The socialist countries like China accept the fact that they too cannot escape from the capitalism in certain contextual basis. The remaining solution is the fourth world which comprises the ideologies of Marxism, Gandhism, Peace Studies, Environmentalism, eco feminism and human rights.


From the time of colonialism itself, India has witnessed different environmental calamities in the form of forest depletion, resource exploitation, high dam controversies etc. The emergence of environmental movements from different parts of the country paved way for a new paradigm in development which is called the sustainable development. The Fourth World which is the combination of Marxian, Gandhian, and Environmental ideas opens a new horizon for a sustainable economy and development. After the introduction of the concept Dr. M P Parameswaran, was expelled from the Marxist Party for spreading the “anti Marxian” ideology. At present, the relevance of the concept is infinite and a platform is necessary to discuss the merits and drawbacks of the fourth world. The scholars from these disciplines have to come forward to think about these ideologies.

  1. Petra Kelly quoted in Claude Markovitz, The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and Afterlife of Mahatma (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), 72
  2. Thomas Weber, Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 196
  3. Ramachandra Guha, Juan Martinez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 4
  4. Amita Baviskar, “Red in Tooth and Claw: Looking for Class struggles over Nature” in Social Movements in India: Poverty, Power and Politics, ed. Raka Ray et al.(USA: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 161-178
  5. M P Parameswaran, “Significance of Silent Valley”, Economic and Political Weekly, 14 (27), (1979), 1117-1119
  6. M S Swaminathan, “Silent Valley National Park - A Biological Paradise” in Silent valley: Whispers of Reason, ed. T M Manoharan et al. (Trivandrum: Kerala Forest Department & Kerala Forest Research Institute, 1999).
  7. Agarwal, S K & P S Dubey, Environmental Controversies (New Delhi : A P H Publishing Corporation, 2002), 151
  8. Silent valley Padhathi: Parishathinte Nilapadum Vishadeekaranavum (The Silent Valley Project: Parishad’s stand and explanation), a pamphlet published by KSSP (March 1980) in Malayalam dealt with the position of KSSP regarding the project and explains how it rejects the power project.
  9. Silent Valley Charcha (The discussion on Silent Valley), a pamphlet published by KSSP in Malayalam (Year not mentioned) was a detailed analysis of Silent valley Power Project and the clarification on the stand of parishad.
  10. Gadgil and Guha, Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in the Millennium (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1995), 60
  11. Ramachandra Guha, “Ideological Trends in Indian Environmentalism”, Economic and Political Weekly, 23 (49), (1988): 2578-2581
  12. Dr M P Parameswaran,Nalam lokam; Swapnavum Yatharthyavum (The Fourth World: Myth and Reality), (Kottayam: DC Books, 2003).