Gandhi and Ecological Marxists: The Silent Valley Movement

by A. S. Sasikala

Silent Valley rainforest; photographer unknown; courtesy

Environmental concerns were not much considered at the time of Gandhi, but his ideas on village decentralisation and national unity such as Swaraj, Swadeshi, Sarvodya, and especially the Constructive Programme makes him an advocate of environmentalism. He is generally considered to have had deep ecological views and his ideas have been widely used by different streams of environmentalism such as Green parties and the deep ecology movement founded by Arne Naess. The eminent environmental thinker Ramachandra Guha identified three distinct strands in Indian environmentalism, crusading Gandhians, ecological Marxists, and appropriate technologists, these last being advocates of small-scale, environmentally sound technology, most often known as “intermediate technology”. Guha observed that, unlike the third, the first two rely heavily on Gandhi, but Indian ecological Marxists also used Gandhian strategies and tactics. The Silent Valley Movement in Kerala, south India, is a case in point of just how ecological Marxists were willing to use Gandhian techniques in order to fight against environmental injustice. The role of the Marxist KSSP, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (translated as Kerala Science Literature Movement, and also referred to as Kerala People’s Science Movement, PSM) illustrates their various strategies. Methodologies adopted throughout the movement were inspired by Gandhian methods, as previously used by other environmental movements like Chipko [see Mark Shepard’s article here].

Indian Environmental Movements

Environmental movements in India have been 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 environmental movements are often direct manifestations of Gandhian nonviolence and peace making; they accepted Gandhian nonviolence as their prime objective and strategy. Green movements both inside and outside India have claimed an affinity with Gandhi. Petra Kelly, founder of the German Green party, wrote in 1990 that Gandhi had directly influenced the Green party in its 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 (ecosophy) was developed out of his work on Spinoza and Gandhi. He explains that Gandhi demonstrated an internal relation between self-realisation and nonviolence, a metaphysics, which Gandhi pursued until his death. (2) It was the influence of Gandhian thought on the philosophy of deep ecology that turned Naess into a champion of environmentalism. Both Gandhi and Naess believed that “self-realisation” is essential to understand any kind of problem or conflict.

Environmentalism as a movement started in India in the 1970’s and blossomed with the Chipko movement. Unlike the western environmental movements, which represented the upper and middle class, Indian environmental movements were the “environmentalism of the poor”, often led by peasants and indigenous tribal people, especially women. (3) The movements “link issues of ecology with questions of human rights, ethnicity and distributive justice.” (4) Often they began with an effort to promote community development, literacy and political empowerment and sometimes developed into a struggle to determine who owns or has control over the use of land. Most of these movements have relied on the Gandhian values of ecological prudence and frugality and followed the Gandhian model of decentralised democracy and village self-rule, or Swaraj. At the same time, some movements like the Silent Valley movement in Kerala synthesise both Gandhian and Marxian ideologies.

A Short History of the Silent Valley Movement

Silent Valley rainforest; photo by Shekar Dattari; courtesy

The Silent Valley Movement is the tale of a battle against the state to protect a pristine evergreen rainforest in Kerala, South India. 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 entire Western Ghats mountain range. It is estimated to have had not less than 50 million years of continuous, unspoiled evolution. (5) The name Silent Valley came to public attention when the Save the Silent Valley Movement, stirred by the zeal of NGOs, the scientific community, conservationists, and social activists resulted in the government’s decision to abandon a hydroelectric project, which would have submerged 830 hectares of rich, tropical, Silent Valley rainforest. (6) In 1951, the Kerala state government undertook the first survey for the hydroelectric project, and in 1973 the Indian Planning Commission approved the dam project. That was the beginning of an intense debate on whether to opt for the conservation of nature or to promote development.

Silent Valley harbours at least 108 varieties of orchids and has a rich repository of medicinal plants; 80 per cent of those listed in the standard Pharmacopoeias and 66 per cent of the aromatic plants used worldwide grow there. It is a valuable source also of genetic variants. At least 21 flowering plants discovered in the valley are new to science. (7) The presence of 23 mammalian species, including three endangered species of tiger, lion-tailed macaque, and nilgiri langur have been recorded. The teachers and scientists who realised the importance of the valley came forward to protest the dam project. In 1976 the National Committee on Planning and Coordination (NCEPC) recommended a stay in order to study its environmental impact. Kerala Natural History Society and Bombay Natural History Society demanded the cessation of the project in 1978.

The KSSP published their report on the ecological, economic, and social impacts of the hydroelectric project. The central and state governments had appointed several committees but those led by M. S. Swaminathan and M. G. K. Menon strongly opposed the project because of its environmental impact. Several civil resistance campaigns were organised by the KSSP, and by teacher and student organizations. Eminent creative writers also joined the fight. Through poems and drama, stories and articles, speeches and poetry competitions they brought the message to Kerala’s public, among the most literate in India. The supporters of the dam argued that those who opposed the power project were against the nation’s interests and “preferred monkeys to human beings.” They pointed out that the high Valley watershed would result in lower unit power costs for four districts of the Malabar Coast region. The debate went on for years but at last in 1983, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi advised the state to abandon the project and proclaimed Silent Valley a National Park.

Relevance of the Movement

Silent Valley was the continuation of a debate about development, which had already started in India with the Chipko movement. The success of that movement opened a new paradigm for development that would ensure environmental sustainability and grant rights to the non-human world. In Kerala, a newly inspired environmental movement created a public awareness that any development harming the environment was short sighted, and would adversely affect social and economic life for future generations. The development vs. monkey debate and the victory of those arguing for the protection of endangered species was a victory for those holding that the non-human world had equal rights to life.

Kerala has electorally been leftist and communist, and it was no surprise then that the Silent Valley movement was left-leaning and led to the transformation of the Marxist notion of nature as a “resource base” to nature as a “treasure” to be protected. An ideological split within the Marxist party over the Silent Valley campaign was a reflection of a shift in how development was viewed. It was a difficult task imposed on KSSP to educate a local population fascinated by the industrial benefits of the power project and its employment opportunities; the significance of the rainforest could easily be forgotten. The incessant struggle fought by KSSP and various groups taught the first lesson of environmentalism; without protecting nature we cannot protect ourselves. The success of the Silent Valley movement revolved around organising populations to protest environmental injustices in their own areas. The movement also encouraged the activities of ecological Marxists in India to embrace Gandhian nonviolent strategies.

The Silent Valley movement was a meeting ground for a variety of ideas regarding the development and the management of natural resources. KSSP published and distributed several pamphlets and study reports on the issue. One of the more important pamphlets, The Silent Valley Project: Parishad’s Stand and Explanation (8) argues that “the Silent Valley issue raised serious concerns such as people’s attitude towards development, the conflict between various interest groups, the development of the Palghat-Malappuram districts, the provision of adequate energy to the Malabar region, and the electricity generating policies of the Kerala government.” KSSP faced many challenges from the Marxist party itself; one of its foremost leaders E. Balanandan wrote in favour of the project, but denied the idea of Silent Valley as an “ecological paradise”. Those who wanted the hydroelectric dam project claimed that the project wouldn’t do any harm to the rain forest; the area covered by the dam was “only” 830 hectares out of a total of 8952 hectares. Against this argument KSSP argued that, “this attitude is like saying the size of the human heart is insignificant compared to the size of the whole body, and therefore the ruin of the heart will not affect the body.” (9) The debates on the Silent Valley project, it can be argued, kept the movement active throughout the protest period and forced people to think in favour of the environment.

Gandhi and Ecological Marxism

After 1948, an independent India saw the onset of developmental policies which both protected and destroyed the natural environment. Gadgil and Guha observed that Indian development policies created three types of individuals, omnivore, ecosystem, and ecological refugee. Omnivores comprise the elite, and are the real beneficiaries of economic development. Ecological refugees include those displaced by environmental factors such as exploitation of resources or natural disasters, and the environmentally exploited indigenous tribes and the poor; ecosystem types depend on the natural environment for their material needs. Independent India became “a cauldron of conflicts” between these groups, “triggered by the abuse of natural resources to benefit the narrow elite of the omnivores.” (10)

The environmental movements mushroomed in India as a response to abuse by the elite. Guha identified three ideological trends in Indian environmental activism; crusading Gandhians, ecological Marxists and appropriate technologists. (11) He argues that crusading Gandhians uphold 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 in one interpretation of that tradition, namely fasts, marches, strikes and boycotts, in which traditional cultural idioms are used to further the explicitly modern cause of environmentalism. Appropriate technologists strive for a working synthesis of agriculture and industry, both large and small, and of western and eastern technological traditions. The ecological Marxists are hostile to traditions and rely heavily on scientific facts. Guha mentions the works of KSSP as an instance of ecological Marxism.

While closely analysing the movement one can see the elements of these three strands in the Silent Valley movement. Like the crusading Gandhians, the movement adopted the Gandhian methodologies to protest against environmental injustice. The movement activists included people from different strata of society, like students, teachers, intellectuals, journalists, and social workers. They organized marches and prayer meetings to educate the public. According to Guha, the KSSP used science to demonstrate that the dam project would not actually satisfy existing power needs. They also used science to show how the Silent Valley forest contributed to the southern monsoon weather patterns. Further, the KSSP organized a grass roots campaign that reached a wide audience and this wide support helped it to achieve its objectives.

The main ideological difference between the Gandhian and Marxist systems of environmentalism is that Gandhi argued that modern industrialisation was the root cause of environmental degradation, while Marxists consider capitalism as the major factor in the degradation of the environment. Marx suggested that the development of science and technology could be used as a tool for mastering nature, and Gandhi considered science and technology as a hindrance to nature conservation. Gandhi advocated 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”. Yet, despite their differences, there are a number of similarities between the two groups. Both Gandhians and Marxists seek justice for the poor, especially those living in tune with nature. They promote the idea of self-sufficiency and sustainability, and work for an egalitarian society.

The Silent Valley movement combines both Gandhian and Marxist elements in its methodologies and practical strategies. The success of the movement reminds us of the relevance of a “fourth world”, a concept put forward by Dr. M. P. Parameswaran, one of the KSSP activists. (12) His vision for a fourth, future world was a synthesis of Marxists, Gandhians, environmentalists, eco-feminists, and human rights activists. It is an alternative world order based on participatory democracy. Dr. Parameswaran argues that today we are facing a challenge from the capitalist world. Certain capitalist countries disseminate the message that there is no alternative to capitalism, while socialist countries like China accept the fact that they too cannot escape from neo-liberal capitalism as a contextual basis for their economy. His solution is a “fourth world” synthesising the ideologies of Marxism, Gandhism, peace studies, environmentalism, eco-feminism and human rights.


From the time of colonialism, India has witnessed different environmental calamities in the form of forest depletion, resource exploitation, and hydroelectric dam controversies. The emergence of environmental movements from different parts of the country paved the way for a new development paradigm dubbed “sustainable development”. The Fourth World opens a new horizon for a sustainable economy and development. After the introduction of the concept Dr. Parameswaran was expelled from the Marxist Party for spreading an “anti Marxian” ideology, but the merits and drawbacks of his concept are well worth discussing.


(1) Petra Kelly quoted in Claude Markovitz, The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and Afterlife of the Mahatma, New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004, p.72.

(2) Thomas Weber, Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004, p.196.

(3) Ramachandra Guha, Juan Martinez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998, p.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, pp.161-178.

(5) M. P. Parameswaran, “Significance of Silent Valley”, Economic and Political Weekly, 14, 27 (1979), pp.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: APH Publishing Corporation, 2002, p.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 (no date) was a detailed analysis of the Silent Valley Power Project.

(10) Gadgil and Guha, Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in the Millennium, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1995, p.60.

(11) Ramachandra Guha, “Ideological Trends in Indian Environmentalism”, Economic and Political Weekly, 23, 49 (1988), pp.2578-2581.

(12) Dr. M. P. Parameswaran, Nalam Lokam; Swapnavum Yatharthyavum (The Fourth World: Myth and Reality), Kottayam: DC Books, 2003.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A. S. Sasikala is Research Fellow, Centre for Gandhian Studies, GITAM University, Andhra Pradesh, India. The article is courtesy the author, and

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi