“MK Prasad was a real son of Kerala soil,” writes Madhav Gadgil

I was fortunate enough to know and be inspired by four remarkable people: Salim Ali, Edward O Wilson, MK Prasad and Chandiprasad Bhatt, all nature lovers, thinkers and doers. Among them, I spent the most time with Salim Ali and MKP, but Salim Ali was 46 years older than me and I lost him when I was 44.

MKP was 11 years older, and we have remained in constant contact since our first meeting in 1979. A leading figure in Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), he gradually steered him towards larger goals. As early as 1971, he organized through the KSSP a seminar on pollution problems in the Ernakulam district. The KSSP thus evolved from a movement of simply educating people about scientific understanding of the natural world to raising questions of social importance and applying science to their elucidation, triggering a growth in the membership of the KSSP.

MKP and his friends brought in independent experts to examine issues such as the pollution of Chaliyar, publishing a study of the “dying river” in 1979. The spirit of these investigations was captured by the slogan adopted by the KSSP in 1974, “Science for Social Revolution”.

Critical role in the Silent Valley campaign

The most famous of the KSSP studies concerned the Silent Valley hydroelectric project. In 1977, MKP wrote an article in ‘Sastragathi’ pleading for it to be spared from submersion. Initially, KSSP members were unconvinced; for, after all, they were very much concerned with the necessity of producing energy and with this employment in the State. But MKP persisted, appreciating the need to take a broader view of the issues. He joined with physicists, engineers, agronomists and fellow economists from the movement to undertake a broader social, technical and economic assessment of the project. This classic study brought to light the fact that Kerala could make much more energy available at lower cost by investing in energy conservation than by building a hydel project. It was through this post that I first heard about MKP, and it was a good omen that when I first met him on October 2, 1979, we spent an entire day together during of a trip to Silent Valley. This started a friendship that lasted over four decades and I worked closely with him both at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru and in retirement in Pune.

We then met at an annual convention of the KSSP, each of us sleeping on mats in a lodge in Thrissur and taking part the following day, February 28, 1980, in a spirited People’s Science Parliament debating the question of the silent valley on the ground of the open temple. Our interactions continued with the work of the Joint Center-State Committee on the SV Project in 1983 and the Literacy Campaign launched in 1986 which resulted in Ernakulam becoming the first fully literate district in the country under the leadership of MKP.

Joint work before the popular planning campaign

He then initiated the Panchayat-level resource mapping program for neo-literates which in turn led to the People’s Planning Campaign (PPC) of 1995-96. I spent as much time as possible with him during these activities, and the approach developed during the PPC had a strong influence on my work in the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Group. He was a pillar of support during the work of WGEEP and arranged to quickly translate it into Malayalam, making it accessible to the people of Kerala.

We were soul brothers and never wore ties or socks and formal leather shoes throughout our lives. He helped me to know the real Kerala in many ways. All the hotels or guesthouses I have stayed in have refused to serve tapioca and fish as dishes below their dignity. So MKP took me to his brother on Vypin Island for a rustic meal centered around tapioca and fish.

Environmentalist Madhav Gadgil. Photo archive: Manorama

In Plachimada

As part of the WGEEP field investigations, MK Prasad drove me to the village of Plachimada, famous for its resistance to the Coca-Cola factory and cheated out of the compensation due to date. So the people continued their agitation in a pandal by the side of the road. We arrived around noon when the tarmac was scorching hot, but a number of people were casually walking around barefoot. They were obviously very comfortable people with Mother Earth!

last meeting

We last met in February 2020 and cruised the backwaters. Thereafter, it was impossible to meet but we continued to talk to each other on the phone. I just finished my scientific autobiography, Western Ghats: A Love Story. Its Malayalam version is also ready and will be released soon. Two weeks ago he called me and told me with great enthusiasm that he would preside over his outing to Ernakulam. Unfortunately, it is not the case. With his passing, Kerala, India and even the world have lost a great champion of nature and democracy.

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