Sugathakumari, poet, crusader, activist, environmentalist left us on this day, December 23, three years ago in 2020. Events are being organised across the state to remember Sugathakumari teacher, as we all love to call her, by so many people whose lives and thoughts were touched by her poetry, her writings, and her actions. They were meant to protect nature, to make life better for people with intellectual disabilities and for destitute women.
The years since her death, however, stand testimony to how callously the State and its people have acted on every concern she had raised and stood for — all of them intricately connected to our very survival as a landscape. The Kerala government and many political parties and leaders have been planning a befitting memorial for her, but with such indifference, that it hasn't happened in three years, and perhaps never will.
After all, what can governments, political parties, and compromised organisations do for someone whose voice was so clear, prophetic, fundamental, and uncompromising on the issues she raised, that they seldom dared to face her and address them. For a long time to come, the ways of governments anywhere in the world can only be to continue the destructive paradigm of growth. So even as a memory, Sugathakumari is perhaps an obstruction, like a massive tree, that they wish to celebrate, make a heritage of, and yet want out of their way.
Some of these events being held on December 23 would be truly memorable. We will all speak greatly of her, and remind each other of the various stories, bold and sometimes daring, sometimes strategic, and many times of collective actions, of struggles and deeds we know or were part of. It could be of a tree that stood and faced the axe, and how we rushed to her to save it, and her one phone call stopped it from being cut down. It could be of a river, and there are many – Chalakudy, Kunthipuzha, Pooyankutty – that were allowed to flow because she stood strongly with those who led the struggle to stop dams there. It could be of so many paddy wetlands, like the Aranmula, where even a project as big as an airport could be stopped, and the decision to fill up the wetland reversed. It could also be the life of a little bird, a tiny squirrel, one elephant, a tiger, a few monkeys, or anything that she felt was precious for her and the earth and should be saved.
She has fought her battles, as she says, “like a warrior fighting a losing battle.” We, who walked her path, sometimes felt this slogan was a let down. We should win, that's why we are fighting.
But we have lost many battles. And each time we lose, we find a spiritual and yet comforting solace in this slogan. It tells us that even losing battles need warriors, and we know that such battles, sometimes too early for its times, will one day awaken people to the truth and its relevance. When we fought to protect the paddy lands of Aranmula, and the struggle ended in 2016, we never realised the massive impact it would have. I heard some of the supporters of the airport project tell us after the 2018 floods, “If you had not stopped the project, we would have drowned in two floors of river water. Fortunately, we could save ourselves by climbing to the first floor. The aranmula paddy land took the rest of the water.”
But Aranmula was just one winning story, among a hundred losing battles. Today, the Kerala Paddy and Wetland Act 2008 has been made worthless in protecting paddy lands, by the same coalition government that first promulgated it. The reason – many big state-sponsored and private-sponsored projects are being planned on paddy lands across the state. The other day, we came across the proud announcement of a shopping mall on a paddy land in Palakkad, the rice bowl of the state. Losing battle.
This time, there wasn't even one warrior to fight the battle.
Battles are difficult. It is easier to remember Sugathakumari for a day.
So we will remember her today, only to forget her tomorrow, because that is pragmatism. After all, how can development go ahead without paddy and wetlands being converted, and forests being denotified? How can industries and cities grow without polluting precious water? How can roads, luxury rail lines, airports, and ports be built without demolishing mountains, filling up coasts and tearing down mangroves? And displacing the original habitants of these ecosystems – adivasis and the fisherfolk, farmers, and a hundred other providers of such societies.
Even in the time of an apocalyptic collapse of ecosystems and the climate that holds it all, we need to be pragmatic, say most development enthusiasts (I call them fanatics!). So, remembering Sugathakumari is easy, for a day. Tomorrow, it's back to business as usual, the extinction of her thoughts ensured.
There are no more Sugathakumaris with us today. Someone whose days were mostly spent seeing people and attending to phone calls from far and near, all of them reaching out to her for help. Sometimes it is about some hapless woman and child being harassed, other times it is about an elephant being tortured by a temple or its owner. Dawn or dusk, or even in the dead of the night, she is up and awake, calling people and pulling them up for action.
But she is no more, and we need to remember her and keep her memories and thoughts alive. We also need to keep fighting barbarians that come in all shapes, colours, sizes, and ideologies. Some of them wear caps and crowns, some come in frugal Gandhian attires, some have tilaks and saffron smearing, while some are even dressed as the common man. None of them would think twice before baying for the blood of a helpless tiger, hurt, tranquilised, and caged.
So how do we remember Sugathakumari on this day, or when we are going to celebrate her Navati (90th birthday) in January? Another tree, another memorial, a speech, or a commemorative award perhaps? None of these would ever do justice to Sugathakumari, her thoughts and actions. Then what?
She has left us with many memories of hard-fought struggles. Can we too struggle for a world where no animal will be unnecessarily hunted and killed? Can we struggle for every river to flow unhindered, with enough room even for a spate? Can we struggle for the forests and every other critical ecosystem to be revived, restored, and protected? Can we renew our struggle for paddy lands to be protected as critical ecosystems, and ensure no destruction of it happens, and every cent of it is cultivated so it can provide for livelihood, food, and water? Can we struggle for the Adivasis’ right to land and a decent living? Can we struggle for a world where no man, woman, or child has to live a destitute life? Can we struggle for every elephant in captivity?
We can go on and on like this, every act being one to bring back peace and harmony, and to find the balance on this earth. These are losing battles, no doubt. But these losing battles will be the milestones of the future.
Sugathakumari teacher isn’t just a memory, she is a milestone, a tree of hope that marks our destination. This tree of hope reminds us at every moment, that even if the destination may never come, the path is for us to take, walk, and act. Because this earth, our only habitat, needs us to do this.
Sridhar Radhakrishnan is an environmentalist and had been closely associated with Sugathakumari in many of her activities on environment. He is an observer on development and policy related to the environment, agriculture and climate.