Silent Valley to Aranmula, how Sugathakumari campaigned for environmental causes

Apart from being involved in activism, Teacher published numerous volumes of moving poetry – read, loved, set to music and memorised by the people of Kerala.
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Sugathakumari Teacher (1934-2020) – poet, environmentalist, social worker, public intellectual – known and loved by Keralites is no more. She was lovingly and familiarly addressed as ‘Teacher’ by one and all. My colleague Sridhar and I had the personal good fortune to be associated with and work closely with her over the last decade on several causes.

Teacher, who began writing poetry as a school girl, was first published by Malayalam magazine Mathrubhumi, and till her end the weekly regularly published her poems and writings. Her poem ‘Rathri Mazha’ (Night rain) about pure and maddening love touched many young hearts in the 1970s. She was such a multifaceted personality, rare for a poet.

Teacher got involved with the Silent Valley movement, one of the very first environmental movements in Kerala, in the late 1970s. This was a crusade to protect the Silent Valley forest in Palakkad district from a proposed dam over Kunthipuzha, a tributary of the Bharathapuzha. She started writing about it and connected with her fellow writers, and together they created awareness about it among students, teachers, ordinary people, cultural and political leaders. This collective of writers under her leadership could influence the minds of the Kerala psyche that had been swayed by ideas of big development. This, to a great extent, paved the way for a vibrant environmental movement in the state. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi eventually scrapped the Silent Valley project and the area was declared a national park.

After Silent Valley, she continued to be involved in various environmental causes – pollution in Chaliyar river from the rayon industry, afforestation in tribal Attappady, protection of natural forests in Wayanad, Thiruvananthapuram and many other districts, the endosulfan tragedy, sand mining in rivers, granite quarrying, tree felling, paddy and wetland protection, Athirappilly and Pooyamkutty dam projects, Peringom nuclear project, among others.

She viewed environment holistically and was bold enough to speak about it to anybody, small and big. One of her last causes, in which we worked closely with her, was the Aranmula airport project, where a huge wetland and paddy land was to be converted into an airport by a private company, which was supported by the then government. She brought everybody, including warring political parties, together in this struggle. She also used her formidable writing skills to convince people and policy-makers about the environmental issues. She wrote a letter to school students asking them to write to the Chief Minister to stop the project. Thousands of children from different schools sent post cards to the CM, literally inundating his office’s inward section.

One of her remarkable actions was to organise a large protest at Thiruvananthapuram’s Martyr’s Column against the project and garner signatures, including from legislative assembly members, to scrap the project. The highlight was when legislators from all parties, including some MLAs from the ruling party, signed the petition, demonstrating that a majority of elected MLAs were opposed to the project. All of them joined the one-day fast in front of the Martyr’s Column, just outside the Kerala Legislative Assembly. This was literally democracy in action on the streets. Under her leadership, the Kerala Paristhithi Aikya Vedi, a state-level collective of environmentalists, activists and scientists, was formed to discuss and campaign for environmental issues and policies, and later brought out a green print for a sustainable Kerala.

Teacher had great affection for children and women. She kept writing and talking to children about the environment, biodiversity (from ants to flowers and the great elephants), rivers, forests, ponds, sacred groves and so on. She spoke about the importance of keeping them intact for human survival. She started Abhaya to rehabilitate people with mental illnesses, and Athani for poor and socially ostracised women and children. She was like a mother to all of them. She was also the first Chairperson of the Kerala Women’s Commission.

She was very close to tribals, especially in Attappady, the most backward tribal belt of Kerala, where she worked with the tribals and brought their issues to the government. She even had a ‘Krishnavanam’, a natural forest, that she helped revive through intense planting and protection in a degraded Attappady. Even today, it stands testimony to what the government and people can do if there is a will. When even a tree was cut in some corner of the state, the first thing that came to people’s mind was to call Teacher. And Teacher never failed to pick up the call at any time of the day. She would tell them which official or minister to call and complain. But then she’d also have called the officials or the minister, even if it was to protect a small sapling by the roadside or a woman suffering from some abuse, or any such problem.

She was the voice of the voiceless.

In the last two decades, she was very concerned about the development projects unleashed in the state by successive governments. She constantly warned that Kerala would be destroyed by such development, which was happening at the cost of environment and topography.

And all this while Teacher published numerous volumes of moving poetry – read, loved, set to music and memorised by the people of the state. In any recitation venue, it’s almost certain that some of the poems recited would be from her collection. She also won numerous awards, including the Kerala Sahitya Academy Award, the Kendra Sahitya Academy Award and the Saraswati Samman. She was also recognised with various awards for her social work and environmental activism, including the Padma Shri in 2006.

Sridhar and I worked closely with Sugathakumari Teacher on various struggles, including the protection of paddy lands and of Aranmula. When our organisation Thanal started to work with tribal farmers in Attappady in 2019, she was eager to hear the stories of revival of the indigenous seeds and farming practices and food culture from us. To meet her, interact with her regularly and to learn from her was a rare good fortune. She was as good a storyteller as she was a poet. And in these years, she told us many stories, glimpses from her illustrious and exceptional life. She gave us energy and inspired us not to give up. Seeing her frail with age and yet mustering the energy to respond, till the last few months of her life, will be a lasting inspiration for us. Sometimes with deep pain and yet like one leading her troops to go out and fight, she used to say “we are soldiers in a losing battle”, but she never failed to take up any new cause with full faith and conviction, and lead it to a logical end. She was a perfectionist, even a short letter would have been written and rewritten several times before it was sent, and she demanded that perfection and commitment from all of us.

She was a true Gandhian in her life and work. She was very proud of her parents, ardent followers of Gandhiji, and her two sisters, both legendary in their own domains. Losing both of them, one after the other, in the last few years had left her shattered. Her father was a well-respected freedom fighter and her mother a great scholar.

Teacher, who literally became the conscience of the people of Kerala, is no more, but she will continue to be with us through her poems, her speeches, the people she has inspired over decades, the environmental battles she won, and the thoughts she planted in millions of us. Those seeds of love, environment, peace, literature and democracy will live as her legacy.

Usha Soolapani is Director of Agroecology and Food Security at the NGO Thanal.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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