Remembering Sugathakumari, the Malayalam poet who became the face of environmental activism in Kerala
Till Sugathakumari died, the poet-activist remained a guardian angel of Kerala’s forests, rivers, mountains, coastal regions, wildlife, and precious natural resources.
By KA Shaji
When Malayalam’s celebrated poet Sugathakumari, a pioneer of environmental activism in Kerala, reached the state’s tribal heartland Attappadi during the early months of 1980, the region looked like a barren land with very few trees and no vegetation. The tribal community told her, and fellow poet-activist NV Krishna Warrier, that indiscriminate tree felling, involving timber mafias from outside the region, was responsible for the loss of the green cover.
Other than appealing to the Kerala Forest Department to initiate rectifying measures in the region where tribal livelihood and sustenance were badly affected by deforestation, she decided to initiate afforestation in at least a small portion of land there in her way as an experiment.
She approached the department with the request to temporarily handover a 100-acre hillock at Bommiapadi village to reconvert it as a natural forest. Using financial assistance worth Rs 7.5 lakh from the Council for the Advancement of People’s Action of Rural Technology (CAPART), she and her team soon started developing the forest which has now turned into a successful model to be emulated elsewhere. The outcome of the will and determination of her team, the Bommiapadi forest is now known as Krishnavanam and is home to animals such as elephants, gaurs, deers, peacocks, wild boars, tigers, and the lion-tailed macaques.
Developed and maintained with the active involvement of local tribals, Krishnavanam has a variety of trees including bamboo, kanjiram (Strychnine), neem, and venga (Indian kino tree). There are also a large variety of medicinal plants which support the traditional medicine initiatives of the local tribals.
According to KA Ramu, a tribal activist in Attappady, Krishnavanam which is now back in the custody of the forest department is a fitting memorial for Sugathakumari, who died on 23 December due to post-COVID complications. She was 86.
A guardian of Kerala’s forests and trees
Sugathakumari was known for her engagement with poetry, environmental activism, charity works, and socio-cultural initiatives. She began environmental activism during the early 1970s when conservation emerged as a global agenda point for the first time. Till she died, the poet-activist remained a guardian angel of Kerala’s forests, rivers, mountains, coastal regions, wildlife, and precious natural resources.
Sugathakumari played a key role in the Save Silent Valley Movement, among the earliest modern-day environmental movements in India, which began in 1978 and ended in 1983 when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared abandoning the controversial hydroelectric power project which might have ruined precious forests in 89.52 square kilometres of land.
Sugathakumari’s poem Marathinu sthuthi (An Ode to the Tree) has become a powerful symbol of the protest and it turned the opening song at many Save the Silent Valley campaign meetings held across the state.
A Padma Shri winner who won several literary awards at the state level and national level, Sugathakumari had also won Bhatia Award for Social Science, Sacred Soul International Award, Lakshmi Award for social service, and the first Indira Priyadarshini Vriksha Mitra Award from the Government of India for her contributions in environmental protection and afforestation.
By strongly advocating the cause of the environment and forests in Kerala, a state known for its high density of population, she remained a target of attack by the ‘development lobbies’, who often labeled her as an “environmental terrorist”.
Despite all the criticism, the poet had emerged as the face of environmental activism in the state. Nobody will be able to neglect or negate her stands on key conservation issues.
“Her poetry and environmental activism were inseparable. She had showered enormous love and care even to birds and winds. She is an Indian version of Australian poet Judith Wright, an environmentalist, and campaigner for land rights of aboriginal tribes. She refused to remain in the ivory towers of poetry and never hesitated from taking part in protests and struggles,” said K Satchidanandan, leading Malayalam poet, activist, and former secretary of Kendriya Sahitya Academy.
A voice for recent environmental movements
In the recent years, she led a successful agitation in Aranmula village of Pathanamthitta district against a proposed greenfield airport reclaiming large tracts of paddy fields and blocking the flow of numerous streams originating from the Western Ghats and feeding river Pampa and the backwater regions of the district and nearby Alappuzha. She was also in the forefront of agitations against controversial hydel power projects at Pathrakadavu and Athirappilly, and waged a protracted war against the atomic power project proposed at Peringome in northern Kannur district.
A few weeks before her death, she told her followers to plant a banyan tree when they asked about her last wish. She said she would be happy with a banyan tree as her memorial. “Don’t write anything on or near the tree. There is no need to keep my ashes there. I would be happy when birds arrive to eat the fruits,’’ she said.
The second daughter of late freedom fighter and Gandhian activist Bodheswaran and Sanskrit scholar VK Karthiyayayani, she had laid a strong foundation for environmental activism in Kerala through different modes which include direct interventions, poetry, speeches, and protests.
In recent years, she had used her poetry as a means to convey the message of conservation and protection. Even her philanthropy and charity were reflective of her strong commitment to nature and the environment.
A strong champion of Western Ghats and a prime voice against encroachments on it, she strongly defended the Gadgil committee recommendations for the protection of Western Ghats. In that process, she had faced large scale attacks from interest groups.
In his condolence message, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Sugathakumari had ably fought a long battle for environment and women’s rights. She proved that social activism can successfully go in tandem along with poetic life, he said.
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