Sacred games

J Devika | Updated on May 17, 2019 Published on May 17, 2019

My home, my corner: Meena Menon is at loggerheads with the Kerala State Electricity Board, which is extending a 110-KV line right through Shantivanam   -  THE HINDU / THULASI KAKKAT

A woman’s struggle to protect a rainforest in Kerala meets with political apathy from both the Left and the Right

Last month, when the whole of Kerala sweltered in the heat of an unprecedented summer, and shivered feverishly on the eve of a life-and-death national election, in a small corner of the state a lone woman soldiered on, fighting to save a 200-year-old treasure trove. The story caught little attention, which was hardly surprising. It has become common — almost habitual — for us to work ourselves into frenzy over battles that we know we have already lost, and to remain indifferent to yawning abysses that threaten us all. For example, these elections, in which issues vital to human survival can hardly be discussed. In order to avoid the Hindutva right, we pray fervently for the victory of the opposition. But that gives us no room whatsoever to ask the opposition hard questions about the environment and human rights. We hope that Rahul Gandhi will deliver on his promise despite the fact that the Congress in Kerala has been as vicious as the Hindu right-wing regarding women’s rights; also, neither the Left nor the Congress cares about the environment.

The struggle I began this column with was between Meena Menon, who is fighting to defend a mini-tropical rainforest of some two-and-a-half acres in Paravur, and the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). The biodiversity of Shantivanam (forest of peace, literally) is so rich that the Kerala Forest Research Institute collects seeds from there. The area, which contains sacred groves and ponds, came under attack in 2013 when the KSEB decided to extend a 110-KV electricity line through it. This appeared to be a decision to suit the neighbours whose properties have nothing but property value, unlike Menon’s sacred groves. Her appeals to the judiciary resulted in the KSEB clarifying that the line would pass by the side of her land; however, in 2016, it passed an order that projected it right through. Menon approached the Kerala High Court and appealed to the chief minister and the Haritha Kerala Mission; but her petition was rejected, and before she could act further, the KSEB began felling trees.

What is it that makes the KSEB, a huge body with a considerable number of people on the political left, act in complete disregard of Kerala’s long-term survival? I am not surprised by the meanness and stealth with which its agents moved to secure the advantage of property owners. At the ground level, short-term moneyed interests prevail over long-term wisdom, and the fact that Shantivanam is protected by a woman who does not conform to middle-class familial mores also explains much. But what about the leadership? Public sector agencies such as the KSEB routinely overlook public well-being for short-term achievement of the targets set to them. The agency has been fully complicit in the culture of mindless ecological destruction characteristic of developmentalism. Nevertheless, civil society — students and activists — have responded to Menon’s call for support. But construction continues unabated; the KSEB, powerful neighbours, corrupt officials, and the power minister MM Mani have ganged up against the single woman and her child.

Despite some delay, Hindutva elements expressed support — including prominent women from the brigade. But the passion that one saw among them for Sabarimala is missing — though the issue is of the violation of a sacred grove. The panchayat of the Kottuvally village, where the groves are located, has a BJP president. Apparently, some of the party supporters in the area had approached Menon to extend support. She refused — probably unsure of the real motive behind the move. When all hell broke loose on Shantivanam, there wasn’t a word from the sanskaari Malayali women. They took their time to express outrage, only on Facebook so far. There is none of the boiling anger that drove them to attack the women who tried to enter Sabarimala last year.

In some research into women in Kerala’s ecological struggles conducted a few years ago, we found that very often, struggles for the protection of ecology were initiated by individual or groups of women, and these were not always modern-educated activists. Rather, these were women whose subjectivities were deeply entwined with nature. And many of them were Hindus.

Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala, wants to build a Kerala resilient to natural calamities. He said this in his speech at the World Reconstruction Conference in Geneva earlier this week. How does he plan to achieve the goal when comrades like Mani and the KSEB destroy the last vestiges of environmental security we have?



J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

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Published on May 17, 2019
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