Awareness about our biodiversity should start in home gardens, feels E. Gopalakrishnan

For E. Gopalakrishnan, the key to a healthy and eco-friendly life lies in our own return to nature – through the garden. The agriculturist-cum-entrepreneur, who made a name for himself through his non-profit Sevai Children Trust in and around Madurai, has recently shifted to Tiruchi and is eager to teach city dwellers about the benefits of going native.

“Our trust aims to inform the public about what we have lost due to our civilisation process,” says Gopalakrishnan, “For example, our dietary habits have changed so much that the younger generation doesn’t know the names of certain leafy green vegetables because the children haven’t even seen them.”

The backyard in his Srinivasa Nagar home doubles as a test plot for various plant specimens with proven medicinal qualities, and highlights the natural wealth that we seem to be rather tragically dismissive about.

“You may have seen colourful advertisements on TV about costly shampoos that use oils from Amazon forest herbs to combat hair loss. But our Siddha practitioners had already told us about palai keerai, which can regenerate hair growth. Sadly the palai keerai has now been termed as endangered by the central government.

“Similarly, the plant Asiatica gangetica (narunsuvai keerai) whose Tamil name indicates its excellent aroma and taste, is now being grown as an ornamental crop rather than for food. We are now trying to get people to use it as a source of nutrition,” he says.

Organic sustainability

Sheer ignorance about our biodiversity is pushing us away from natural therapies for common ailments, he says. “In the Cauvery delta districts, the creeper Ipomoea sepiaria (thalikeerai) is commonly found growing well both on land and in aquatic conditions. This green is used in folk medicine to treat gynaecological problems and female sterility. But we prefer chemical cures for such problems.”

Not wishing to take up a nine-to-five job after graduating in agriculture from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Madurai in 1987, Gopalakrishnan spent his study hours in the fields and among senior citizens, getting to grips with plant science. “One thing that is missing today is the awareness about the value of our plants, which has already been researched for us by Siddha medicine,” says the Karur native.

“The seed of Cardiospermum halicacabum (balloon vine, mudakattan), is being studied for its anti-inflammatory properties by Nasa. Even Japan is independently researching the plant. But here in Tamil Nadu, we consider the balloon vine a weed, and don’t even want to research its chemical qualities.”

His chequered career has seen Gopalakrishnan selling millet porridge on the pavement in Madurai during his student days and teaching people to make dishes using natural ingredients.

He also ran a restaurant selling organic ethnic recipes at the Farmer’s Eatery (Uzhavan Unavagam) in Madurai.

“My classmates used to laugh at me because of my ideas. But it is quite easy to make green living sustainable, and I am not comfortable earning off mechanised industry.

“These days, with my wife’s help, I am selling laddus made out of thinai (a minor millet) flour, ghee and honey through orders I receive on my blog. It is important to create wealth out of natural products, otherwise nobody will take you seriously in the long term,” he says.

Catching ’em young

Gopalakrishnan and his wife Rani run the Sevai Children Trust, that motivates youngsters to adopt a more healthy and natural lifestyle. “Our population is serving as a consumer base for all the products made by multinational companies,” says Gopalakrishnan.

“Rather than turn our children into buying machines, we should teach them to look for natural solutions.

“We hold age-appropriate awareness programmes in schools, and motivate kids to know more about the lost and fading wealth of our biodiversity.”

So far, the trust has found success in government and corporation schools in Madurai, Ramnathapuram, Sivagangai, Virudhunagar and Theni.

“We cannot motivate urban children to have bigger gardens or become farmers. They already have the harassment of the schools. So I teach them how to take care of just one sapling; and share the experience of nurturing the plant,” says Gopalakrishnan.

“The younger generation likes to share knowledge without prejudice, so in a matter of time, they will inspire the parents too.”