An engineer, journalist and now an activist. Nityanand Jayaraman has travelled and worked across the globe but it is doing his bit for the environment that he holds closest to his heart, writes Anusha Parthasarathy

How does one become an environment activist? Especially one who battles for local communities, writes extensively on the environment and pedals around the city on his trusty bicycle. Nityanand Jayaraman, one of the city’s foremost environment activists didn’t start off as one until a lady from Thanjavur changed his life.

With a father who worked in the Central Government, Nityanand (a.k.a Nitty) admits that he grew up ‘all over the place’ but says that if there was one place he could pin it down to, it would be Madurai. “I spent my formative years there and in Coimbatore. I did my engineering like all good, young, middle-class boys but soon realised that I wasn’t cut out for it.” When he graduated in 1989 he decided to do something that involved travel.

“I wanted to study overseas. The only thing I could do was write and I decided I would write about the places I travelled to. I applied to some universities in the U.S. and did my masters in journalism at Ohio University,” he says. In the two years he spent there, Nityanand travelled the Pacific North-West. “I went to Alaska and tried to get a job on the fishing boats during salmon season. Of course, I ran out of money three days into job hunting,” he says. Soon, he moved to another town and landed a temporary job in one of the boats. Then, he worked at a cannery. “This is where the salmon comes in and my job was to separate the eggs from the entrails of female salmon fish (salmon eggs are a delicacy). I was in an 18-hour job and a spiritual experience,” he laughs. “I realised much later what a destructive form of fishing this was. Because you were trapping mothers that were carrying eggs and basically wiping out the species.”

After hitch-hiking across Canada and working as the Asia editor in a trade publishing firm in Hong Kong for two years, Nityanand decided he would become a travel writer in India. “The job was boring and I always wanted to come back. My first story in India was about shrimp aquaculture in Thanjavur,” One of the women he interviewed there taught him an important lesson. “She basically asked me not to be a voyeur. That it was okay to write about these issues but you also need to be involved and be fair to your subjects. Till then, journalism was about fun but the more stories I did, this confrontation kept coming back to me. Ironically, most of my stories were about the coast — deep sea fishing, industrial pollution along the coast and so on. After a while, I was very confused about where journalism stops and activism begins.”

In 1995, on a trip to Bhopal to write about water contamination, Nityanand came across the Well of Death. “The children then were playing a macabre game using a well in J.P. Nagar. They called it the Well of Death. Whoever inhaled the poisonous gases in the contaminated well, fell down dead. After seeing these things, the line between livelihood and activism blurred. I wasn’t convinced by objectivity. I am all out for being a fair journalist but I can’t be neutral. I spent more time as an activist than a journalist and the ability to sustain myself became difficult.”

It was then that Greenpeace approached him to write about smuggling of hazardous waste in India. “I worked with them for a while but what I really wanted to do was to work with local communities. I was tired of big brand activism. The experience was great — the organisation has passionate people with good ideas but I had a compulsion to push beyond the name,” he explains. So, Nityanand became a freelance writer and began Corpwatch India, a website that tracks corporate behaviour. “My ideas had grown much stronger since that conversation with that lady in Thanjavur. I realised that corporates and democracy can’t co-exist. Real choices come in terms of sustainable living but we choose not to see it.”

Along with a three other friends who had worked with NGOs, Nityanand began the Anti-Corporate Collective in 2004 (which now has 16 core members, eight of them based in the city). Over the years, this evolved into the Vettiver Collective. “We allow communities to speak for themselves — and began the Community Environment Monitoring Programme. We don’t teach them anything but make sure their local knowledge is translated into a language that public servants understand. Our work primarily deals with communities in the State, some of our members work in other states as well. But we never work under our brand name,” he says.

The group has previously helped with the Koodankulam protests, mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal (where they worked with the factory workers’ health situation and environment), Mettur Industrial Pollution protests and more such cases. “We are a solidarity group and people interested in exploring different challenges in social justice can come meet those involved in similar things and do what they want to do. Many youth organisations have been born out of the collective,” he adds.

Nityanand writes on environment-based issues for various magazines and newspapers and is a visiting faculty at the Asian College of Journalism. He is currently protesting against the Cheyyur Power Project and issues related to beach encroachments.