A quarry operator from Pathanamthitta set his sights on Chengottumala, a verdant hill spread across Kozhikode’s Kottur, Kayanna, and Nochad panchayats and plays a critical role as a biodiversity spot in the ecological balance of the region, back in 2015. His company amassed large tracts of land in the hill under the guise of planning turmeric cultivation and production of virgin coconut oil.
But the game unravelled in 2018 when the District Environment Impact Assessment Authority issued environmental clearance to the company for granite quarrying based on a deceptive mining plan, which, among other things, concealed the fact that Chengottumala is located just over eight km from the Malabar Wildlife Sanctuary and mining in the area would require clearance from the National Wildlife Board.
Soon, protests erupted and an action council was formed by a group of youths from the Mangal Pandey Memorial Library at Narayamkulam in the foothills of Chengottumala. Among those who led the long and arduous struggle marked by several rallies, sieges, fast, series of litigation and scientific studies were poet Veerankutty, native of Narayamkulam, and writer T.P. Rajeevan, a resident in the area.
The Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP), a Left-leaning people’s science movement which has made progressive social and environmental interventions in the past, joined the cause in 2019 when it sent a 10-member group of experts to survey the water sources in Chengottumala and study the hill’s social and ecological import.
The report, submitted to the Kottur grama panchayat and made public, gave an impetus to the efforts to prevent the hill being gouged out. In June 2022, the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority closed the lid on the issue, declining to endorse the company’s request for permission to carry out granite extraction in Chengottumala once and for all.
Veerankutty was, therefore, elated when the KSSP asked him to captain a day’s span of its 34-day padayatra (foot march) from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram raising the slogan ‘Science for People’s Welfare; Science for a New Kerala’. But it also made him sceptical, as his environmentalism had earned him the wrath of some ‘development-seeking’ Leftists on social media at the dawn of this New Year. His book was burnt and he was flayed for being a ‘tree-hugging romantic’ who instilled in people ‘a sense of guilt’ in exploiting the environment for a living.
“I was apprehensive that my participation in a KSSP-held event would further antagonise these people. But the Parishad leadership insisted that I join them. It seems to me that they too wanted to send a message to these advocates of mindless plundering of nature and natural resources,” says Veerankutty, who led the padayatra on January 29 from Cherukunnu up to Kannur town.
“Over a 100 people walked while several more waited along the way and at each stop to listen to us, watch the kalajadha performance, and to talk to us,” he says. “The Parishad had an electrifying role in lighting up the Kerala society with scientific temper in the post-reformation period. But dark corridors still exist where superstitions and occult practices lurk. They are not many thanks to movements like the Parishad,” says Veerankutty.
The idea of such a people’s campaign was born at the last annual conference of the KSSP at Kadayiruppu on the outskirts of Ernakulam last year.
The padayatra that began from Kasaragod on Republic Day, with former Judge of the Madras High Court Justice K. Chandru as chief guest, and slated to conclude in Thiruvananthapuram with veteran journalist P. Sainath addressing the concluding event is the showpiece of the campaign.
And the campaign has many layers, with over a dozen State-level seminars; some 60 scientific studies and analyses, some of which are still ongoing; and the publication of 15 monographs on issues ranging from the way to a knowledge society, creation of happy villages, the potential to take forward the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, on the development of sustainable transport infrastructure for Kerala, on reducing health inequalities, on curriculum reforms, and on the success story of environmentalism at Chengottumala.
The last time the Parishad embarked on such a large-scale padayatra was in 2012 with ‘Venam Mattoru Keralam (Need another Kerala) slogan when two sets of yatris from either end of the State met at Aluva.
“The way the world works now is a recipe for self-destruction. It is a critical period politically and there is a looming environmental catastrophe. Most resources are depleting. While Kerala has achieved global standards in development indices thanks to the People’s Planning Programme and the State’s alternative policies, society has become complacent, with people’s social time thinning. There is hardly any social discourse on issues even though unhealthy customs and beliefs are returning to haunt us. We have no silver bullets. But we thought of stimulating a social dialogue on the challenges ahead in order to choose the right way forward,” explains B. Ramesh, KSSP president.
To ensure that the dialogue does not happen in an echo chamber, the padayatra has a new captain each day and the selection has been done from various walks of life, gender identities, and political affiliations.
Sheetal Shyam, transgender activist and a member on the State Transgender Justice Board, led the procession between Kodakara and Karukutty and deems the opportunity as a strong message of plurality and inclusiveness. “It is heartening to see the participation of ordinary people, headload workers, Kudumbashree members, and students at the centres where the padayatra is received. Everyone is more aware of gender issues these days. But it is also a chance to assess the political and social climate prevailing in the country,” says Sheetal.
Political leaders T.M. Thomas Isaac, M. Swaraj, and M. Liju, dancer Neena Prasad, and writer Santhosh Echikkanam were among the day captains of the padayatra.
The response the padayatra evoked was something beyond the expectation of the KSSP, admits P.K. Raveendran, former president. “That the studies and surveys conducted as part of the campaign saw active participation from the academic fraternity reaffirmed our faith in the people,” he says.
She Archive, a play penned by Sajitha Madathil, directed by Arunlal and presented by a young group of performers, has remained the biggest draw of the padayatra all along, with the audiences lapping up every bit of it. It turns the focus on myriad forms of gender inequality at home and workplace and the performance is set to the pulsating beat of rap music in Malayalam. “It presents a modern-day office environment and appeals to the young audiences,” says Mr. Raveendran.
But J. Devika, captain of the padayatra from Eroor to Nadakkavu in Thripunithura, strikes a discordant note as she finds the play ‘problematic’. Loud among the sour notes is the demonisation of the working-class man. “Disparity in wages is not discussed at all while the celebration of maternity in the end is cheesy,” she says.
Last year, the KSSP sternly warned the government against going ahead with the SilverLine semi-high-speed rail project. The body’s science magazine Luca helped remove society’s ossified understanding of science and the present campaign is helping it reinvent itself, feels Devika.
At Thripunithura, she referred to the 20th anniversary of police violence against the tribespeople of Muthanga in Wayanad as an inflection point in governance. Kerala became popular for its style of governance as well. But that changed considerably in the past 20 years, she says, citing the Chengara land struggle, Moolampilly eviction, and agitation by the fisherfolk of Vizhinjam against the upcoming Adani port project there as instances of governments’ highhandedness.
In Kerala, lately, discussions often end in violence, she says pointing to the cyberattacks by Left-sympathisers and groups targeting her. “During this padayatra, I got to meet some of those who attacked me online and realised they are all human beings. I would have imagined them to be some feisty creatures if it was just the cyberworld. So, it is extremely important to have offline, face-to-face interactions like this,” she says.
Significant among the reports released by the KSSP during the padayatra is a critique of the recommendations of the Shyam Menon Commission for Reforms in Higher Education, which calls for an increase in the number of undergraduate seats “disregarding the fact that each year 80,000 undergraduate seats remain vacant”.
The Parishad’s committee on higher education also criticised a government order for appointment of ‘professors of practice’, as it “neither follows the Shyam Menon recommendation nor conforms to the norms of the UGC for the same”. What has been prescribed for a maximum period of up to three years and in a specific field of study to be led by additional faculty created using this route is being used to replace permanent faculty and conduct routine courses, laments a member on the KSSP’s higher education committee. It is also unhappy about the commission not prescribing concrete ways to ensure collaboration between industry and academia.
As the padayatra reached Alappuzha, a team led by Joji Koottummel, KSSP general secretary, urged the government to form a joint committee of local bodies around Vembanad Lake to formulate annual plans for the conservation of the lake ecosystem and to implement them. A technical committee comprising environmental scientists and planning experts should assist the joint committee, they said.
“The studies will go on and there are about 60 of them as part of this campaign at the rate of five for a district. This is our appeal to the people of Kerala to be socially aware, for a science-aided social transformation. We have achieved high standards in education and health but we face a spike in lifestyle diseases, accident-related deaths, and in the number of people turning invalid due to accidents. Treatment expenses are going through the roof. There is an increase in suicide rates and then there is a climate crisis. The parochial politics played out at the global, national levels has infiltrated into our family space. Isn’t it time we discussed all these with extreme urgency?” asks T.P. Kunhikkannan, former president of the KSSP.