Life of Pi-yush- 21st Century activist, Salem

By Adil BashaonFeb. 27, 2014in Environment and Ecology

Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

What does it mean to be responsible? Who and what are we responsible for? Are we only responsible for ourselves? Our family? Our Community? What about the mountains, the rivers and the land? Who takes responsibility for them?

If you are Piyush Sethia, then you take responsibility for all of it. He single handedly decided to restore the barren hills and the dried up lakes in Salem at the tender age of 20, by planting thousands of trees and digging up trenches on hills around his hometown. Project Harithima begun in 1997, was one of the many projects that this green entrepreneur has championed. Since then, he has not only involved himself in activism, but has also gravitated towards constructive environmentalism, with the setting up of SEED (socio economic environmental development), SCF (Salem’s Citizen Forum) for outreach and the Coop Forest for conducting nature camps and as an experimental co-operative space for green entrepreneurs.

Piyush even took moral responsibility for not being able to save the picturesque Mookaneri Lake from pollution by idols made of Plaster of Paris and toxic dyes. He had toiled to rejuvenate with local support and his SCF team, transforming it from a drought- parched barren land into a delicate, island – strewn lake teeming with life. He ‘surrendered’ before a judicial court, lamenting his inability in keeping up the promise he made to the public, of stopping the pollution of the lake.

Born and brought up in Salem, the reason why Piyush started out doing what he did seems perplexing yet simple. When asked about it, he says nonchalantly, “Common Sense”. Probed again, he replies in an even more casual tone, “Common Sense.” Maybe that’s how it feels to someone who has ‘lived’ a place, and not just lived ‘in’ one. A chance meeting with fellow activist, Nithyanand Jayraman inspired him to become an activist in Salem, a hotbed for bauxite and magnesite mining, with companies like Vedanta, Jindal Steel Works, Dalmia all being accused of violating environmental laws and regulations.

Taking responsibility also requires one to ascertain who or what they identify with. It also requires one to internalize who or what they do not represent, do not stand for. Piyush has refused to register any of his forums as an NGO, as he seeks no accreditation from the government in any form whatsoever. “Years ago a government official enlightened me on how registering SEED would put me at his mercy. How he could make me jump through hoops for him. It struck me that he was right, and I haven’t registered any organization with the government.” His vocal dissidence and his insistence on not identifying himself with the institutions of power have put him in grave situations. In 2010, sedition charges were levelled against him for circulating a pamphlet as part of Campaign for Justice and Peace at a Republic Day function. The sedition charges were later dropped after widespread criticism from the civil society.

Mookaneri – A Real Peoples’ Movement

Work started on the Mookaneri Eco-restoration Project in 2010, with 150 local men, women and children gathering at 6 a.m. on every Sunday, cleaning the lake and desilting it. Once the excavators dug the soil and created islands, people planted 25,000 saplings and prayed for rains. The sky gods complied, and soon the dried up lake had turned into a vibrant natural system. More than 50 varieties of birds, both migratory and resident, and trees towering over 20 feet tall covered these islands of hope.

The secret behind the rejuvenation, Piyush explains, has to do with the de -silting process, which NABARD has deemed as the best de-silting process for lakes. So in spite of 2011 and 2012 being below par years in terms of rainfall, Mookaneri hasn’t seen a drastic decrease in water level.

What makes the restoration project a real peoples’ movement in his eyes, is the effort of the community in raising funds, taking up awareness initiatives independently and having a sense of ownership over the lake. Piyush cites the enthusiasm of the local youngsters in organizing massive funding drives in keeping the movement alive.

The forum has been invited by many other communities and NGOs from far and away to implement similar rejuvenation efforts in their communities. He however, has put the responsibility back on local communities by asking them to adopt his model, instead of waiting for a non-local like him to find a quick fix solution.

All isn’t hunky dory though, as Piyush and his team have to ward off real estate sharks who constantly eye the lake as nothing but valuable land ‘gone waste’. Frivolous petitions have been filed and work has been stopped with the nexus of land grabbers, politicians and governmental authorities to blame. He laments that it’s not easy doing practical, grassroots work, where many stakeholders may have ulterior motives. There seems to be no other choice but to persist and resist.

As Piyush heads to Kumaragiri lake, the fourth lake restoration project undertaken by SCF, the question is what makes one take the responsibility and the burden of protecting the commons? Is it instinct? Common sense? Experience? or maybe it takes it all of them. At the lake site, it’s none of the three which seem relevant; it’s the sheer energy and optimism which seems to keep the local community involved in the project. Whether it’s the diverting and further purification of the sewerage from the lake, building of islands and planting of trees on them or the construction of a park adjacent to the lake, there is a sense of inevitability in his tone. No mean feat considering the frequent tussles with government authorities, political leaders and the police. In the mind of an environmental activist, there are no half – measures.

Coop Forest – A Radical Idea

One of Piyush’s long term goals is to achieve sustainability in agriculture to the extent where people come back to farming because of its viability, to induce a ‘reverse migration’, as he puts it. One of the major steps that he has taken in this regard, is the setting up of the ‘Coop Forest’, which is an experimental space designed to encourage green entrepreneurs and their economically beneficial green projects. The 180 acre cooperative forest located about 60 kms from Salem, at first glance seems like an oasis in the middle of a desert. Replete with bamboo trees, fruit orchards and a vegetable garden, the place exudes serenity, a quality often not valued by a city dweller.

The forest, which has eleven fresh water ponds, also has a bio mass gasifier and a bio gas unit. As Piyush puts it, the soft energy of the sun should be converted into gas, and the hard energy should be put back into the soil. So the domestic kitchen waste generates gas for cooking and the dried weeds, twigs, grass converted into charcoal is put back into soil for moisture retention. Piyush invites green entrepreneurs to start a green project of their choice, reside in the forest and share the fruits of their projects, with and within the community. Recent experiments with aloe vera and guava juices, areca sheath plates and bamboo plantations have been successful.

Coop Forest also serves as a learning centre for children who come there to not just admire nature, but get into the thick of things, whether its by building mud houses, planting trees, digging trenches, learning about organic farming or simply trekking through the terrain. It is a place where nothing is left to abstraction, where everything is experiential. Children splash into the freshwater pond, and come out on to an island of hope.

First Published in Eternal Bhoomi July – September 2013

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