Salem’s green warrior
Piyush Sethia creates forests, preserves lakes and opposes commercial mining
Piyush Sethia pauses beside what looks like a mound of dirt, plunges his hand right in and pulls out something. “These are the gems of our earth,” he says, holding out his hand. A mass of earthworms wriggles frenetically on his palm.
It is the compost generated by these worms that has helped create the green space on which we are standing. Constant experimentation with landscaping and water harvesting techniques has coaxed this dry and arid land in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district into going green.
The 39-year-old environmentalist (who refers to himself as Piyush Manush; “Sethia only appears in my police and court records,” he grins) calls this space the “Coop” forest. “I bought 1.5 acres and started planting trees here in 2009,” he says.
Over the years, the Coop forest has expanded to over 150 acres—and it is still growing. “I convinced my friends to buy patches of this land and it is now a cooperative,” he says, adding that the cooperative has around 40 members.
Chennai-based writer and activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who is also part of the cooperative, recalls, “When I first saw that land, there was nothing but rocks.” The forest is now home to guava, custard apple, chiku, ficus, bamboo and aloe.
“I am looking at creating forests for profit,” says Sethia. “And I constantly seek to create eco-friendly development options. Green economics has taken over my life.” He uses the bamboo cultivated here to make furniture. “Bamboo is a grass and grows very easily. Unlike the bamboo of Kerala, the bamboo of Tamil Nadu is solid, not hollow, is really strong, and is great for furniture,” he says. Holding a foot-stool with a single finger, he says, “Look at how light it is, yet this can take a lot of weight.”
His bamboo-manufacturing unit, started in 2009 and located a few kilometres from the forest, is “a labour-intensive business that provides seasonal employment to the people of this area. I want people to come and learn how to make this sort of furniture and open more factories like this,” he says, adding that through initiatives of this sort he hopes to encourage migration back to rural areas. “People move to cities in search of a better life but this doesn’t really happen, and we are killing our cities in the process.”
Sethia, proud to be an activist, looks the part too: Khadi kurta, rubber chappals, scruffy beard and cloth bag proclaiming the need for sustainable development. He started off as a student activist. “When I was in college in Salem, I began organizing students and we rallied against the system,” he says. It was there that he encountered the injustices meted out by the state. “In my third year, I was wrongly charged with attempting to murder the principal of my college. That is when I realized how the state can foist false cases on you, how the police and courts are used. It made a huge impression on me,” he says.
After graduation, Sethia found himself at a loose end, “This was in 1991. I was 23 years old and I didn’t have much exposure back then. Salem is a small place and I didn’t want to join my father’s textile business there.” So he started planting trees in the city, discovered vermicomposting, began producing plates made out of areca palm leaves and manufacturing charcoal. “I realized how sustainable green businesses could be,” he says.
In 2006, he met Jayaraman. “I was bragging to him about the work I was doing when he turned to me and said, ‘Do you know where your drinking water comes from?’” says Sethia. “I didn’t, so he took me there. Chemplast Sanmar, which has several plants at Mettur, a little town in Salem district, had been dumping mercury in that water for years and it was teeming with it.” Chemplast Sanmar did not respond to an email sent by Mint.
He understood then, he says, the politics of natural resources: how only a few folks have access to them while regular people are deprived of the basics they are entitled to. Salem, a mineral storehouse surrounded by hills, “represents a confluence of all evils”, believes Sethia.
“When I first met Piyush around 12-13 years ago, he was a lone cowboy of sorts, primarily an animal activist working in isolation,” says Jayaraman, adding, “Today he is no longer that; he has succeeded in mobilizing large groups of people who are inspired to make these changes too.”
Environmentalist Shibu K. Nair of Thanal, a Thiruvananthapuram-based not-for-profit, adds: “It is amazing to see the changes he built not just in the physical environment of Salem, but the changes he made in the attitude of its citizens. His confidence and passion have motivated people to trust him and get involved.”
This area, especially the Kanjamalai hills located around 14km from Salem, is rich in iron ore—a fact that was apparently first noticed by companies in 2008. Sethia and other environmentalists have been opposing the entry of companies and educating locals on the effects of mining. Raja, who belongs to one of the villages clustered in the foothills, was an active member of the Kanjamalai Padagap Iyyakam, a local group that strongly opposed the entry of companies, “We gheraoed the district forest office and submitted multiple RTI petitions,” Raja recalls with a hearty laugh.
The multiple protest movements did bear fruit. “The resistance was so strong that every application was withdrawn. Three protests and the government knew that they couldn’t do a damn,” says Sethia. “I do know that mining is a required evil but it needs to be done responsibly. And honestly, I think if mining rights are given to local communities instead of large corporate houses, it will be better regulated.” It’s easier, he adds, to mobilize people in a rural area than in an urban area.
In 2010, as a representative of the Campaign for Justice and Peace, a nationwide campaign started by people concerned about human rights violations in Chhattisgarh, he was arrested and charged with sedition. “I marched into a Republic Day parade in Salem and started distributing pamphlets containing details about Operation Green Hunt (a government offensive against Naxalites) in Chhattisgarh,” he says, explaining why he was picked up.
The arrest proved to be a blessing in disguise, he says. For one, it catapulted him into the news and more people began to take notice of him. “The collector called me one day and asked me if I would be interested in restoring a lake,” he says.
Water-body conservation was always something he had been interested in. And by now, the fiery activist had managed to connect to many like-minded people who were willing to help and support his initiatives. They came together in 2010 to form the Salem Citizen’s Forum (SCF). What started off as a bunch of volunteers coming together to clean up that first lake—the Mookaneri lake, a 58-acre water body located at the foot of the Shevaroy hills in the Eastern Ghats, in Salem district—is now a full-fledged civil society movement. They meet regularly to discuss and find solutions to every problem in the district—civic, social, cultural, environmental—and have also managed to clean up six lakes in the area. They are now starting on the seventh.
At dusk, Mookaneri lake is bathed in soft darkness. There is a walker’s path along the lake; friendly dogs greet passers-by; people perched on the roughly hewn steps that lead to the amphitheatre are involved in a deep discussion.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. In May 2010, when Sethia first began working on the project, the lake was a cesspool, overflowing with sewage, stuffed with plastic, devoid of life. A committed bunch of people in the city helped in the turnaround. “Every Sunday morning, for seven months, they gathered here,” he says. “They picked up garbage, planted trees, created the islands: There are many species of birds here now.”
“The students of my schools were encouraged to volunteer for this project,” says Meena Sethu, who runs two schools in Salem and is an active member of the SCF. “It is important for them to learn these lessons now if they have to undo the damage of the last 30-odd years,” she says, adding that the students of her school continue to help maintain the lake.
“Through restoration of lakes, Sethia actually restored people’s faith in justice. It is beyond conservation work. It is all about rebuilding society and relationships,” says Nair.
Jayaraman agrees: “His vision is deeper than merely picking up some plastic. He is trying to clear the rubbish in people’s minds.”
The bamboo shelves at Sethia’s home in Salem are crammed with labelled files detailing his various projects and causes. It is an eclectic array—from the sexual abuse of children to domestic abuse, from details of mining activities in Salem to future plans for his Coop forest, from photographs of some of the lakes he has restored to pamphlets of causes past, “There is so much injustice in the world today. It is hard to choose what to fight for today,” he says.
He has thrown open his Coop forest to the public. Anyone interested in what he calls “green ventures” is free to visit, he says.
Already, a few thatched huts have sprouted in the forest and some young men are camping outside them. They spend time in the forest, understanding Piyush’s vision of it, planting trees and building settlements there. A few have even begun planning their own eco-friendly initiatives.
Gopi, an assistant professor at an engineering college and an aspiring entrepreneur, is one, “I am working on repairing the biomass gasifier here,” he says. “The filter isn’t working. Once I fix it, we can produce electricity for the forest,” he says.
Sethia hopes to convert more young people to this sort of lifestyle. “I want to increase the number of sustainable development initiatives in this country. The biggest challenge is questioning people’s notion of development. Once they understand how harmful some of these development measures really are, no one, not state or government or military, will be able to change their minds.”
HOW TO GIVE
Local donors, notable among them Meena Sethu, who runs two schools in Salem, and M. Srinivasan, a textile merchant.
Funding and volunteers for the Ayyappan Vanam Project, an afforestation initiative, and the seventh Salem lake restoration project.
A DONATION OF Rs.10,000 CAN
Help plant more trees, buy excavators, create infrastructure for the parks that come up around lakes.
VOLUNTEERS CAN HELP
By learning about and creating more sustainable development initiatives, working on research projects, joining protests, filing RTIs.
Sethia at 9443248582 or email@example.com
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