It took some time to write. Latha chechi and me talked just 4 days before she passed away on Nov 16, 2017. As usual, it was about when we will meet next and go to Athirappilly Falls and travel to the river together. Her voice was light, it had a surreal gentleness. We agreed on everything, which was rare. After just a few minutes, Unni gently took the phone from her and told me she needed to sleep. It just didn’t feel right.
We first met virtually about 10 years back, discussing rivers and forests and then, through her initiative, came together to organize the first civil society workshop on Environmental Flows in January 2009 with SANDRP. Since then, Latha Chechi has been a bubbling, enthusiastic and wise constant. We worked on several submissions together, discussed strategies and ideas, eating each other’s heads about what worked and what can work and always, I was always taken aback by her unmatched way of linking issues.
She told me, “You need one particular river. Work on all the rivers of world, but have that one river to go back to.”
River Chalakudy was her friend. Her love for the river was so rooted that she never discussed Chalakudy in an abstract, artistic isolation: It was always the waterfalls, Vazachal forests, the river banks, the Kadar tribes, the Malabar Giant Squirrels, the hornbills of river banks which came together when she discussed the river. They were as much a part of the river as the flow itself. This was a deep, organic understanding, gained by her constant physical proximity with the river. A slow love. Of a very rare kind.
With her gone, I realize every passing day how rare she was in our country… a bridge between science and policy and people, taking a firm stand to protect a river and its people.
In 2013, all of us visited Athirappilly with my 6-year-old. We spent hours looking at the hornbills whooshing down on the forests of the left bank. She laughed with the Kadar leader Geeta and her relatives and kids. Between Latha and Unni, they knew each tree on the bank, each patch of forest. They belonged here.
One cannot think of Latha without thinking of Unni. One of the gentlest, most patient and loving persons I have ever met. An engineer, activist and poet. So strong, so infallible, so steel-like in Latha’s illness. Their meeting and being together was also linked with a shared love for rivers and forests.
River Research Centre’s (RRC) Advocacy for protecting Chalakudy river from Athirappilly HEP is a lesson in itself. It is a culmination of several strategies coming together into a living, sustaining struggle that becomes a sort of celebration. The group studied the river’s hydrology, ecology, anthropology better than anyone did. They literally knew the river.
On the one hand they conducted a cost- benefit analysis of impact of Athirappilly HEP on tourism potential of the river, on the other they conducted children’s camp on Chalakudy river banks where Latha and Unni sang into the night.
On the one hand, RRC and CPSS members like SP Ravi did a detailed study on modification of irrigation needs and water releases to allow water for the river ecosystem, on the other, Latha worked relentlessly with village Panchayats to generate a consensus about water sharing.
On the one hand, Dr. Latha Anantha made quirky fish cut-outs for a children’s rally, on the other she discussed Athirappilly issue so eloquently with the then-Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, that he had no option but to visit the site with Latha and investigate it further.
Struggle to save the Chalakudy is a fable in India’s Environmental Governance because of the number of times its Environmental Clearance for Athirapally Hydropower Project (the struggle started over two decades ago and continues, project is yet to get started) was successfully challenged, the various studies and campaigns put together by groups like CPSS and RRC, whole range of new stakeholders participating in each step and eventually, a flowing river strectch, forests and its people saved again and again.And all this happened with an immense sense of joy and wonder. The process of saving a river symbolically held so much meaning for nearly everyone touched by Latha’s light. No wonder that she was one of the first recipients of the Bhagirath Prayas Samman Award from India Rivers Week Organisers in its inaugural year 2014.
While discussing issues like eflows (we wrote a Primer on Eflows together, she did all the hard part 🙂 ), dam proposals, water distribution, when most of us dived into details right away, she kept asking but what about the catchment? What about Community Forests Rights? What about Village Panchayats? Decentralized democracy and decision making from the bottom to the top was internalized in all her work.
I see the immense value of all this today.
Her home, her garden, her close relations were all a reflection of her: wild, simple to a fault, entirely unpretentious and wholesome. Unni and Latha did not have a refrigerator in their home. I asked her in disbelief, how do you survive without one in such weather, she said, just make enough food that you will finish. Anyone who cooks knows how difficult that is. Her kitchen had a deep well, overgrown with ferns and washing up meant watering organic chilies and brinjals growing in the back yard in the process.
Even when her health started failing, she did not have an air conditioner for many years. Prized possession of Unni and Latha’s gorgeous home “Krutikka” was a nest of civet cats in the wooden paneling. And of course, their library, accessed through a creaking wooden staircase.
With her gone, I understand the need for scientists who engage with ecosystem and community issues, who don’t just publish papers, but take stands, talk to people, talk with officials, question government decisions in real time, get into the bad books and protect something.
I see the value of one sustained struggle, weaving children, youth, farmers, politicians of one river basin together by a shared cause. Of researchers doing more than self-absorbed research, but being brave and consistent enough to fight for what they value and entering the hot and messy realm of advocacy.
The need for activists to have a positive grounding giving them infinite energy, look at issues more holistically, to sing songs and paint pictures, write poems and share a hearty laugh over something silly.
With her gone, I understand the importance of holding on to friends, making time for them and taking it slow.
Farewell Latha. I’m sure wherever you are, there will be an unfettered Chalakudy, Shola forests, Malabar Hornbills, friends and loved ones waiting for you.
Parineeta Dandekar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To read more about Latha’s work and journey, see here. She was an Ashoka Fellow, part of International Rivers and Steering Committee member of Forum for Water Conflicts. During later part of her struggle, Zindabad Trust also supported her. Since 2016 she was Jury committee member of Bhagirath Prayas Samman award for exemplary work on River Conservation in India.