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The Life Flow Of Latha Anantha

The Life Flow Of Latha Anantha

Latha Anantha’s unwavering love and committment for rivers and all that they sustain shone through her lifetime of work and activism. Photo Courtesy: River Research Centre

Born in 1966, Latha Anantha passed away in 2017, far too young to die. Anitha Santhi, a Thiruvananthapuram-based environmental educator and post-graduate researcher in ecology writes here with anguish and admiration about the incredible work of her friend of three decades.

We were the children of the 1960s, born in a state that had just witnessed the First Communist Ministry and the first land reforms. We were on the way to complete literacy and had begun hearing about development for the masses. We hardly knew then that we were also a part of rapid industrialisation when forests were leased out to private companies for a pittance, that rivers and seas were seen as endless sinks for pollutants and sustenance livelihoods were pushed to the margin in the name of productivity. Yes, people like Latha Anantha and I belonged to this tumultuous, transitional phase of the social, political and ecological history of Kerala. It is no wonder that the niche we  created and lived through carried the influence and elements both personally and professionally.

Latha understood early on the crucial interconnectedness between life-giving components such as rivers and humans. Photo Courtesy: River Research Centre


To write in the ‘past tense’ about a person one grew up with, both in thoughts and ideology, in dreams and hopes is not easy. It is like writing about one’s own life as if one’s life were over. I met Latha in the early 1990s, the prime of our life. We were completing a certain crucial stage of our academic pursuits and were at the threshold of choosing a more focused path. Both were blessed with mothers who had set standards and benchmarks for what we as women should be – independent and financially stable, to have integrity and commitment to certain life values, to be simple and forthright. The expectations and unconditional support of these strong women made us different from most average young girls our age. Our mothers also taught us to bend like a willow, to accommodate diversity and pave a unique path. The one Latha chose – of an activist and scholar had its roots in her upbringing.

We were also part of the generation, which heard the first rumbles of “Development for whom and at what cost?” The tragedy of the Chaliar river polluted by the Gwalior Rayons factory, the loss of the priceless bamboo forests of Wynaad, which was seen as an industrial resource, the pollution south of the ocean by the titanium factory were all real life stories that we heard. We were pulled into the campaign ‘Save Silent Valley’ – a name that touched our young romantic hearts by its virginal quality, by the undammed Kunthi river, the pristine patch of uninhabited, evergreen forests and the right of special denizens such as the lion-tailed macaque to survive. As Latha would admit later, it was the camp in Silent Valley where she slept in the open by the enchanting moonlit river that changed her life.

What attracted and shocked me at the outset about Latha was her outright yet steadfast conviction and novel ideas. The most striking among them was her ‘zero population’ theory, a decision she took as a teenager of not having children. She was able to show that one could be a mother and a parent to many without giving birth. The large group of youngsters who were her companions and friends were  evidence of how seriously she took the task of nurturing others.

For Latha, life was a series of ‘turning away’ decisions that led to ‘no turning back’. She turned away from her job as an agricultural officer in order to dedicate her life to nature conservation. It was her doctoral thesis on the impact of rubber as a mono-crop on land use, food security, soil fertility and the ecological and social fabric of Kerala, which opened her eyes to the interconnectedness of life and human activity.

She started the River Research Centre (RRC) in 2006. Applying her impeccable understanding of complex river systems, she contributed much to efficient river basin planning and management in India. Photo Courtesy: River Research Centre


Apart from meeting at a few camps, my first close interaction with Latha was during our involvement with a WWF-Forest Department survey setting up the Agasthyamalai Biodiversity Park in southern Western Ghats. With friends like Jayakumar, Usha, Veena, Shibu, Ravishankar we walked along the degraded buffer zones, the dammed valleys of Peppara and Neyyar, the patches of incredibly beautiful forests and grasslands and interacted with Kani tribes. Unknown to our young minds then, we were evolving one of the first socio-ecological survey sheets in Kerala. It was here that I saw glimpses of Latha’s scientific bent of mind that would later become the corner stone of the River Research Centre she initiated.

Living in Thrissur, near the forests of Athirapally and Vazhachal, crossing the Chalakudy river often, it was not surprising that Latha and her companion Unnikrishnan were drawn into issues connected with the Athirapally Hydroelectric Project, which was on the anvil for many years. I remember meeting the then Secretary of Environment Shri. Jayakrishnan along with Latha to appraise him about the fallacy of the project. Latha convincingly made a strong case with maps and data in 2000, taking a scientific and pragmatic approach to protect the river.

It was around the same time that the Kerala Institute for Local Administration (KILA) initiated the creation of a Basin Management Manual for Local Self Government Institutions (LSGs). Working with people such as J.B. Rajan, Harikumar T. P., D. Sanki and Latha was a great learning experience for me. It was then that I understood how Latha could transcend the deep connection she had with rivers and navigate practical and almost mechanical concepts such as hydrological characterisations, eco-bio-enviro characterisations and so on, all with a quiet ease. Her frail fingers drew thin and subtle lines on the sides of the note pads she carried to make detailed and meticulous notes . This was the beginning of the activist Latha was destined to become, the activist who would initiate studies on river flow, carrying capacity, downstream rights and biodiversity and ecosystem values making the Campaign for Athirapally special and undeniable.

The most significant contribution that Latha made is reflected best in the concepts she developed and wrote profusely about – the river as a complete living entity with rights of its own. The chapter ‘Between the Living and the Dying – Rivers of Kerala’ that Latha wrote in the book Living Rivers, Dying Rivers, 2015, edited by Ramaswamy Iyer, epitomises the skill with which she amalgamated the esoteric value of a living river with more functional approaches which see river as a beneficial resource. Her uncanny capacity to link emotions with hard reality is evident in her writings on e-flows and ecological value of rivers. Her subtle and skilled writing introduces and convinces the readers of the river’s duality of existence. From the “river that needs to flow for its own survival” to the “river that needs to flow to assure our (human) survival as well” Latha’s words left us in deep contemplation. Her presentation on e-flows ‘Towards restoring flows into the Earth’s arteries’ is a statement on the profound ecological thought that she carried in her heart.

She was truly delighted when the Uttarakhand Court declared the Ganga and Yamuna rivers to have the same legal rights as a human being.

In her advocacy against the fallacies of the Athirapally Hydroelectric Project on the Chalakudy river, Latha made a strong case using a sound and scientific approach armed with maps and extensive data in 2000. Photo Courtesy: River Research Centre


Latha’s capacity to accommodate human diversity and complexity and to accept differences, conflicts and contradictions could be seen in the way the campaign around the Athirapally issue was built and carried forward. She believed that river basin management and planning should have a futuristic approach. She and her team at the River Research Centre approached and considered each stakeholder in the campaign to have a voice and right – from the most affected Kadar tribes to encroachers in and around the waterfall, the expanding resort and tourism lobby to the downstream Panchayats. Instead of a lifeless and soulless strategy, their respectful and involved approach brought issues to the table with sincerity, conviction and a persuasive energy that was unseen and unheard of. This was reflected in the movement’s strategy when it shocked Kerala by proclaiming that it was withdrawing the campaign since there was no need to prove a falsified project and scheme that the government was unnecessarily pursuing.

Even as her health was failing,she continued to work on the School for Rivers that connected youngsters to the river. The sisterhood she created also speaks volumes of her feminine generosity – Geeta, the tribal chieftain, Zabna, Meera and Manju who walked her through the trauma, Usha, Rajasree, Sangeetha, Ammini and Sindhu, Santhi and Veena, Daisy and Suchitra, Snehalatha and Parineeta and many more.

Through the River Research Centre, Latha’s efforts to include and acknowledge the rights of each stakeholder were testament to her futuristic approach towards river basin management. Photo Courtesy: River Research Centre

It seems hollow to write about Latha without mentioning her artistic sensibilities. Singer, artist and writer, her incredible and indefatigable zest for life was reflected in her pursuit of good food, poetry, travels and human bonds. Quick to laugh, cry, and feel, her heart pulsated to her own tunes. She was a sister, friend, companion and colleague, all at once. As long as rivers flow, Latha will be dearly missed and remembered.

Author: Anitha Santhi, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 2, February 2018.


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