Now whenever I think of Dr Latha Anantha, who passed away on the morning of 16th November, I remember her as the singer (and probably author-composer too) of the song, ‘Nila, Narmada, Chilika’.
I came to know her, Unnikrishnan and their colleagues at Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samiti as valiant environmental activists fighting against a hydroelectric power project. The impression that Latha’s work left on all who heard her presentations was that of a brilliant researcher-activist who was also fighting against hyped hydrological data by those who planned and pushed Athirappilly hydroelectric project.
Recollecting how she was drawn to environment and nature education, Latha told the Ashoka fellowship community in 2012 that at university she had interned with a well-known ecologist from the Western Ghats, Dr Sathish Chandran Nair and participated in many nature camps and discussions. In 1989, attending a nature camp at Silent Valley moved her to dedicate her life to nature related campaigns, study agriculture science, understand the relationship that farming communities and tribes have with nature and ultimately take up environmental activism.
In those days when agriculture colleges in Kerala were a male bastion, she decided to pursue Agriculture Science. Her doctoral thesis titled - Consequences of the Conversion of Marginal Homesteads to Rubber in Kottayam District, Kerala (1992-1996) - was on the theme of Agriculture Extension. She started her career as an Agriculture Officer with the government of Kerala. During her five-year tenure as an Agriculture Officer, Dr Latha took keen interest in promoting organic farming besides performing her assigned duties.
During 1992-94, while doing her doctoral research, she got involved in a campaign to save the forest trees in the Thiruvizhamkunnu campus of the Kerala Agricultural University. She was part of a group of students who successfully stalled the plans of the college authorities to cut down more than 1000 prime forest trees in their campus, situated next to the famous Mannarkkad forests. She married Unnikrishnan, a fellow traveler and river lover in 1995.
From 1998 onwards, Latha got involved in the struggle against the proposed Athirappilly hydroelectric project on the Chalakudy river. Recognizing the grave social and ecological impacts of the seventh dam on the small 144 kms long Chalakudy river, Unnikrishnan and Latha formed Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samiti. They studied the hydrological data and all the documents of the proponents of the dam to build a strong case against the project. Until 2009, their group was engaged in fighting three separate petitions before the Kerala High Court on the issue. She and her comrades gathered and analyzed technical and scientific data to counter three Environmental Impact Assessments prepared for the project. As a result of her efforts, the Kerala High Court suspended the approval for the project twice.
In June 2002, Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samiti had organised a meeting on the report of the World Commission on Dams at Thrissur. In July 2003, they organised a meeting on Interlinking of Rivers. In 2004. Latha along with S P Ravi, C G Madhusudan, S Unnikrishnan and K H Amita Bachan authored a book, Tragedy of Commons: The Kerala Experience in River Linking, jointly published by River Research Centre and South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. (One can order the book here.)
My correspondence with Latha and Unnikrishnan was not a regular one, it was in fact quite erratic, but I can’t remember even one occasion when they failed to reply. In October 2006, Latha wrote: “Sorry for the delay Himanshu. The article is very well written and shocking. In Kerala, the CAG had pointed out anomalies in four Hydro Power projects in which money was spent on the augmentation and extension of these projects based on exaggerated flow data. In other words, false flow data was used to gain the sanction and money was spent after which the expected increased power generation was not forthcoming. We had filed a petition with the KSERC, but nothing was forthcoming.”
In 2007, many of us got together at Environment Support Group, Bangalore to discuss many ongoing struggles against large dams. I vividly remember her as an ardent supporter of new ideas and arguments during this meeting. She had started to engage with the concept of Environmental Flows and she was very supportive of the proposals to launch downstream impact studies for some highly controversial projects.
In October 2007, alarmed at the frequency of disasters around dam sites in the monsoon I wrote a couple of articles for India Together on the grave issue, More accidents at Dam Sites and Here a breach, there a breach. Latha provided critical inputs for both the articles. In her reply to my queries, she had written: “Actually, we need to do a thorough in depth study of the dam safety issues in Kerala. Data is lacking. And whatever available is in newspaper clippings.”
The year 2008 witnessed the Chalakudy Satyagrah which started on Feb 25th, and on June 3rd (100th day of the Satyagrah) and 4th a national convention on Athirappilly issue was organised. Latha sent out reminders and requested us to join the struggle in solidarity. During the course of the litigation, Latha had a chance to meet the then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh and she appraised him of the dreadful impacts the dam would have on the Chalakudy River. As a result of the meeting, the minister issued a show cause notice to the project proponent, Kerala State Electricity Board on 4th January 2010. Since then the project has been put on hold.
In October 2010, at the third international meeting of dam affected people, Latha along with Susanne Wong organised a women’s session. The presentations at this session appeared in a special issue of World Rivers Review (March 2011).
In June 2012, Latha along with Parineeta Dandekar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People authored ‘A Primer on Environmental Flows’.
She coordinated Environmental Flows Thematic Group of the Forum for Policy Dialogues on Water Conflicts in India and authored a comprehensive critique of Assessment of Environmental Flows in India prepared by a three member committee for Union Ministry on Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.
In 2014, she was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent grueling treatment and had to stop work entirely for a while. But, she never gave up her smile and caring love to impart nature education to kids and said in an interview that, “it was children in part, who brought her back”. She said, “After I went through this treatment last year, I didn’t imagine I’d again have the energy to fight this project for a fourth time”. However, she bounced back to activism and research in no time.
Latha was a great friend, always cheerful, smiling and caring individual. She listened and provided guidance and support. She is going to be missed and remembered as a river guardian who knew why rivers should flow.
Note: Listen to Dr Latha Anantha speaking about the Rivers of Kerala here.