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Who Are The Original Guardians Of Our Environment?

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By Ankush Vengurlekar:

Many countries celebrated World Environment Day on 5th June. This year, per usual, politicians, actors, sportspersons, citizens and organizations celebrated this day with much fervor. However, the environment is not something that can be celebrated only on one day and then forgotten about thereafter. This World Environment Day, we take a look at those people who have made it their everyday mission to care about and stand for the environment.

If not for these environmental defenders, the Government and corporations would ensure that we do not have a healthy environment in the coming years. From Kerala to Odisha, from Mumbai to Meghalaya, from Jharkhand to MP, these are the people who have stood against projects that damage the environment, project that grab land, safeguarding not only the environment but also the rights of the forest dwelling and indigenous communities, along with the wildlife and biodiversity that inhabit these environments. According to this article in the National Geographic, less than 5% of the world’s population of indigenous people is safeguarding 80% of global biodiversity. Here in India, 200 million forest-dwelling communities which include 105 million Adivasis are the line of defence between environmental conservation and the greedy Government and corporates.

When we celebrate World Environment Day, it is imperative to recognize and celebrate the champions of the environment, i.e. the indigenous people or Adivasis/tribals of India.

Here are five Adivasi environmental defenders that you must know about –

1. Prakash Bhoir, Mumbai

Prakash Bhoir | Image Courtesy- Ankush Vengurlekar for Adivasi Lives Matter

Prakash Bhoir is a fiery Adivasi activist from Aarey, whose consistent initiatives have helped shed light on the condition of Adivasis in this forest. The Aarey forest, located in the Northern suburbs of Mumbai, is the only green cover in the area, and is known for its lush greenery, with tall trees, grasslands and rocky hills. The Aarey land has consistently faced onslaughts from many development projects, and is home to Warli Adivasis who are on the brink of getting displaced from their land, and losing their livelihood.

“Sometimes the trees come in my dreams. They say, ‘you gave us life, but will you be able to keep us alive?’ Will I be cursed if these trees die?” – Prakash Bhoir

Text: Sabrang India

2. Sukalo Gond, Sonbhadra, UP

“We will not beg, we will claim our lands back. It is clear to us that the Government is not supporting us. Our movement will win our rights back, I am sure!” says Sukalo Gond while tying her cattle as dusk approaches. Sukalo, in her fifties now, is an Adivasi leader from Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. Marching almost rhythmically in a forest rights rally in 2006, her first such experience, Sukalo realised that the possibilities were many and things were bound to change for many like her in the days to come. Little did she know at the time that soon after, she will become one of the leading women activists of the forest struggle of Adivasis in Sonebhadra empowering other women through her own lived experience and life-struggles.

Image Courtesy- Citizens for Justice and Peace

Sukalo is the living witness to a time when there was no awareness among the forest dwellers about their rights and claims on forest land. Atrocities and violence against them was rampant. The police would often barge into their houses and destroy their hutments or physically abuse them with impunity.

Her initiation in the movement to demand the implementation of forest rights in 2006 and the involvement thereafter in various struggles strengthened Sukalo’s belief that rights had to be fought for and that the Adivasis will not beg! Sukalo is not only a leader, a treasurer with the All India Union for Forest Working People (AIUFWP), but also takes cares of her family, her cattle.

Text: Sabrang India

3. CK Janu

“A total lack of access to and control over any resource. Adivasis are denied access to any land – be it for cultivation, or forestland from which they collect most of the things they need for their survival. The lands we used to cultivate have been taken away from us. The forestlands we used to live on have been usurped by the Forest Department and the moneyed mafia lords. Nowadays, those who own the lands do not give us jobs. There are no jobs in the fields and in the plantations. As a result, Adivasis are pushed into poverty and starvation deaths. We had launched the ‘Refugee Camp struggle’ in Thiruvananthapuram in August 2001 after more than 20 Adivasis died of starvation. This is the situation everywhere – in Wayanad, Palakkad, Attappady, Idukki. Kasaragod, you name it. Starvation deaths have ceased to make news in the state. There are thousands of Adivasis in the grip of several diseases. The Government says Adivasis are dying because they drink arrack and unclean water. But the real cause is poverty, lack of food. How can we eat food if we don’t have an inch of land to cultivate?” says CK Janu in an interview with Down To Earth magazine.

Chekkottu Kariyan (C K) Janu is an Adivasi leader in Kerala. C K Janu was born in Vellamunda village in Wayanad district in 1970. She belongs to the Adiya tribe. Janu served as domestic help from the age of seven. From the age of 12 onwards, she worked as an agricultural labourer on daily wages. Now, she is an active advocate for Adivasi rights in her state.

Text: Down To Earth

3. Ashish Birulee, Jadugoda

Ashish Birulee is a young photojournalist and activist from the Ho Adivasi community, living in Jharkhand. He, along with his father and others, have been talking to the Government about the ill effects of Uranium mining and radiation poisoning in and around Jadugoda, home to India’s first Uranium mines.

“In 2013, I got the chance to exhibit my yearlong work at the International Uranium Film festival (IUFF), Ranchi. My work was appreciated and well received and was further exhibited at the Museum of Art in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2013. I had even more opportunities to exhibit my photos in Canada, Japan and in different regions of India. It has always been my motive to spread more awareness in all possible ways, that whatever suffering we, the Jadugoda people are going through, shouldn’t be faced by any other communities and groups. I also know this isn’t enough, I still have a lot to experience, learn and a lot to offer to the society as an activist and a photojournalist.”

4. Sobha Madan, Nilgiris, TN

Sobha Madhan is a young Adivasi activist from one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) of the Nilgiris. The nomadic Betta Kurumbar Adivasis number around 6,000 today and are present across the Nilgiris region in Tamil Nadu.

“I didn’t think I’ll become like this and all. Till standard X, I studied right here at the Ambalamoola Government Higher Secondary School.”

Image Courtesy- Hindu Businessline, edited and uploaded on Adivasi Lives Matter

Madhan heads the Adivasi Youth Forum (AYF), a collective she set up in 2016 to serve as a voice for the indigenous people of the Nilgiris. She is a rare Adivasi woman in this region who is vociferous about her people’s dire situation. She articulates her ideas and demands in fluent Tamil, Malayalam and English, enabling her to reach out to a wide cross-section of people.

Madhan says, “I’m now working strongly to use the FRA effectively, because that’s the only thing we have to get our land back. Our communities have lost many of our ways of living and traditions. This is what we are trying to revive. I believe it’s only with empowerment and self-respect that this will happen.” She then adds meaningfully, “All of this has to come from within our Adivasi community. It shouldn’t be imposed from outside. That will never last.”

Text: The Hindu Businessline

5. Jadav Payeng, Assam.

Image Courtesy- The Hindu

Jadav Payeng is one of the most well known tribal conservationists in India. He single-handedly went on to plant saplings and seeds along a dry sandbar by the Brahmaputra in Assam, creating a forest that stands at 550 hectares today on the island of Majuli near Jorhat. He is known as the ‘Forest Man of India’, a moniker that was conferred on him in April 2012 by Jawaharlal Nehru University.

People travel from across the globe to see his forest that is visited by 120 species of birds, including migratory ones; and elephants, rhinos, and tigers that visit from Kaziranga National Park.

Jadav has a simple solution to the global problem of depleting forest cover: teach our children to love Nature. “The rest will happen on its own,” he feels. Although he fears for his forest’s safety, he knows it will survive. The trees he walks past every day talk to him. “They call out to me, saying ‘Come, come, now; enough of walking in the sun. Sit under our shade and rest a bit’,” he says.

There are many more environmental defenders working tirelessly to protect the natural resources most of us find so easy to exploit. We salute their tireless efforts and their compassion towards Planet Earth and hope people will take inspiration from them and attempt to save the only planet we have to call home.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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