Environmentalism is almost a profitable term today. There are those who swear by it on social media, some who wear it for personal gains, some who barely understand the term but anoint themselves with it, and there are some who live in accordance without ever mentioning it. I am, probably, the kind who fits into all of those except the last one. And that last one, I learnt about it from a person I met during my saddle-journey.
I found another thing while writing this. Environmentalism is a lot like jazz. You have to improvise, syncopate, be free, and above all – you prove your mettle with a dedicated, killer solo.
This story is about C Rajasekaran, 67, technical branch, ex-airforce. He lives in Vettaikaraniruppu a quaint village by the sea, in the southern part of the Nagapattinam district.
Having grown up surrounded by birds and trees, observing natural processes, a close shave with the Tsunami in 2004, this person knows the power of nature, the impact it can have on the long term if you meddle with it, and therefore, the need to conserve and live in accordance with nature instead of making some pathetic bargain. He has spent plenty of time with trees around him, and understanding the interaction between flora and fauna, while going on about his normal day to day life. It has been more than 25 years since he retired from service, he says.
After the Tsunami in 2004, he has also observed the vegetation that help in re-introducing and building coastal dunes. These coastal dunes, he told me, were the most important natural structures of coastal regions that can help in having a healthy water table, especially in coastal regions. However, scientists and developers, in consent with relevant state authorities, and sponsored by international organisations like the World Bank have tried to make stupid decisions with an intent to protect the coast. These folks, he says, have no idea about the regions and apply their text book theories without factoring in local conditions. He has no respect for the arrogance of the “educated” who suddenly walk in to their villages to throw their opinions and make choices for the village people. The people of the villages have spent their lifetimes there without being distracted by modern day technologies and understand their relation with nature better than some science guy sent by World Bank, he boomed.
Like few other folks around here, he takes care of a farm that is free from chemicals and everything is grown naturally. Many here have had the influence of Nammalvar, the one who shone the light on natural farming from south India. There were few people already engaged in natural farming before Nammalvar started on his journey. C Rajendran was one of them, and has been one of the foremost to promote and cultivate the art of natural farming.
While walking through a typical natural farm, one of the first things you will notice is that dead leaves would not cleared. Soil bacteria plays a significant role in nourishing the ground. It forms under decent shade and cool temperatures. So it is good to not shake off dry, dead leaves – he taught me. With all the growth of plants and trees of various sizes, the dead leaves on the ground, few of these natural farms pretty much resemble a jungle rather than a typical farm. In a natural farm, the diversity of flora and fauna is high.
Building natural owl shelters [improvise]
Around 30-40 years ago, in the same region, he used to spot several owls at night. In the last decade, he began to notice he hadn’t spotted an owl in several years. The usage of pesticides against rats had increased all over. Owls didn’t have the prey they used to rely on, he observed. Owls also live mostly in big old trees, he said like banyan, tamarind, mahua etc. Many of these trees have also been cleared. Owls are essential for balancing the food chain in the region, eating snakes, rats, rhinocerous beetle, which are seen as pests on crops.
Given that the big old trees have disappeared the owls required shelter. Owls prefer old, tall trees, and dark places. He decided to create owl shelters to attract them. He placed the stumps of palm trees horizontally (about 3 meter in length) on the tops of tree branches; the stumps have rough innersides which will hold the eggs in place; to keep it cool and dark he placed them north-south direction, so that sunrise and sunset won’t have much effect on them. A few months later, he started noticing owls using these shelter. He suggests a shelter would suffice for a 3 km radius in that region.
Pests are usually attracted to a particular type of characteristic of the plant i.e., the smell, taste, color etc. It is commonly for the taste driven by the smell. So spraying some juice of say neem leaves, or a panchakavya (a mixture of cow urine, dung, milk, curd, and ghee) can help in deflecting some of these common pests, depending on the host. A balance in the ecosystem with the predators can help in keeping the pests in check. All of this knowledge has been gained through practice and living on his farm. Improvisation and creativity is the basis of a good traditional farming practice. If you look into the history of farming by the indigenous, none of this is new and the practical solutions always existed to combat modern day problems.
Producing mangoes from a single tree all year round [syncopate]
Here’s an interesting grafting technique that he experimented with to achieve different varieties of mangoes out of a single tree.
Find a healthy mango tree that is going to be used as a medium (host) for the multiple varieties. Keep the twigs of the other variety ready for attaching it to the host tree.
- Chop off a branch of the host tree, and put the new twigs in between the bark and the stump (1 to 1.5 inch), and tie it around with rubber tubes.
- Cover it with a plastic cover first and then a reflective surface to deflect hot temperatures. It needs to be cool. The cover need to be on for 12-15 days and the reflective outer layer keeps a misty chamber within.
- Once sprinkles appear on the plastic and green sprouts appear you can remove the plastics
In 2 years it can start producing fruits. The new branch will have the characteristic of the parent tree completely, and the host tree is only used as a medium for passing on the nutrition through the bark and roots. The leaves and bark will be different (as per parent tree) from the host tree. The leaves help in developing the characteristics of the new tree and fruit. So you can have various varieties of mangoes from a single tree/season and yield like the parent tree. For commercial purposes, you can grab the economics of pricing off-season.
C Rajasekaran has done about 15 trees so far and one of those trees has about 70 varieties. He helps in educating people who come to seek this , 1 person at Pudhupally (Kottayam) has started grafting about 150 trees probably to experiment at a commercial level.
Future Oil [thinking free]
According to his friend Kumaravel another organic farmer from a neighbouring village, Rajasekaran once ran out of fuel for his diesel pumpset. He decided to pour some kerosene that was lying around to run the machine out of urgency. And the pumpset continued to work. When he realised that the pumpset could work on kerosene, he decided to try something that is natural. He turned his attention to a 30 year old Alexandrian Laurel tree (punnai maram).
Punnai maram were planted in temples over millennia but recently they have dwindled in population almost becoming a rarity. They have the ability to grow in almost any soil conditions and can be abundant around the coastal areas. The trees roots go deep and can help withstand really strong storms. It takes five years to mature right after which, it is being chopped to use catamarans and furniture. That is the problem with the people of today, he says. They are impatient and do not understand the actual value of the tree. They find a single usage and exploit that quality all the way, whereas, trees are meant to provide multiple gifts.
The following are pictures of an oil mill.I put this here because the punnai seeds also would go through a similar process. I found this in another village. I had to find out the process because the byproduct of this sesame oil extraction is called “Punnaakku” – a typical tamil slang referring to a useless or annoying person. Anybody can use the slang. It’s awesome. I wanted to know what it actually looked like.
In the pictures the man is extracting sesame oil. The machine is called a “checkku.” It has become quite rare these days and can mostly only found in villages. Click on the pictures for information:
The fruit of the tree is usually eaten by bats, and you can find the leftover seeds on the ground. After drying them, he gets about 150 kilos of dry seeds from the two trees in a year. Out of these dry seeds, he gets 100 litres of oil that he can use for his pumpset which uses 600 ml per hour.
Defending his land from environmental devastation
(and then it’s time for a killer solo)
C Rajasekaran is larger than life. He told me interesting stories which I confirmed with a few local folk, wherein, he literally saved the village from petty thieves and ‘corrected’ them. I will not get into these details, because the stories cannot be retold without context by an outsider. But, this legend has done several deeds for the sake of his village and the people around without seeking merit or credibility.
A private company from Pune along with the port of Nagapattinam wanted to setup a thermal power plant with a capacity of 2000 MW. The venture had completed the basic requirement dealings and were about to finish public hearings. Before the hearings, the company had already convinced local people that setting up a power plant, would bring in development, employment and welfare. The agreement between the state and company was also complete by 2010.
Understanding the environmental backlashes such a project would have in that area, C Rajasekaran was a lone man when he tried to convince his village folk against the venture. Given that this was the Kaveri delta, the project would have severe impact both inland and in marine life. It was hard to convince the local people at first because the project was to be setup in a poromboke (wasteland), he said. Most people don’t know that wastelands are ecologically sensitive areas too – they are under the impression that if it does not suit agriculture, it is not good for anything. In fact, there is no such thing as a wasteland, he added.
He began the campaign by himself, because the local folk who were aware of these problems had been bought off (or bribed), he claimed. Others had been convinced by the company that there will be a lot of good development in the area and the people can get some serious employment. That didn’t stop him.
He began explaining how migratory birds would be affected due to the sulfur dioxide from chimneys. The plant was also to be constructed over an area where the migratory birds would often visit which was known by the local folk. Thus, he began campaigning using suitable examples the locals are aware of. That the migratory patterns of birds would be affected, marine life would be affected due to mercury and lead poisoning, fly ash would also affect the agriculture and fertility, and olive ridley turtles nesting would be affected in the region.
After that, he even took some people to Ennore power plant and how the creek had been affected over the years in Chennai. Only after that, the campaign began to gain momentum and several fasts, and protests began to roll.
Eventually, after a series of protests, and threats against his life, in 2011, the power plant could not come into operation and he had successfully helped in safeguarding his own region from the another environmental disaster which is very common all along the Tamil Nadu coast by different industries.