Today, we can’t quite fathom why Nature is threatening to intimidate us with her destructive powers, though we rarely question our own accountability towards preserving what she has offered us all along. But the good news is, we can still stop the mindless plunder of Nature and restore her balance, by simply being more mindful of our actions. Consider the 22-year-old bride from Bhind village in Maharashtra who was recently in the news for dissuading her in-laws from buying her jewellery; instead, she asked them to give her a gift of 10,000 saplings. She planted half of the bulk in her parents’ village and plans to root the rest around her new home. And that’s what it is all about—a matter of choice. We bring you five such women who caught our eyes, for having chosen to save the planet, one day at a time, with determination and measured action.
SOWMYA REDDY, BENGALURU
A GREEN WEDDING OF GRAND PROPORTIONS
Being Karnataka transport minister R Ramalinga Reddy’s daughter, Sowmya’s wedding could have made a splash anyway. But Sowmya, an animal welfare activist and environmentalist, chose to do it her way.
The environmentalist got married in November 2015 in a ‘zero-waste’ wedding ceremony, which made headlines for all the right reasons — especially its charming, eco-friendly theme. Everything, right from the wedding cards to the flowers used in the décor, was made using recycled paper. Guests were served pure vegan meals on melamine and steel cutlery instead of plastic cups and plates. Everyone attending the event was requested to don clothes that didn’t contain silk, leather or wool. Only cruelty-free cosmetics were used for the bride’s make-up. And the waste management for the event was handled by Hasaru Dala, a Bengaluru-based organisation of trained waste-pickers who ensured all waste got segregated at the venue, and none of the trash ended up at landfills. The food waste was sent to a bio methanisation plant, and the dry garbage that included water bottles and plastic covers used for food packaging were transferred to a dry-waste collection centre for sorting, grading and recycling.
Instead of expensive return gifts, what went back with each of the 18,000 wedding guests were a sapling and a vegan gift hamper. “I made the shift to a vegan lifestyle to help Mother Nature,” says Sowmya. “Moreover, my husband and I share a common passion for animals and the earth, and it was only natural that we stick to these ethical choices for such a significant day in our lives.”
Interestingly, Sowmya also runs the Paradigm Shift, a pure vegan restaurant in Koramangala, which offers a 100 per cent dairy-free menu and has an entire floor dedicated to talks and events that promote social and environmental issues.
SOFIA ASHRAF, MUMBAI
RAPPING UP A RESPONSIBILITY
Seven years ago, Sofia Ashraf burst into the Indian music scene as the burqa rapper. Back then, Sofia wore a hijab (“of my own choice”) and rapped about Islam to vent her angst at the bias that erupted around Indian Muslims following the Mumbai terror attack. Fresh out of Chennai’s Stella Maris College, Sofia’s irreverence was accentuated more sharply by her conservative attire. Though her earlier waist-length hair has now been sacrificed for a spiffy pixie cut (“to stave off marriage proposals”), and she has moved away from the loving embrace of her family in Chennai to live alone as an advertising professional in Mumbai, Sofia’s angst has only burgeoned to larger proportions and is no longer chained to her identity as a Muslim. “I am game for anything that can make a positive difference to our planet at the environmental, social and cultural level,” says the 29-year-old.
And Sofia, for one, means what she says. Last year, her protest video galvanised a petition movement against Unilever for polluting the Kodaikanal waters with mercury from its thermometer factory in the hill town and endangering the lives of the people there. Launched on July 30, the Kodaikanal Won’t video went viral on YouTube, grabbing a whopping 1.8 million views in just a couple of days.
The video led the Unilever CEO Paul Polman to tweet an acknowledgement, assuring that the company would take up remedial measures to clean the mess that they left behind. Of course, Sofia is happy to have caught the appropriate attention, but her fight seems far from over. “They initially agreed to clean up using the Dutch intervention value for mercury at 25 mg/kg,” she explains. “But that is unfair because the UK standards are more stringent, pegged at 1mg/kg. And I won’t stop protesting till they agree to implement the best clean-up standards.”
SUPRAJA DHARINI, CHENNAI
SAVING TURTLES, SAVING THE OCEANS
Two decades ago, when artist Supraja Dharini found a dead turtle while strolling along the Neelangarai beach in Chennai, she couldn’t somehow bring herself to walk away from it like the others on the beach did. Over the next few days, Supraja decided to figure out the underlying reason that caused dead turtles to wash up ashore. She started accompanying fishermen in their trawlers and catamarans on their daily jaunts to the ocean. “I discovered that most turtles were killed from cuts sustained by the sharp wires of fishing nets,” explains Supraja. “When they got ensnared in the nets, the fishermen simply cut off their flippers to disentangle them. Many kids living by the beach also dug up the leathery turtle eggs and used it as cricket balls! What’s more, the fisher folk weren’t aware that turtles played an important role in keeping the marine habitat healthy.”
In 2002, Supraja started the Tree Foundation, an organisation that now stands at the forefront of a massive turtle conservation workforce. It consists of youth and elders from the fishing communities along the Coromandel Coast. Since 2002, a determined Supraja has helped over 45,000 Olive Ridley turtles find their way back home into the ocean. Along the way, Supraja and her team, in collaboration with the National Institute of Ocean Technology and the Indian Coast Guards, have also cleared up tonnes of debris and plastic off the Chennai coastline. In 2009, she won the Whitley Associate Award for community-based conservation of sea turtles and dolphins in Kancheepuram, India. Supraja runs an art studio, Kalakruti, where she is often found getting her hands messy over mixed media art installations and stained-glass works. It is natural to wonder how she manages to pack so much in a day. “I just remember primatologist Jane Goodall’s words, ‘Each and every individual can make a difference’,” she says.
WRICHA JOHARI, AHMEDABAD
PENNING A VISION FOR THE PLANET
After acquiring a degree in development communication specialising in environmental communication, Wricha Johari realised that there weren’t many avenues to embark on the career she desired. “There is no well established platform that allows you to use environment communication as a tool for sustainable development,” she says.
Let’s face it, the moment you utter the word ‘environment conservation’, it seems like an expert domain beyond the reach of the common man. People feel they don’t know enough to make a significant contribution. I want to reach out to people and collaborate with them and think of innovative solutions to environmental hazards that they face on a daily basis.”
In 2009, Wricha and her friend Prakshal Mehta launched World Around You (WAY), an organisation that sensitises adults and kids to conservations efforts they can adopt in their everyday lives. One of the outcomes of this collaborative process was PenPals, a unique initiative that involves a pen collection drive in hundreds of schools across Ahmedabad. Wricha amassed 500 kg of pens in eight months in the pilot drive. (If that sounds like a lot of pens, it will help to know that more than six billion disposable pens are used and discarded around the world every year, eventually ending up in landfills and oceans, adding to the already scary pollution levels.)
The pens collected by WAY have been up-cycled into a range of 36 utility products, including coasters, bookstands, lamps, boxes and avant-garde furniture. In fact, the Yellow Chair designed by Wricha and her partner Prakshal Mehta, along with a team of local artisans, is made using more than 300 disposable pens. A crowd-funding campaign to back the products has met with an overwhelming response, and Wricha is now conducting workshops and engaging other Amdavadis in initiatives to up-cycle old clothes, packaging material and newspapers.
AJAITA SHAH, RAJASTHAN
BRINGING CLEAN, GUILT-FREE ENERGY
Born and raised in New York City by affluent Indian immigrant parents, Ajaita Shah could never quite explain her longing to live in and work for India. Throughout her graduation years in Tufts University, Ajaita often found herself creating project ideas that would bring her regularly to her native homeland. “I always knew I wanted to be a social entrepreneur and was particularly intrigued by the idea of delivering clean energy products to rural India,” she tells us.
So in 2011, Ajaita launched Frontier Markets, a social enterprise that strives to bring solar-powered solutions to the poorest in Rajasthan. “Almost 30,000 villages in India lack access to power, and there are as many who are connected to the grid but have to cope with frequent power outages,” says Ajaita. Today, Frontier Markets operates in rural north India as a marketing, sales and service distribution company for solar lighting products and smokeless stoves.
While there have been other companies that have designed clean energy products for the same target group, they have been mostly unsuccessful because they lacked the on-the ground infrastructure required to deliver to remote areas, and rarely empowered the rural customer with after sales servicing. Ajaita, on her part, has tied up with local entrepreneurs who sell clean energy products and has set up bricks-and-mortar facilities to address technical issues. Since its inception, the company has sold 90,000 solar products and has opened more than 230 retail outlets for after-sales servicing. Thanks to Frontier Markets, there’s been a drastic reduction in the use of kerosene lamps in rural areas. “India is blessed with abundant sunlight. With greater investments in solar energy, we can redefine the future and progress of our villages,” says the optimist.