Supriya Sahu first gained public recognition during her term as collector in the Nilgiris region from 2000 to 2002. Rallying citizen support for restorative work in the hills around Ooty, she began work in waste management at a time when plastic was not considered to be a major problem. Sahu has big ideas for the future of Tamil Nadu and a clear vision of how to get there—but what she still loves most is working directly with local communities.
The Kodai Chronicle interviewed Supriya Sahu about her focus on mountain ecosystems such as the Nilgiris, her observations around the fight against biodiversity loss and climate change, and specific recommendations she has for the citizens of hill stations like Kodaikanal. Edited excerpts follow.
Jacob Cherian (JC): You set a Guinness World Record in 2003 for getting 300 people to plant a mix of 42,182 indigenous trees in the Nilgiris district. What is your approach to mass tree planting 20 years later?
Supriya Sahu (SS): That event was wonderful. Mass tree planting was considered most helpful at that time. Now, the science has evolved. It suggests that instead of planting many trees at once, tree survival should be prioritised. This is determined by the spacing between the trees, tree size and mix of species, among other factors. That said, it’s fantastic that so many people took action back then.
JC: You have also been credited with developing the country’s community radio movement. How has that taken shape?
SS: I believe in the power of people, and in turn, the power of communities. And whatever position I’ve held, rallying the community and learning from them has always been enriching and successful. Community radio is an example of this.
When I was at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, we started with around 40 radio stations nationwide and took this to about 200 in a very short period. I believe that today the country has more than 300 stations. In different parts of India, besides different languages people also spoke different dialects. Community radio helped bring together the wisdom of diverse communities. I cherish how we were able to empower many grassroots radio jockeys. They raised community-specific issues: how local drinking culture was impacting children’s education or how malnutrition was stunting community development.
JC: Eucalyptus has taken over the Nilgiris and the Palanis. It’s drying up our water supplies and plays a big role in the forest fires we’ve been battling. How will your team address this?
SS: We have started removing eucalyptus in a large way in the Nilgiris. Large plots of land are being chalked out and auctioned, to be cleared for timber and the restoration of local flora. I think in the next two months, I’ll be able to provide information on how much removal has been done. Whenever we uproot trees or plants from the soil, we need to strengthen the soil to avoid erosion. We do a good amount of soil work by planting native species. This process will start in Kodaikanal very soon.
JC: Can you share some numbers of targets or work achieved so far?
SS: I know that about 50 hectares have already been auctioned in and around the Nilgiris, for which the removal process has also begun.
JC: In 2005, you launched an exhibition to showcase to the people of Ooty what they could use instead of plastic. How has that experience influenced your philosophy and your approach to work?
SS: The entire experience has been transformational. We did not have much access to technology then. So when plastic was banned, the alternative was to use banana fibre or mud for cups.
There’s been a lot of innovation for eco-alternatives since then, and that’s why I’m so hopeful.
Recently, we organised a national exposition for the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, with 200 exhibitors from across India showcasing their innovations: we saw techniques to stabilise banana leaves so that they stay fresh for longer, so they can be used through the day; a machine that makes non-plastic and beautiful tumblers out of rice husks which, when finished with, can be eaten by cows and many other creatures.
The younger generations are fully aware of environmental and wildlife protection. Schools have also been instilling a good sense of civic responsibility in students.
The world is talking about circular economies, in which nothing goes to waste. We need to scale up these inventions and make them affordable. The cost of production is a bit high, as production is low scale. So we are working to convince more stakeholders, such as hotels and trade associations, to adopt them and produce in bulk to reduce the cost.
JC: Which areas in Tamil Nadu do you think are the most vulnerable and need primary attention? Could you speak about Tamil Nadu’s integration into the 30 by 30 global initiative to designate 30% of land and ocean areas as protected areas by 2030?
SS: Many reports have pointed out that the Western Ghats are the most vulnerable, as they contain most of Tamil Nadu’s forests. Immense biotic pressure is being put on the Western Ghats because of the demand for more land for industry and buildings. That is one area we will focus on.
Another is Palk Bay, particularly the coastal area, which starts in Ramanathapuram. That area is highly vulnerable, its marine biodiversity—coral, seagrass, turtles, diverse fish species and dugongs—is under strain. There’s a lot of plastic pollution, including microplastics, and disposal of solid waste. In fact, a UNEP report has pointed out that in a few years, the world will have more plastic in its oceans than fish! The time has come to take drastic measures to stop what is not desired.
JC: I have found that the damage a different species is facing feels unimportant to people who, for instance, are struggling to pay school fees for their children. How does one communicate with them?
SS: I’ve been dealing with this issue for more than 20 years now. We banned plastic when nobody even considered it harmful. I can tell you that there are two things all people can relate to immediately. One, whether their kids will be safe. And two, how something will affect their livelihood. So they may not be able to see the value of the law itself, but what they can see is that there could be repercussions for their children and their livelihood. When the plastic you’re disposing goes into water bodies, it leeches all kinds of chemicals, which your child ends up drinking. That makes people stop and think.
Taking responsibility for the larger environment can be very difficult, but then certain communities have shown that they can do it.
Therefore, it’s a combination of awareness and forceful implementation, and that is why we have fines in place. So, for example, maybe one day, someone will pay a fine of Rs 100. On the third violation, perhaps on the second day, he has to pay a fine of Rs 500. This could go up to Rs 3,000. That’s just an example of the kind of dynamism that is required. The local municipal authorities have to be fully involved for this to work.
JC: Are there specific legal tools a citizen can use to participate in issues like these?
SS: There is a gazetted notification available on the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board website that lists banned items. We also share information via our Manjappai social media handles on Instagram and Twitter. There may be some difficulties in implementing very elaborate orders, like those regarding internal packaging material. But we can start simple. Let’s not use plastic bags. So many levels of plastic bag thickness are banned in Tamil Nadu, so it’s easier not to use them at all. In total, there are 14 banned plastic items, which includes plastic cups, plates and tumblers. If we manage to put a stop to their use alone, it would be good.
If you witness a shop using plastic bags, inform the owner that you will send a complaint to the district collector. If they do not take you seriously, send an email or call the district collector. If you can, visit the collector’s office or local Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board officials. Take 10 or 15 citizens along with you for subsequent meetings. With community pressure, that shopkeeper will stop using plastic. Behavioural change takes time.
JC: Are there mistakes or successes within the climate space that you’ve learnt from?
SS: Certainly. When you try to take a new action, you will make many mistakes—but none have been that glaring. Across the country, there are too many players and too much information in the climate sector. Since this is an emerging sector, there is a lot of funding available. So we see that climate actions are sometimes driven by donors or funders. That’s not the right approach. Governments have to ensure that our action and policy are rooted in the local requirement. What works in Tamil Nadu will not necessarily work in, say, a state like Madhya Pradesh, as both states have different social structures and economic parameters, for example.
JC: What is unique about the challenges and solutions in Tamil Nadu?
SS: Tamil Nadu has a long coastline spanning more than 1,076 kilometres. We have 14 coastal districts, which make our problems and challenges very unique. Of late, we are increasingly seeing cyclonic storms, flooding, unprecedented rains, rains concentrated in certain areas, marine pollution and heat impact. These challenges are going to increase.
On the upside, our biodiversity is impressive, and a lot of economic activity is taking place. When the state is on a very progressive path and looking at huge economic growth, the challenge is how you balance climate strategies. Rather than adverse growth strategies, we can bring out a strategy that ensures greener industries, control of marine pollution, and resilient coastal areas that are better protected.
We also have interventions to control and prevent forest fires with new equipment and tools. I’m confident that these will help us manage other issues. For example, the case of developments around Kodaikanal Lake—due to citizens’ intervention, government departments have got together and met with many of the people who are raising these issues.
JC: The Kodai Chronicle has published stories on elephants living at higher altitudes than usual, as well as issues related to the garbage dump. How is the forest department dealing with these issues?
SS: For the modernisation of the state’s Forest Department, we have allocated Rs 53 crore for 2022 to 2025. We have a plan for the next three years, which includes getting more information in real time, digitising our inventories and working more with new technology, like drones and satellites. We plan to use these to monitor the movement of animals, conduct a proper census and digitise our forest boundary to alert of new encroachments so we can map them. We have training and capacity building for our forest staff.
We also have interventions to control and prevent forest fires with new equipment and tools. I’m confident that these will help us manage other issues. Regarding the garbage dump: the forest department is already working very closely with the municipal administration department to check the feasibility of biomining. We are evaluating the cost and the timeline to carry it out.
JC: How can citizens participate in accelerating the state’s efforts to protect vulnerable areas?
SS: In so many ways. At the individual level, citizens can segregate waste at home and compost. Cities like Indore have successfully built a very strong citizens’ movement. They go house-to-house, holding meetings and making sure that there are no violations when it comes to household waste segregation. If you witness a shop using plastic bags, inform the owner that you will send a complaint to the district collector. If they do not take you seriously, send an email or call the district collector. If you can, visit the collector’s office or local Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board officials. Take 10 or 15 citizens with you for subsequent meetings
I think the government will greatly benefit from this kind of people’s support. For example, in Kodaikanal, citizens could come together and ensure that banned plastic items are not used, either by shopkeepers and residents or by tourists. This could include setting up checkpoints, getting volunteers, educating tourists and locals, and providing eco-alternatives, like they did in the Nilgiris.