Mother Nature has been tremendously kind to us; but not always have we given back to her as generously. Yet, there are a handful of women who have dedicated their lives to one cause - the protection of nature.
These environmentalists have started revolutionary movements tackling issues at the grassroot level to help change the course of our futures for the better.
Here are six women whose extraordinary campaigns, movements and inputs have played a crucial role in reworking India’s environmental status.
Fighting on behalf of humanity for many years, Vandana Shiva (66) is an internationally renowned environmental activist. Everything she knows about the environment, she has learnt from the Himalayan forests where she grew up. Her father was a forest conservator and the songs her mother sang for her were on India’s forests and trees. She grew up more sensitive to the natural systems.
An active participant in Chipko Movement since the 1970s, she has documented works of forest activists to counter deforestation. Shiva advocates biodiversity and seed freedom, to stop corporate patents on seeds. She is fiercely opposed to the Green Revolution and the use of genetically modified crops and has written many books and papers on the environment. She has a Ph.D in Philosophy and has conducted research at IISc and IIM Bangalore.
Medha Patkar (64) is known best for her endless contributions to the Narmada Bachao Andolan(NBA) - a movement against the construction of dams planned over Narmada river which flows across Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh. She has mobilized multiple marches and rallies since the 1980s against the Narmada Valley Development Project which had disastrous effects on not only the lives of people but on the environment.
Patkar was also part of protests including those against Tata Motors plant in West Bengal, Kovvada nuclear project in Andhra Pradesh, and Lavasa project in Maharashtra. She is the recipient of several awards including 1992 Goldman Environment Award for her commendable spirit towards environmental issues.
The oldest living environmentalist, 106-year-old Thimmakka is recognized worldwide for planting over 8,000 trees in 80 years.
It was after she realized that she could not bear children, that Thimmakka dedicated her life to planting trees as her own children in her native village in rural Karnataka. Thimmakka has played a pivotal role in spreading the message of afforestation and has got the State government to change its decision to cut off trees for building roads.
Out of respect for her phenomenal work, locals call her ‘Saalumarada’, meaning row of trees in Kannada. Her invaluable service to the environment has led her to earn the prestigious Padma Shri Award and even land a spot on the BBC's list of the 100 most influential women.
Sugathakumari is an 85 year old poet whose love for the environment led her to dedicate most of her poems to nature. She was the driving force behind ‘Save Silent Valley’ movement which aimed at protecting the oldest natural forests of Kerala from the destruction of a hydroelectric project. She is also the founder secretary of an organization that focuses on the protection of nature called Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi.
She was the first recipient of India government’s Indira Priyadarshini Vriksha Mitra Award, in 1986. Even today, she remains one of the most powerful voices in Kerala to speak up for environmental concerns.
A writer and environmentalist, Sunita Narain (58) is the editor of Down To Earth magazine that covers everything under the umbrella term of environment. She was awarded the World Water Prize for the exceptional work put in by her on rainwater harvesting policy making for water management. She focuses on sustainable development and fighting climate change.
A Padma Shri award winner, she was a recipient of Stockholm Water Prize in 2005, and was among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2016, and is now Director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. Sunita was also of ‘Before the Flood,’ a documentary film by Hollywood actor Leonardo Dicaprio, along with Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Elon Musk, and Bank-ki Moon, among others.
This Padma Shri award winner is often known as the ‘Lady Tarzan’ of Jharkhand forests. Jamuna Tudu, 39, is a lionhearted environmentalist who took on Timber mafias and Naxals in Maturkham village in rural Jharkhand.
When she noticed trees disappearing in the forest nearby, she learnt that a local timber smuggling mafia was behind this. She gathered about 100 adivasi women from her village to form a forest protection group. These women now patrol the forests around the village carrying sticks, arrows and bows, all ready to fight the mafia.
Over the last 20 years, she has facilitated the protection of over 50 acres of forest land across 300 villages in Jharkhand. The Forest Department and Jharkand Armed Police work with her. Jamuna has been recognised as NITI Ayog as among ‘Women transforming India.’