Hero from Thoothukudi

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“Travellers, there is no path!
Paths are made by walking…”    - Antonio Machado

I had looked forward to attending the Vikalp Sangam, in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, as it promised to be a confluence of alternatives from various sectors and fields. The four -day meet was organized to ‘help build bridges amongst various groups, help them learn from each other, and together present a challenge to the mainstream system.’ I had hoped that I would be led to real, inspiring stories of hope and change.

As the first day of the Vikalp Sangam unfolded, we engaged with different groups of people - one could not be left untouched by the phenomenal work done by so many at the grassroots level; ordinary men and women but charged with extra-ordinary intent and purpose.

When we first met the 76-year old sprightly S.Balasubramanian, he came across as energetic and articulate. During our conservation with him, we found that he was the founder  trustee of the Gokulam Trust. And as we listened, an unusual story started to unfold.

From Health to Siddha to Farming

His early influences were his grandfather who was a traditional healer and an uncle who was a homeopathic doctor. Recurrent health problems that were completely cured by a friend and a Siddha practitioner roused his interest in alternate healing practices and herbs with healing properties. Thus began a long journey of deep intimacy with the plant kingdom.

During this journey, he met a co-traveller in Nammaalvar, considered to be the organic farming Guru of Tamil Nadu. Nammaalvar inspired him to try his hand at organic
farming. It was around this time that he established the GokulamTrust as well. His experiences with organic farming led him towards a better understanding of the delicate balance of soil ecology and the connection between soil health, plant and human health. He had also begun to appreciate the importance of drought-resistant crops like millets and felt the need to popularize them.

Public Interest Litigation - campaign against the Karuvelam tree

His connection with organic farmers acquainted him with the Karuvelam tree (Prosopisjuliflora), an invasive species from Mexico and Africa. He realized how this tree was affecting the micro-climate of a place. It was brought in 1950 through the Agricultural University, Tamil Nadu for its quick growth and uses as firewood and fencing. It was a terrible decision - because its roots go upto 175 ft deep, absorbing water and inhibiting plant growth in its vicinity. Its leaves turn the lake water yellow, poisoning its fish and frogs. Rivers have apparently dried up, filled with these leaves. Animals tied under it go sterile, and its thorns poke and hurt.

He says, “Nammalvar, kept talking against this tree till his last breath.” Heeding his mentor’s advise, Balasubramanian decided to act by filing a PIL asking the Government to
eradicate the Karuvelam tree from the entire state. In early 2014, his persistence paid off when the Tamil Nadu Governent passed an order to remove the karuvelam trees.
“The Karuvelam has now been almost completely removed in his native district of Tutucorin”, he proudly says.

At an age when most people would have been content to live their retired lives quietly, his is a life less ordinary. He chooses to care about larger issues, involve himself in being
the change agent and respond proactively to a larger cause. His willingness to reach out to others is also remarkable. He gave quite a few simple, easy to do health tips and
familiarised us with healing properties of many common plants and herbs. While he has won awards for his work, it is his generosity, sheer energy and his simplicity that leaves
a lasting impact on you.