Venugopal discusses various ecological challenges and his interventions as an environmental activist arguing for the creation of a green-red alliance to solve problems in contemporary Kerala society.
Born in 1948 to a farming family in Payyanur, Kerala, Venugopal pursued undergraduate and graduate studies in English Literature, graduating in 1970. As a student, he was never involved in politics or student organizations. His family also had no strong political leanings. However, he had a keen and lasting interest in environmental issues, and was drawn to leftist political parties primarily for their activism in environmental and human rights issues. Thus, unlike many youth in the 1960s and 1970s, he was not drawn to the Naxalite movement. While he was not interested in Communist ideology and rejected the violent methods of proletarian revolution, he kept himself abreast of development projects in the Soviet Union; and was aware of growing dissent within the oppressive regime. He later worked in the Electricity Board and taught literature on the side, which he continues to do.
His entry into political activism came in 1980, when he participated in a forum denouncing medical negligence at a government hospital that caused a woman to die in childbirth. It highlighted various systemic shortcomings in Kerala’s public healthcare system, which required a comprehensive reorientation of public health to be more people-centric and to promote healthier consumption and sanitary practices amongst the public. Venugopal became more involved in such activism to address these issues, which drew him closer to leftist organizations. He and his peers also campaigned against various flawed developmental projects that caused environmental degradation as a side-effect. Similar to public health, they realized that there was a systemic lack of awareness amongst the public of the excesses of the capitalist model of development and its damage to the environment. In the 1980s, they organized a seminar attended by academics to teach the public about the need to live within the natural limitations of the Earth’s resources, and adopt sustainable energy sources.
Venugopal’s method of activism centers on directing the attention of the masses to a major environmental problem, which would then force reluctant political parties to take action to resolve it. He also shows concern about the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on women. In his view, even the left wing mainstream communist parties in India do not have a genuine commitment to environmental sustainability, green politics exists only as a slogan. Despite his misgivings about communist parties and disinterest in communist ideology, he still considers Marxist analysis a useful tool to critique the current model of capitalist development. He calls for an integration of “red” politics’ opposition to capitalism with the environmentally-conscious politics of “green” groups in India, as has been observed in other countries. Doing so, he finds, would strengthen leftist politics as a counterweight to capitalism. Outside of his activism, he runs a film circle where these issues he is passionate about are also discussed.
28 December 2019
Kunhi: Shall we begin with a brief introduction to your family background?
Venugopal: I was born in 1948, in a lower-middle-class family holding a few acres of land. My father was a farmer.
Kunhi: Where did you do your studies?
Venugopal: In a nearby government school. I completed secondary level education in 1963. After that, I joined the government college in Kasaragod. I completed my degree in English literature in 1967. In 1970, I completed postgraduate studies in English literature, from the University of Kerala.
Kunhi: Are you from a communist family?
Venugopal: No, there was no strong politics within my family.
Kunhi: What were the factors which influenced you to join a communist party?
Venugopal: Even today I’m not sure whether I have any interest in communist ideology. I was interested in an organization that focuses on social and cultural activities. The only thing I considered was how far such an organization is in line with my basic understanding of politics. I don’t have any relationship with radical politics. I’m interested in their activism related to environmental issues and human rights issues.
Kunhi: How was your association with these radical groups?
Venugopal: We started a Public Health Forum here in 1980. It was formed to address the problem of irresponsible attitude and negligence in government hospitals. Because of some internal tension within the hospital staff, one woman died after her delivery in a nearby government hospital. We started a protest and made sure the responsible doctors received some kind of punishment. While leading this protest by camping near a government hospital, we came to understand the pathetic state of working conditions in the hospital. Thus we came to realise that we have to do something to create a better public healthcare system in the state. It was a multifaceted issue, ranging from the lack of ethics amongst doctors to the lack of medicines and the quality of those medicines. The unethical practices of the pharmaceutical industry was a major problem.
Kunhi: Before this intervention, you were not active in politics. Were you active in any students’ organization?
Venugopal: No, I was not part of any students’ organization.
Kunhi: Naxalite politics was a major issue in Kerala in the late 1960s and 1970s. The radical movements affected campuses across Kerala. Several youngsters became highly attracted to the radical politics of Naxalite organizations. What was your approach during this period?
Venugopal: Though I was not part of any organization, I was informed about these developments. I used to read all kinds of magazines, especially alternative magazines like Prerana, Prasakti, Street etc. I was not attracted to their politics. I mean I did not incline to be part of any political organization. Moreover, I could not accept their violence. I do not believe that violence can solve any problem that our society is facing.
Kunhi: So you started your activist life in 1980, with this Public Health Forum. Isn’t it?
Venugopal: Yes, after the Public Health Forum, I participated in the silent valley movement. In Payyanur we organized activities under the leadership of Prof John Jacob. Thus I began to be part of ecological movements. Later we led several protests against several environmentally destructive development projects. After many protests, we realized that it is not a problem of a single project and there is something inherently wrong with the very paradigm of development. We conducted a large seminar workshop to teach the public about the right concept of development. People like John C Jacob and Satish Chandra etc. participated in that seminar.
Kunhi: What were the factors which influenced you to be part of these activities?
Venugopal: I was interested in environmental matters. Various issues that happened around the world must have influenced my thoughts. I was highly interested in some rationalist thinkers. My major concern was that no mainstream political party was giving any attention to these kinds of issues. We had to do something to resist the environmental destruction, the destruction of our biosphere, and anti-social development projects. This is how I realised the importance of left politics. When it comes to the matter of health, though our government has a slogan like health for all, in practice the government policies served the interests of only a minority, and the majority of the people are ignored. The needs of the majority of the people are neglected. The basic thing about health is that it is not something that is solely related to hospitals, doctors and medicine. It is also related to food, drinking water, and hygienic facilities. Considering this broad understanding, we need a people-oriented health perspective. When we began to address the problem within the health sector, we came to know about various issues related to the pharma industry, a kind of neo-colonial violence that exists within that establishment. It was these kinds of problems that forced me to become part of a political organization.
Kunhi: I believe there was no major communist influence in shaping your interest in left politics. Isn’t it?
Venugopal: I use to read about the developments in international politics. I was aware of Soviet politics. I read authors like George Orwell. Though this literature was part of propaganda and anti-communist campaigns, there was something related to authoritarianism. I cannot accept an authoritarian system. There was no scope for dissent in the Soviet Union and other communist countries. There was no democratic space. People were suffocating because of that condition. That is the reason why people turned against that system. It was not because of the lack of ration, or any other facility. They had all those things. But they lacked freedom, of thought and expression. While pointing out this, I can say that I was not influenced by the anti-communist and anti-Soviet propaganda of the United States.
I did not consider the fall of the Soviet Union as an end of communism. I believed that we have to reinstate a Marxist outlook on looking at political events that are happening in the world. Because, so far, Marxism is the best way for analyzing the social conditions of the world. There is nothing that has emerged as a better tool for the evaluation of the social and political process. This is the reason why we started a magazine called Socialist Paatha (The Socialist Way).
Kunhi: What was your approach towards China?
Venugopal: I did not study in detail about their politics.
Kunhi: Ok. Can you explain the alternative development model you were suggesting?
Venugopal: From now on, development can take place only within the limited means of the limited resources of the earth. That we have to realise in the first place. If you pollute the whole earth beyond a certain limit, it cannot tolerate that. It will be beyond the tolerance level of the earth. That is why we are currently facing all the issues of global warming and climate change. It is increasingly becoming unmanageable. We are not realizing that human existence is limited within nature. We behave as though limitless growth is possible. Actually, our resources are limited, and the energy available at our disposal is limited. And without realizing these limitations, we have gone on expanding in the name of development. Now the entire biosphere is filled with pollutants, and global warming is happening on an unmanageable scale. We have to control our conventional approach towards development. We need an alternative approach towards development. In the case of farming, we saw the green revolution happening under personalities like Fukuoka. We tried to popularize the publications like The One-Straw Revolution. In the case of health and education, we published some good works. We translated and published Ivan Illich’s Limits to Medicine in Malayalam. We organized several seminars throughout Kerala to discuss such works, to have an alternative perspective on health. In the case of agriculture, we tried to popularize organic farming.
We are trying to make people aware of good and bad technologies. We are addressing questions such as how we can use the energy at our disposal more efficiently, instead of further exploiting nature. How do we use renewables such as solar and wind energy? We are concerned about these kinds of things. We fight against the construction of nuclear plants. We do this not only because it is hazardous and causes radiation, but also because it is very expensive and unsustainable. There are alternatives, like wind and solar energy. These are ignored, not because they are not possible, but because of policy prejudices. The situation is changing slowly.
Kunhi: Are you associated with CPI-ML organizations?
Venugopal: No, I don’t have any relationship with them. I’m not interested in realpolitik. I’m focused on studying development issues and environmental matters. When governments introduce some wrong projects, we study them and build movements against them. That is the line of our activism. It is not connected to any kind of political party.
Kunhi: After completing your studies in English literature, what did you do professionally?
Venugopal: I worked in Secretariat for a few years, then I moved to the Electricity Board. Along with these jobs, I was involved in teaching literature. Even now I do teaching. My areas of interest are movies, music and literature. We have a film society called Open Frame. We promote world-renowned classics through this platform. We promote it with Malayalam subtitles. Though we focus mainly on the artistic quality of the movies, issues like environmental disruption, gender violence etc become a topic of conversation through this platform.
Kunhi: Are you involved in any other activity addressing the gender question?
Venugopal: Yes, our platform for alternative development addresses all those questions. Women are at the forefront of our ecological protests. They suffer more because of environmental destruction.
My work is to study these problems, publish articles, and give lectures. My focus is on topics like environment, energy, public health etc. We lead campaigns related to such issues. We organized movements against the thermal power plant, petrochemical plant, deforestation, destruction of mangrove forest, etc. The ongoing struggle is against an oil storage project in Payyanur. The proposed project aims to create a storage facility for Saudi oil. The project would take about 100 acres of land. It is going to happen in an ecologically sensitive area, surrounded by the river and mangrove forest. We are actively campaigning against this project. This movement has politics. That is my political activism. Other than that, my activities are not related to any political party or NGOs. Our projects are not based on financial assistance from any person or organization. If money is necessary, we take it from our own pockets or we get it from our friends around. Sometimes, we would do public fund collection. With such funds, there are limitations to our activities. But we managed to conduct several struggles successfully. Once we mobilize mass attention to a particular issue and the masses come forward in support of that cause, the political parties cannot ignore such issues. They will be compelled to make a decision. That is how our campaign against the nuclear plant and thermal power station became successful. In the past, they suggested a nuclear plant in Thrikkarippur in the Kasaragod district. Most of these so-called development projects are unnecessary and a waste of resources.
When the government started a thermal power project in Mayilatti, in Kasasargod district, we told them that it is a waste of money and it would not be a successful project. But they ignored us and spent a lot of money. Now see the situation. The plant is no longer in operation. It is not the only plant that is not in operation after being built with many promises. There are several examples, like the one in Brahmapuram in the Eranakulam district, and a plant in Kayamkulam. All these are an economic burden on the entire society.
Kunhi: You are suggesting that our concept of development should change. Isn’t it?
Venugopal: Yes, our concept of development has to change. It cannot continue this way. We are not asking anyone to turn the clock and go back to the age of the bullock cart. There should be progress. But we should understand our limitations and we should be able to have development within the limitations of the earth. We cannot go beyond that. Even scholars like Marx and Engels asserted this point. They observed it in the Dialectics of Nature. They noted that when we go beyond a particular limit, nature will retaliate. That is something you cannot resist, even where you are. Engels talked about potato farming on the slopes of the Alps. You can make a temporary profit from that cultivation but in the end, there will be uncontrollable soil erosion and landslide. It would even destroy the fertile land in the valley. They talked about these things even before the arrival of the concept of ecological damage. The communists were not aware of this kind of subject. Even today, the mainstream communists do not take these kinds of issues seriously. However, several left platforms in the world take these issues very seriously. We can see that in publications like Socialist Review and Monthly Review.
The mainstream parties in our country only have the slogan of green politics. But they are the least concerned about environmental issues. For example, see this Payyanur oil storage project. They are going to destroy an ecologically sensitive floodplain, even after we experienced massive floods in recent years. They are not bothered about the fact that oil demand is in decline. It is a matter of 10 or 20 years. The central government already suggested that by 2030 all petroleum-based vehicles should be withdrawn from the road. Then, why do we need to store that much fuel?
Kunhi: The Naxal organization say they are highly concerned about these kinds of environmental issues. What do you think of that?
Venugopal: I’m not sure about their approach. Sometimes they are compelled to look at these problems. On a global level, there is a red-green alliance. Such red-green parties are active in several countries. You cannot face the realities of the current world only by focusing on class conflicts. You cannot understand every problem that we face, merely on the basis of an economic analysis. Our very survival is a green question. Without addressing the question of our survival, we cannot talk about economic growth and development.
There are three major categories of problems in the present world. One is the problem of climate change, one is a crisis related to energy, and the other is the problem of economic disparity. The gap between the rich and poor is widening uncontrollably. The lack of equity is a major problem. We need an equitable and just distribution of our resources. It is at this point we have a socialist idea. The importance of left politics is connected to this issue. We know that capitalism is the number one enemy of the world. Because it destroys natural resources, it misuses energy, it pollutes the atmosphere and it makes the earth an unlivable place.
The real left in the present is green-red or red-green organizations. The green politics that ignore the questions raised by red politics and the red politics that avoid the questions of green politics are meaningless. Neither green nor red could challenge capitalism in their own independent way. Capitalism can accommodate ecological protests and communist uprising. But, if there is a green-red alliance, they cannot resist that challenge.
Kunhi: Ok. Shall we conclude here? Thank you so much.
Consider the importance of environmental histories of the Cold War in India and Asia, in light of Venugopal’s reflections.