By Nitish P. Nair*
“After spending my entire career as a professional in corporates (both public and private), I strongly opine that growth can’t and should not be seen in silo, it is always intertwined with sustainability. Seeing them differently is the biggest mistake made by humans.” – C. R. Neelakandan, Indian environmental activist, politician, and writer
Born to a brahmin family in the cultural capital (Thrissur) of Kerala in the year 1957, Mr. C. R. Neelakandan completed his formal education from Christ college, Irinjalakkuda and Govt. Engineering college, Thrissur. During his college days he was an active participant of student politics holding multiple offices for SFI – Students Federation of India (Student political wing of CPIM) at both district and state levels. After graduating out as a successful engineer, Neelakandan was split with the options of joining NTPC, BHEL and BARC. With the vision of a clean environment for our world, he went onto join BARC as he felt nuclear technology was the future and the answer for our energy needs and believed that clean energy was possible through nuclear technology. When he discovered the real truths behind the working of nuclear technology, he could not stay mute on this topic and this led him to be jobless at the early age of 21. He further worked with TCE – Tata Consulting Engineers for a short time period and finally settled professionally when he joined Keltron in 1981 and served there till 2015 when he stepped down as the Deputy General Manager of the organization. His choice to settle with Keltron arose from the fact that despite being a state government owned organisation, employees were allowed to have a political membership and hence a political view as well. This was a luxury for Mr. Neelakandan as it gave him freedom to express his views, angst and opinions without the threat of losing his job.
Neelakandan began his political activism in student movements. Instrumental of them were the silent valley protests and also when he got arrested during the emergency for possessing communist literature. He was an active member of the Communist party till almost 2006. Though he was associated with the left politics till this period, his conflict of ideology with what the party stood for began in early 1990s. He was finding it extremely difficult to digest the Communist party taking a dismissive stand for issues such as Global warming. He opines that the then Communist government of Kerala was not any different from any other capitalist regime and often defended their stand using arguments such as “Don’t we need development?” and “Global warming is a myth forced upon third world countries by the capitalist first world countries who have already consumed the fruit of development.”
Keeping the world developments in mind, Neelakandan decided to question his parent ideology (Marxist) with empirical facts. As a student leader of the communist ideology, one thing which was hardcoded inside him was his unambiguous thought process and a bold stand no matter the consequences this stand would end him up in. So he convinced himself that he needn’t stick to an theoretical approach when analysing issues. He believes ideologies (which are often theoretical) need to be tested and updated after challenging them with empirical facts. Thus, he started to criticize actions of his own party if he found them to be irrational or unconvincing. In the initial days, his activism was mostly through the print media. He was a regular thought-provoking content provider for multiple periodicals and newspapers in Kerala for more than 20 years and even continues to do the same till now. His strong views and words often developed into the driving slogan for various protests such as the protests against the Enron project in Kannur, Kerala. He had to fight through multiple challenges for taking an unforgiving tough stand against issues primarily around environment, human rights, land displacement etc. This ranged from threats, physical attacks and even transfer to Hyderabad to keep him away from the television media where he was being constantly active expressing his opinions (often against the state itself). He also recollects an incident where he was issued a notice for taking a stand for land reclamation in Munnar (a hill station in Kerala). I would like to quote him here, he replied to the notice as follows:
“As far as I know, I and all of us are bound to act as responsible citizens of this great country abiding the constitution of our country. And this very constitution asks me to perform my fundamental duty of protecting and improving the natural environment of my homeland.”
This clarity of thought and setting his life as an example of what he envisioned Mr. Neelakandan amassed respects of other activists, civil society, and even great politicians. Despite being a successful engineer, he still uses public transport and leads a very simple life. He is proud to have passed on this way of life to his children and grandchildren as well. Talking about his family, Mr. Neelakandan proudly says that he finds his greatest support from his family.
On a concluding note, I would want to highlight something very important what Mr. Neelakandan mentioned. Growth can be very well seen in similar lines to our human body, growth is needed for sure or else we remain underdeveloped or stunted which is often not desirable for a human body as well. But if the growth is uncontrolled or rather unsustainable, then the human body develops situations such as cancer. Hence, he wishes to leave us with the thought that as future propagators of growth only an organic mindset ready to challenge one’s ideology with empirical facts can help in viewing growth and sustainability in the same lens.
*PGP Student, IIM Bangalore