Nestled in the trijunction of the Bandipur, Mudumalai, and Wayanad wildlife reserves in south India is a little-known village called Noolpuzha. Threading through the settlement is a river, which lends its name to the village, and joins the Cauvery in Karnataka. Seventy-one-year-old environmental activist N Badusha grew up here, in the lap of nature, catching fish from the river and playing in the surrounding forests.
The threats he saw to his beloved forests kindled his ecological consciousness at a very young age. He became actively involved in local politics after completing his primary education in 1970. An avid reader, the movement to Save Silent Valley launched in the late 1970s gripped his imagination and served as inspiration for more than four decades of environmental activism.
Smuggling of sandalwood and poaching of elephants were a regular occurrence in these forests in the early 1970s. Often, people from the local tribes were caught in the crossfire between the mafia and the police. In 1977, Badusha prepared a list of tribal people killed in these violent skirmishes and led an agitation against forest-related crimes in the region. His first foray into activism, under the aegis of the voluntary organisation Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samithi, was welcomed by attacks by goons.
Undeterred, he continued to lead agitations against tree felling for timber and monoculture plantations. A practice prevalent under social forestry schemes at the time was to plant exotic trees such as eucalyptus, acacia and black wattle. These trees adversely affected the region’s water table, soil fertility and climate. Following a three-day convention for ecologists organised at Muthanga in 1983, the Samiti submitted a memorandum to the Kerala government to stop such practices, which were harming the ecology of the district. “When the government rejected our memorandum, we uprooted lakhs of exotic saplings from nurseries that had been set up in the shola grasslands of Chembra, Vythiri, Banasura and Brahmagiri peaks. A criminal case was filed against me and 10 others by the police,” said Badusha.
In 1984, he and others campaigned against the encroachment of land and granite quarrying around the renowned Edakkal Caves in Wayanad. Their movement to safeguard the only place in south India with carvings from the Stone Age was supported by historians across the country. “We were arrested for protesting during a visit by the then chief minister of Kerala to Wayanad. The site was afforded protection only after then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi intervened,” he said.
In 1986, Badusha started mobilising the youth in the district to raise awareness about the ill-effects of forest fires caused by human activities and the importance of protecting forests to maintain water security. In 2020, more than 2,000 students participated in a door-to-door awareness campaign; this was the culmination of the movement whose seeds were sown much earlier.
Badusha feels tourism in Wayanad is uncontrolled and unsustainable. According to him, the proliferation of private resorts and homestays in wildlife corridors has caused an increase in human-animal conflict. In 2019, the Kerala high court put a stay on the functioning of six ecotourism centres based on a case he filed.
A farmer himself, Badusha noted that, along with degradation of habitats and urbanisation, the increasing number of banana and jackfruit plantations around the periphery of forests is another cause for rising conflict with wildlife. He said that he welcomes the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s decision to declare a buffer zone around the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary which will reduce the impact of human intervention on the core area of the forest. He added that local politicians and religious institutions are spreading rumours to oppose the move.
A member of the Zilla Monitoring Committee for relocation, Badusha spearheaded efforts to relocate 800 families from 14 villages located inside the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in 2012. “All manner of wildlife returned to these places located 10-15 km inside the sanctuary in less than two years. It was unbelievable. Tigers, leopards, elephants, sambar, chital, sloth bears, gaur… you name it,” he exclaims.
However, Badusha knows that conservation victories can be short-lived. In 2009, the Karnataka high court enforced a night traffic ban on National Highway 212 passing through Bandipur, Mudumalai and Wayanad based on a petition filed by him and another by advocate L Srinivasa Babu. Following this, the Kerala government filed a case in the Supreme Court asking for the ban to be revoked. In 2016, at the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Badusha challenged the Kerala government’s decision to transfer 100 acres of land meant for rehabilitating tribal communities and villagers to the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Science University. After three years, however, the tribunal ruled against him and upheld the decision.
As President of the Wayanad Prakruthi Samrakshana Samithi, he lends his support to local people’s movements against granite quarrying in the district. He says that the number of such quarries has reduced in the past five years as a result.
Badusha maintains that the Kerala government’s Anakkampoyil-Kalladi-Meppadi tunnel road project connecting Kozhikode and Wayanad is a disaster in the making. “The tunnel is going to be built under mountains where landslides have become an annual occurrence. Damaging these mountains will destabilise the ecological balance of Wayanad,” he asserts.
A stark difference that Badusha sees in the environmental movements of today is the level of people’s involvement. According to him, in the early days of his activism, people participated wholeheartedly in the struggle to save the environment, but now they hesitate. “When we oppose the construction of roads and railway lines through the ghats, the people living in that area think that we are against development. We are not. We are merely opposing projects that are not ecologically sustainable,” insists Badusha.
Badusha hopes that Wayanad will be a completely organic district one day. “We are slowly but surely moving in that direction. The youth are getting more involved in organic farming, especially paddy. Many have started growing vegetables. Pesticides are not used to a large extent in Wayanad’s coffee plantations,” he observed.
The verdant greenery and flowing streams of Wayanad continue to light up his eyes even today. “I become happy when I see the places that I have helped to protect over the years. It gives me much satisfaction that my contribution to nature conservation is as much as anyone else. Nature has given me my life and it’s my life’s mission is to protect nature,” he says.