Photos by Isha Foundation
It is an overwhelming energy that flows copiously without stopping as the river it is trying to save should be, the one that releases Praveena Sridhar volunteer of Isha Foundation a non-profit organization, run by volunteers and founded by the Indian mystic – yogi and best-selling author – Jaggi Vasudev, known as Sadhguru. An organization present throughout Europe, the United States and Asia with the aim of contributing to harmony and global progress and from July 2020 accredited to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). With a Masters in Environmental Engineering and one in Education and Public Policy behind her, Praveena has decided to offer all her skills for Cauvery Calling supported by Isha Foundation, a project that aims to revitalize the Cauvery River in India by helping 5.2 million of farmers brought to their knees by the global environmental crisis. The objectives are on the one hand to help farmers move from high-intensity agriculture, that exploits the soil and impoverishes it more and more, to long-term agro-guesthouse, on the other by starting the planting of 2.42 billion indigenous trees to increase the water retention of the river by 40% in 12 years. An ambitious project to which Preveena has decided to dedicate itself with great passion, an example of how powerful the impact that the determination of a single person can have on one’s environment, inspiring many others. The strength of this project is precisely unity and the desire to bring collective well-being by identifying concrete solutions that integrate economic, environmental and social sustainability. A sign of immense value, a North Star that shows us the latent transformative power that each person can manifest to solve in a creative and constructive way, tracing new paths never imagined before, the biggest challenges of this century.
Why did you decide to join the Isha Foundation?
In 2015, during my Masters in Public Policy, I worked above all to help the most remote rural communities to access drinking water, a problem that through my work, I understood how much it falls mainly on women. Wherever in the world, if there is no drinking water for domestic use then for drinking, cooking or other, it is the woman who has to take care of it, taking up to 5 hours a day to go and get it and carry it on her back. Many boys and especially girls have had to leave school to also take care of the water needs for the family. This is what I constantly observe. Unfortunately, every time you go to work with a community trying to tackle the problem of access to drinking water, people say they have more important problems that overshadow the care of good water quality. In rural India, most of the people are farmers, around 60%. Sometimes they can’t even make $ 2 a day and don’t link the issue of drinking water to their livelihood. Usually the piece of land they own is very small and the profit that a farmer can make is very small. The repeated meetings I have had with rural families, where they stated that they had bigger problems to manage, pushed me to see the connection that actually exists between water, livelihood, agriculture, gender well-being and the community. In this scenario, I met the Isha Foundation which helps farmers to do sustainable agriculture, and I found their work revealing and fascinating. It is an association that is committed to helping Tamil Nadu farmers in producing safe food and earning better and also supporting them in stabilizing agriculture by bringing a part of the land under tree cover and thus restoring both groundwater and water bodies of surface. The trees play a fundamental role in this, they are a part of the solution. This would also allow women and families to have clean water and more opportunities. By helping families to change their condition, I have seen that there is indeed a chance for girls to be educated as well as for women to grow. This is why I have decided since 2015 to support them by volunteering and learning from this initiative.
What is the situation of farmers in India and how is it changing thanks to your project?
Not long ago the farmers of the Cauvery delta were considered the richest in the country, with four harvests in a year. Most of them in fact produce rice or any other annual crop. Due to irregular rains and scarce aquifers, in many parts of the country they have reached only one harvest per year. Sometimes the money they would get from this single crop is so low that it doesn’t even allow them to pay the cost of transporting the produce to the market where they can sell. The peasants have to take care of the well-being of the family, of education, of sustenance, of sending their children to school so in recent years they are experiencing a truly dramatic situation. Falling water levels and soil erosion continue to severely affect their crops and cause crippling debt. The Tamil Nadu region has seen over 47,000 farmer suicides in the past 15 years alone. The Cauvery Calling approach, meticulously developed over the past 23 years, aims to transform farmers’ incomes and save the river. We volunteers work tirelessly to support 107,000 farmers in the transition to agro-forestry which allows them to grow fruit or timber trees alongside conventional or full-fledged crops. The state government has also introduced a guaranteed minimum income for farmers who grow millet, an ideal crop to grow while tree cover is implemented, providing them with an added incentive to switch to agroforestry. Millet was chosen because traditional crops such as rice are irrigated using river water. By switching to this easy-to-grow crop, the pressure exerted on the river will drop dramatically. Millet is also capable of growing in drought conditions, with little or no irrigation, and in regions with very low rainfall. With the intensification of desertification and the drying up of the soil, millet will be a real lifesaver.
What’s your role there?
I am the operations coordinator for the Cauvery Calling initiative in the southern state of Karnataka. The Green Hands project, on the other hand, is the initiative for which I started volunteering in 2015. This project is the predecessor, the mother, of the Cauvery Calling movement. In 2017, Sadhguru, founder of the Isha Foundation, started a campaign, Rally for Rivers (RFR) to make the Indian people aware of what is happening to this nation’s rivers. An initiative that has garnered the support of 162 million people in the country. At the end of this demonstration, Isha presented the Prime Minister of India with the RFR policy recommendations on how to revitalize India’s dying rivers. This was translated into a national policy advice from the National Think Tank. In 2019 Sadhguru, to show the world how a tropical river can be revitalized, began a campaign to support the Cauvery River, India’s southern lifeline. This movement is the foundation from which we launched the Cauvey Calling project. The whole movement is based on 15 years of experience working with Tamil Nadu farmers, who in turn have helped other farmers to do tree-based agriculture in a small part of their land through the Green Hands project. The intent of Cauvery Calling is to show the world that the marriage between ecology and economy is possible, that economic and ecological well-being can happen at the same time. This can be done by planting trees to stabilize the soil by replenishing nutrients, making it porous and restoring groundwater.
What have you seen change in recent years dealing with the Cauvery Calling project?
Until 2017, any conversation that had to do with rivers was mainly about their pollution or the construction of dams. Nobody talked about the fact that perennial rivers, those that flowed all year round, now only flow for 8 months. What happened? Nobody wondered why rivers now only had 50% water than they had in the past. Nobody thought about how to restore that 50% of the flow of water that disappeared. Everyone wanted, metaphorically speaking, a slice of that precious apple while no one thought of planting an apple tree that could give us apples for the next generations. In fact, each of us can have a single apple or can have an apple tree. So the idea of bringing the trees back to the farmers’ land is similar to that of planting an apple tree that everyone can benefit from. With my other job I travel the country and have noticed a distinct difference in the speeches around the rivers after the 2017 Rally for Rivers awareness campaign was launched. Since that time I have started to see that many Indian states have taken the lead decision to make river basin agriculture based on tree planting following the RFR policy recommendations presented to the Government of India. When I innocently asked where these initiatives to plant trees on the river basin came from, people, with the utmost sincerity, considered it their idea. We are happy to have been able to inspire a change in mentality. But the state of rivers in the tropical world is still terrible today. So Sadhguru wanted to act on an entire river basin to revitalize it and show how change can take place, thus becoming an example for the entire tropical world. Now as part of Cauvery Calling we work with farmers, the government and all stakeholders who need to get the river flowing and make farmers financially healthy. The Cauvery Calling team is working with them to inspire them to plant trees on their land and we are working with the government to ensure the right kind of policy and regulation to support them. This is Cauvery Calling. It is very important that the rivers and ecosystems of the tropics return intact as most of the planet’s biodiversity resides in them. It is the trees of the tropics that have the greatest potential to retain greenhouse gases and reduce the impact of climate change.
What are the next initiatives that you will carry out?
2.42 billion is the number of trees we want to plant on the farmers’ lands in the Cauvery River basin. We need to work with the government to make this happen. The Cuavery flows mainly in two states: Karnataka and Tamil Nadru. We have planted more than 52 million trees to date, 11 million in the last year despite the crisis, on over 107,000 farmer land since the early days of the Green Hands Project. We want to be able to inspire more farmers to do this planting process at an accelerated pace to reach the 2.42 billion goal over the next 10 years. This will only happen when farmers start to see an economic benefit from growing trees on their land. This means we need to work on a fair market so that tree products such as timber, fruit and others are priced right for them. So the job for our Cauvery Calling team is to establish a complete ecosystem involving the production of good quality seedlings, thus helping farmers, when they start planting trees, to have good market access for their products.
What is the sentiment of the people in India regarding the revitalization of the Cauvery River?
We are not in a state of water crisis like Venezuela or Cape Town in South Africa was in 2020. Stakeholders work with farmers. In Tamil Nadu when we started agro-forestry in the early 2000s it was very difficult for farmers. But as climate conditions change, farmers have realized that trees need to be planted so they don’t have to deal with the worst kind of drought. There is anxiety in the people but at the same time there is awareness in the government and stakeholders. The people of the nation and farmers are eager to participate in solutions to the water and soil crisis problems.
What’s your feeling about this project?
After my graduation, I started working with a company where I was involved in computer engineering. I later moved on to work in the charity sector and worked with many large and small organizations. In all my years of work, and still to this day, I have never met such a passionate and committed group of people. Working with Isha is working with people who truly care about others, not just themselves. This is a privilege. There is no such bold initiative in which an organization decides to revitalize a river in a period of only 12 years. Cauvery Calling is one of a kind worldwide. Also I have worked with many people of depth but I have never seen such a perceptive and intelligent leader as Sadhguru. It is very rare that someone with these aspirations is also extremely pragmatic. Working under his guidance is fortunate.
You are full of energy and enthusiasm! How do you manage to do it all? Work, family, volunteering?
To be honest I never thought about how you can handle it all but one thing I constantly see is the difference yoga practice makes. If it goes wrong I wake up at 6.30 am to practice, if it goes well at 5. Thanks to yoga, my body is more energetic and I can work for whole days without feeling fatigue. Secondly, I have a family that supports me a lot. I don’t expect them to understand everything I do but it is important to communicate with them. I have an understanding husband who understands my passion for work and it is also important to establish in the family what our priorities in life are. I have been working on projects that have involved me since the age of 20. At first my parents didn’t understand but then they were able to appreciate my commitment. The important thing is to explain why what you are doing is important to you. To move on to lighter topics, when my husband and I don’t have enough time to be together due to our busy schedules, I sometimes ask him to chauffeur me so we can catch up. (laughs, ed)
What can we do to support the project from here?
We have a fundraiser. But it is also important to share this project through communication and you are doing it with this article. Here is the link to donate: http://Ishaeu.org/BloomAsYouAre-CC