Guardians Of The Green: 14 Indian Women Environmentalists You Should Know

Some of the most iconic environmental movements of the world - the Chipko Movement, the Navdanya Movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan - originated in India, helmed by women who were breaking new ground. Powerful, moving images of the leaders of these historic campaigns combined with the contributions of others including Sunita Narain, Almitra Patel and Uzramma empower new generations of women to join the struggle for environmental conservation.

On Women's Day, Eartha shares the stories of 14 inspiring women who are rewriting India's  environmental history with their work as scientists, researchers, journalists, activists, entrepreneurs, artists and innovators.

1. Prerna Singh Bindra

Bindra is an award-winning wildlife journalist who began her career at Sanctuary Asia before moving on to author over 1500 articles in mainstream media. She is well-known for her fierce writing and intrepid investigative journalism through which she highlights India's conservation issues and advocates for legal and policy reform. She was a member of the National Board for Wildlife and part of its core Standing Committee between 2010-13. Follow her work here.

2. Janaki Lenin

If you're anything like us, you called dibs on the newspaper to read Lenin's popular newspaper column 'My Husband and Other Animals'. Her writing on India's fauna takes us from the moist rainforests of Agumbe and the underwater worlds of Lakshadweep to the murky waters of the Ganga. With an easy narrative style, she sheds light on animal behaviour and the impacts of development on wildlife conservation, specifically focusing on the growing instances of human-wildlife conflicts in peri-urban environments. Follow her on Twitter @JanakiLenin

3. Dr Vanaja Ramprasad

Dr. Ramprasad is the founder of GREEN Foundation which is dedicated to sustainable food production and realising nutritional security by conserving India's agro-biodiversity which is quickly losing ground to monocultures of wheat and rice. Over three decades, Dr. Ramprasad worked with small and marginal farmers to encourage sustainable methods of cultivation of traditional dry land crops. She was instrumental in establishing community seed banks to leverage women's traditional knowledge of selecting and preserving indigenous crop varieties. Her work earned her a position on the board of the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture.

4. Poonam Bir Kasturi

Do you compost your household waste? Then chances are you have Kasturi's designs in your backyard or balcony. Kasturi won the Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2015 for her enterprise, Daily Dump which sparked an urban home-composting revolution in India. Marrying her expertise in design and technology with her environmental concerns, Kasturi created a line of aesthetic, convenient and affordable composting units that, by allowing organic household waste to be managed at source, provided a much-needed solution to the burgeoning garbage problems of Indian cities.

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5. Bano Haralu

Haralu is known for leading a movement to protect the Amur Falcon from indiscriminate and large scale hunting in Nagaland. Her efforts earned the state the title of 'Falcon Capital of the World'. She launched the 'Friends of the Amur Falcon' campaign as a way to provide conservation education to schools and local communities and earn their support in protecting the birds.

6. Dr Latha Anantha

"A river's flow is its heartbeat," she said. A life spent dedicated to the cause of keeping India's rivers flowing free and unfettered by dams and diversions. Dr Anantha, an agricultural scientist has made it her life's mission to throw light on the critical ecological functions that a river flowing unhindered plays, including maintaining diversity of habitats and riverine species. She founded the River Research Centre and was instrumental in the struggle to keep the Kerala government from building the Athirapally Dam across the Chalakudy, a project that threatened to enfeeble the river and destroy the lives of people and wildlife in the river's basin.

7. Sugathakumari

This octogenarian poet and environmental activist shot to fame when she successfully led Save Silent Valley - a nationwide people's movement to protect some of Kerala's oldest natural evergreen forests from being submerged by a proposed hydroelectric project. Sugathakumari served as the secretary of the Society for Conservation of Nature in Thiruvananthapuram and was the first recipient of the Indira Priyadarshini Vriksha Mitra Award from the Government of India for her contribution to environmental conservation. She continues to be a strong voice against development projects that threaten the wetlands, forests and people of her home state.


8. Arati Kumar-Rao

An environmental photo-journalist best known for her work documenting the ecologies of riverine systems in India, most notably in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin. Her stunning images tell stories of stolen livelihoods and the ravaged landscapes left behind by climate change and poorly-planned development. Follow her on Instagram.

9. Amla Ruia

Ruia is credited with bringing water security to 100 villages of Rajasthan by reviving traditional rainwater-harvesting techniques and building check dams. Her intervention has helped bring water independence to hundreds of villages by improving ground water tables and reviving hand pumps and borewells that had run dry in the desert state. She founded the Aakar Charitable Trust which works to protect natural sources such as water, vegetation and soil.

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10. J Vijaya

India's premier woman herpetologist, J Vijaya was among the first to draw national attention to the hunting and trade of Olive Ridley turtles in West Bengal. The photographs she despatched from her findings were instrumental in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi instituting measures for their protection. In the 1980s, when reptile conservation was dominated by men, Vijaya's was known for her intrepid field work while carrying out a national turtle survey. Her study of the Cochin forest cane turtle earned her the rare distinction of having the entire genus renamed Vijayachelys silvatica in her honour.

11. Kavitha Kuruganti

Kavitha's is a cogent voice against the spectre of genetically modified crops and the slew of dangerous pesticides and fertilisers they bring in tow. As the convenor of ASHA (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture) and MAKAAM (Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch), she regularly campaigns for the cause of regenerative agriculture that puts human and animal safety, and farmers' rights to dignified, debt-free livelihoods at its centre.

12. Nalini Sekhar

Sekhar is the co-founder of Pune-based Kach Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP), a union of waste-pickers. She also co-founded award-winning Bangalore-based Hasiru Dala (Green Force), a social enterprise dedicated to improving the livelihoods of waste pickers, advocating for their rights and social security by integrating informal sector waste workers into the formal solid waste management machinery. Today, Hasiru Dala has over 7,500 waste pickers as members who have been empowered with municipal identity cards and improved working conditions. Sekhar's work has elevated the status of waste workers who convert waste to essential materials and play a critical role in keeping waste out of landfills, saving the environment and building a circular economy.

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13. Vidya Athreya

As increasing urbanisation blurs the boundaries between human and animals habitats, conflicts between the two are on the rise. Athreya is an ecologist specialising in human-leopard conflict. She works closely with Forest Department officials in Maharashtra towards minimising conflicts between humans and leopards and is spends her time raising public awareness about the conservation of the big cats, particularly in human-dominated landscapes. Follow her writing here.

14. Radha Bhatt

Radha Behen, as she is popularly known, was at the forefront of the Uttarakhand Nadi Bachao Abhiyan in 2008 to oppose the construction of a series of hydel power projects that not only threatened the flow of the Ganga and most of its tributaries but imperilled the fragile, heavily deforested ecosystem of the Himalayan state. Bhatt led other women activists on a 2000-kilometre march that demanded a people-oriented water policy that protected the land, forests and water of Uttarakhand as well as the lives and livelihoods of its people. Bhatt continues to be an active voice for people's water rights in Uttarakhand.

Illustrations by Vidya Gopal. Follow her work on Instagram or write to her at spink (dot) bottle (at) gmail (dot) com for art collaborations or commissions.