Dr. Sundara Narayana Patro is building up a model statewide environmental organization that utilizes and supplements current research, makes the case for important state environmental initiatives, and builds support among groups ranging from local villagers to national and international organizations.
Sundara was born in Nuapada village in Orissa's Ganjam district, where he was adopted at the age of four. Encouraged by his father, he pursued his education seriously and early developed a sense of social responsibility and leadership in the village. After passing his matriculation exams and studying botany, he became a rural high school teacher for twenty-four years. He remained engaged in Nuapada by forming an association of alumni of the local high school. Working with this association, he rescued a dying local library and helped his home community in a number of other ways. While working, he obtained a Master's degree in science from Utkal University and, between 1981 and 1987, completed his doctorate. During his twenty-four years of teaching in rural Orissa, he saw firsthand much of the environment was at risk, and he also increasingly came to understand the situation facing the state's tribal and other poor local populations. His lifelong sense of social responsibility and activism led him, step by step during the 1980s, through the experiments that are now launching a statewide organization that he hopes will make Orissa a national environmental leader rather than the lagging risk it is at present.
Orissa is one of India's poorest states, yet it has a wealth of environmental resources that have been unappreciated by India and the rest of the world and neglected by Orissa's own people. Sundara is setting out to increase public awareness of Orissa's environmental riches and needs. Over the last several years, he has been nourishing the Orissa Environmental Society (OES), and has now brought it to the point where it needs his full-time attention. His work is at this takeoff point because he has developed an approach that works, one that is both credible and economical. The society focuses its efforts on the major conservation opportunities in the state. Spurred on by his concern for species loss, he and the society have contributed to the struggle to preserve the Similipal forest and are now giving special attention to building adequate protection for another rich forest area, Mahendragiri. He is also concerned with a number of other areas, including Chilka Lagoon, Gandhamaran Forest, and Bhitarkanika Mangrove Swamp. The diversity and bounty of these sites' natural heritages help explain why the man after whom Ashoka is named was so impressed with the environmental riches of Orissa. For such areas, the society pulls together all the available research and then, using those who already have substantial expertise, works with the local people to fill in gaps in the human and natural environmental map in order to build an intelligent set of recommendations and supporting arguments. The society then goes to work building whatever support it can in the government machinery, from the district level straight up to the state legislature and to potential national and international allies. As this model increasingly takes hold and as the society builds up its skills and its alliances, Sundara hopes that this model of state environmental action will spread to other parts of India.
Orissa's environment is now especially at risk. Except for a few coastal districts, the state is heavily tribal. This is especially true in many of the forest areas of special environmental significance. These tribal peoples are desperately poor and often uneducated. Many have lost control over their local natural resources to outsiders with little long-term interest in the area. Sometimes unaware of the long-term consequences of short-term exploitation, and in any case relatively unskilled in presenting and defending its interests, the local population typically is quiet if not entirely invisible, rather than serving as champion and defender of the environment on which it depends. At the other end of the scale, even environmentalists in the rest of India and the world have been oblivious to what is at stake environmentally in Orissa. With both these ends of the spectrum quiet, the researchers working in the state have not known where to take their results beyond a few academic journals. With so little public interest, the state's political process, which in any case has been assailed by a host of other problems, has felt no need to take action.
Sundara's strategy is to motivate all of these factors by providing a series of connecting and energizing flows of information and organizational spurs.Commonly, mastering the often complicated and technical information that underlies intelligent environmental decision making is a major barrier for citizen environmental organizations. Sundara has developed an approach to filling this gap that is both credible and economical. First of all, he pulls together whatever research has already been done, and then, drawing on many of the very same experts, he fills in only those holes that are necessary. While doing so, he gives immediate priority to pulling in and actively engaging the local population. With this analytical and political base built, he then goes on to build the broader coalition of support necessary to achieve higher level policy changes. He recognizes that this sort of public decision-making process may well take years. After all, "it took eight years to turn Similipal into an internationally recognized biosphere reserve." However, given that he is now able to work full time, and also given that environmental awareness is building in Orissa, Sundara hopes that future cycles of documentation, coalition building, and, where necessary, mass mobilization will take less than half that time. He hopes to put Orissa on the international environmental map and, in the process, build environmental pressure in and on the state. The society is organizing a major international environmental conference focusing on Orissa's environmental riches and risks.