Tall, slim, bearded and middle-aged Fr Prasant Palakkappillil is a staunch supporter of seeing is believing: the very sight of a priest in flowing white, bicycling his way everyday to head arguably one of the best arts and science colleges in Kerala, speaks of his penchant to break conventions in academia.
For believers, he is more than a devoted priest who practices what he preaches. For pupils, he is more than a lecturer who initiates them into learning activities beyond the walls of the classroom. For the general public, he is more than the principal of Sacred Heart College at Ernakulam…he is known well as an environmentalist and a social worker who crusades against injustice and exploitation.
Fr Palakkappillil says it was hard not to become a social worker with the training he received at Tata Institute of Social Science in the 1980s. “It was a time of great churning in the country. Medha Patkar was leading the Narmada Bachao Andolan; we did a small field work related to it. But the turning point came with the 1992 World Earth Summit held in Brazil. The idea that connections among living beings was core to our existence echoed around the world from that conference. I was strongly influenced by the environmentalist thoughts that emerged from there,” he says.
Throughout his career, Fr Palakkappillil wore environmentalism on his sleeve. When he was head of Rajagiri College of Social Sciences in Ernakulam, he turned around 22 acres of land to lush greenery and named the whole project, meaningfully, ‘Environmental Lesson’. A chain of environmental initiatives, like setting up of micro forests and other forestation efforts, water conservation projects and introduction of waste management systems followed. When the Kerala State biodiversity board constituted the ‘Haritha Award’ in 2009, for the best environmental initiatives in the state, it unsurprisingly went to Rajagiri College.
Setting new trends
Later, when Fr Palakkappillil became the head of Sacred Heart College, he started a new trend in college. The college started cultivating paddy in a small piece of land, and then for three years now, it’s it has practising organic farming on four acres of land. “It’s all about promoting farming amongst youth,” he says.
Fr Palakkappillil is part of numerous human rights, child rights and environmental organisations in Kerala. Currently, he is engaged in broadening the debates on the Gadgil and Kasthurirangan reports, which have taken divergent views on protecting the Western Ghats. The Centre’s move to implement the Kasthurirangan report had caused wide-spread protests at many places, a majority of them reportedly supported by the Church itself. “We invited Professor Madhav Gadgil to the college and conducted a discussion on his report. After his visit, four such discussions were conducted to take the debate further,” he says.
Rooting for the environment
When asked about his view on the Kasthurirangan report being spurned by farmers, he said, “My view is that the environment should be protected at any cost. This is what Gandhi meant when he spoke about enlightened self interest. But the farmers’ protests should be considered seriously; the government should have shown greater care and responsibility to make them understand the pros and cons of the two reports. However, the emergence of eco-friendly MLAs among young politicians in Kerala, who have been widely quoted in the press as ‘Green MLAs’, is a promising trend. My only suggestion is that they should also suggest solutions to protect the environment as much as they shout and protest on the destruction of nature,” he noted.