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Last Updated 29 March 2014, 13:49 IST

N P Jayan’s photographs display an effort to galvanise the careless public to prevent environmental destruction, writes Krishna Kumar r.

In February this year, a female elephant was found dead in the Periyar West division in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, along one of the pilgrim routes to the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala. In the autopsy, it was found that the elephant had consumed about two kilos of plastic refuse, including carry bags, food packets and wrappers, apart from aluminium foils, leading to intestinal blockage that caused the death.

The two-month mandalam season of Sabarimala pilgrimage had ended in January, leaving behind a trail of non-degradable waste dumped by the teeming millions. The death — another grim pointer to the impact of plastic waste on the region’s wildlife and ecology — did trigger action from the Forest Department officials who have, yet again, mooted a ban on plastic along the pilgrimage routes. But the officials are together when they say the start has to come from within; the pilgrim has to be aware that what he discards is a disruption that could tilt the balance of life in the wild.

Whole deal
Bangalore-based photographer N P Jayan is making a compelling case for curbs on littering in and around Sabarimala with a collection of pictures taken in three phases: before, during and after the pilgrimage season. After the Pullumedu tragedy of 2011 that killed 106 Sabarimala pilgrims, the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, T M Manoharan, urged Jayan to start a project where he could raise environmental concerns in the region through his photographs.

“He was familiar with my work in the Silent Valley; the permission for working in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) was in place and I could work without restrictions. The pictures have been compiled over the last three years,” says Jayan. The PTR falls on the southern Western Ghats is spread around 925 sq km covering the districts of Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta. The temple that hosts millions of pilgrims every year is situated in PTR’s buffer zone.

Jayan, who comes with more than two decades of experience — both as an independent and press photographer — calls himself a ‘photo-activist’ with a great interest in nature. He’s also a believer who has climbed the hills as one among the millions of devout Ayyappans.

His photographs trace this story in riveting contrasts: hundreds move in a cluttered space to be one with the Lord, elephants roam green stretches, used and discarded clothes float in heaps on River Pampa, the sannidhanam set against tranquil, cloud-capped mountains.

The PTR has been awarded for the management of its biodiversity. Initiatives including eco-development committees have also led to better environmental conservation in the region. But a lack of coordination towards eco-friendly development and frequent run-ins between the Forest Department and the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) that runs the temple over development plans have led to a deadlock.

Jayan, however, looks beyond the administrative issues and pitches his project as a kindler of awareness. “Apart from plastic refuse, there is the issue of overflowing public toilets and abysmal sanitation standards maintained during the peak season. The officials can only do their bit; the real push has to come as individual efforts. Through an exhibition of the photographs, I hope to create a space for similar initiatives that talk directly to the people on the issue,” Jayan says.

V Gopinathan, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and Chief Wildlife Warden, says plastic found in animal droppings in PTR point to a serious threat on the region’s ecology. “The administrative will is critical but the pilgrims themselves have to be aware of the long-term impact of their actions. They are stakeholders in development of the region. We also have to develop a model of restriction where the polluter pays,” the PCCF says.

Push towards change
Jayan was 17 when he started out with his camera. “I studied in a little tribal school in Wayanad. As children, we used to eat bird meat. But a slide presentation made by ornithologist P K Uthaman at the school initiated me into a new world. Later, he also became my guru. I hope these photographs make a similar push towards change,” he adds.
The rains and wildlife have been recurring themes in Jayan’s work, but he refuses to be bracketed in specialties — “I’m not a wildlife photographer but I know that the forest can only have what it’s meant to have.”

The India International Centre is hosting Jayan’s exhibition — titled ‘Tatvamasi’ — of 100 pictures taken as part of the project, from June 19 to 26, in New Delhi.
(Published 29 March 2014, 13:49 IST)

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