India Coal
Sreedhar Ramamurthi: A geologist who campaigned for Mother Earth
Mar 28, 2024
Dr Sreedhar Ramamurthi was a scientist who spearheaded efforts to tackle destructive mining in India.


On 28 December 2023, Dr Sreedhar Ramamurthi died in the Indian city of Mumbai. He was 67. Sreedhar was the founder of the Environics Trust, an organisation dedicated to tackling the unsustainability of mining and other resource-extractive activities in India. In recent years, instruments of the Modi government had hounded both Sreedhar and the Environics Trust, causing them stress and hardship. Sreedhar was a learned and gentle man, but possessed of deep conviction in his efforts to protect the environment of his beloved India from plundering corporations.

Sreedhar Ramamurthi was a scientist as well as an activist who worked to ameliorate the condition of those impacted by reckless mining all over India. He worked with many others who shared his ideals about the need to conserve the planet with care. He was no starry-eyed social worker who believed he could change the world overnight. He was down to earth and practical about what could be achieved and what could not, and the extent to which the government could be convinced to support the under-privileged when their interests were pitted against those of the rich and the powerful.

He was a grassroots person. He travelled the length and breadth of the country. The vested interests who made big bucks by damaging the ecology of India – its jal (water), jangal (forests), jameen (land) – feared him. For he always knew what he was talking about.

Towards the end of his life, he, and the organisation he founded, Environics Trust, were hounded by the Income Tax Department and the Ministry of Home Affairs that administers the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. In a letter, the department alleged that the trust had collaborated with the Mineral Inheritors Rights Association for supporting those who were protesting against the coal-mining projects being operated by the Adani Group in Odisha in eastern India, among other such projects. The tax authorities claimed that funds were spent ‘not as per the objects of the Trust’. The cases against the Environics Trust continue but the man who was the driving force behind the organisation is no more.

Dr Sreedhar Ramamurthi was only 67 when he passed away in Mumbai where he was on vacation with his family.

In 1977, Sreedhar completed a bachelor’s degree in science from Osmania University, Hyderabad, with an unusual (by Indian standards) combination of subjects: mathematics, physics and geology. He spent the next two years at the prestigious University of Roorkee (now an Indian Institute of Technology) in Uttarakhand studying applied geology. He later did a short course on environmental risk management at Salzburg, Austria. He worked with the public sector Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and in the Atomic Minerals Directorate of the Indian government’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, in Hyderabad.

However, a secure government job was clearly not what Sreedhar wanted. He chose to live and work with ordinary people. He was instrumental in setting up the Environics Trust as its managing trustee and became closely associated with several non-government organisations, including, notably, Mines, Minerals and People, the Indian Network on Ethics and Climate Change (INECC), and the Mineral Inheritors Rights Association. He became deeply interested in the environment of the Himalayas and studied the seismological impacts of hydro-electric projects in the mountainous terrain of India and Nepal. He was a visiting professor at reputed educational institutions in India and outside the country, wrote dozens of scholarly papers, and established close contacts with many others in different countries who had interests and concerns that were similar to his.

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In a tribute to Sreedhar, the INECC wrote that he ‘didn’t just study the Earth; he embraced it, understanding its rhythms and the deep interconnectedness of life within it’, adding that this ‘understanding blossomed into a fierce advocacy for the planet and its people, especially those marginalised by ecological plunder… From the corridors of established organizations to the dusty paths of villages battling mining injustice, Sreedhar’s journey was a relentless pursuit of justice…. lighting the way towards sustainable development and a future where nature and humanity could thrive together’.

Social activist M J Vijayan pointed out in his tribute that Sreedhar was convinced that predatory capitalism and the nexus between big corporate conglomerates and governments were responsible for much that was wrong with human civilisation.

‘He aligned unambiguously with the adivasis (tribals) and (mining) affected communities and was always ready to throw in his academic and lived expertise when it came to understanding the destructive paradigms of development,’ Vijayan said.

Dedicated to India's environment and the well-being of the Adivasi (indigenous tribal people), R Sreedhar headed the Environics Trust.

‘We must all perish,’ Vijayan recounted Sreedhar saying half-jokingly and self-deprecatingly about ‘upper-caste and middle-class activists’ of his own ilk and their ‘collective habits’. He was always smiling and ready to share his vast knowledge with everyone he met, irrespective of their status. Vijayan says Sreedhar was an integral part of various initiatives to demand justice for people affected by the building of dams and illegitimate mining. Not surprisingly, his efforts to hold big mining companies to account brought him into direct confrontation with politically connected groups such as the Adani conglomerate.

His close associate, Nishant Alag, who currently heads the Environics Trust, told Adani Watch that contrary to the perceptions of some, Sreedhar was not blindly opposed to mining but argued in favour of ‘rational’ mining. Bauxite, he contended, may be needed to make a lighter metal (such as aluminium) and hence, should be mined rationally. He wanted the efforts of civil society organisations to focus on four Es: economic efficiency, endogenous (meaning, produced or synthesised within the system or being self-sufficient), equity and environmental soundness.

Sreedhar is survived by his wife Vanitha and their two daughters. Vanitha said: ‘Sreedhar was a self-made man who lived life on his own terms… His ideas and concepts were much ahead of the time and were often not easily accepted.’

She pointed out that Sreedhar hardly got angry and had amazing patience. Vanitha added: ‘When we chose to become life partners, he asked me one question: Would you like to work for the development of society? We won’t become wealthy, but our work will definitely be very gratifying.’

After his demise, an admirer, Ananya Bhatia, wrote on Facebook:

‘Sreedhar Ramamurthi,

you told me to keep writing poems.

I hope you read this one wherever you are…

Who taught us so much, I’m sure,

Of minerals, people, and the earth,

And how to protect them, for what it’s worth…

You taught us to be brave, to be aware,

To protect the earth, to show we care.

Rest in peace and power, dear mentor,

Your memory we will always treasure.'

The writer is an independent journalist based in the National Capital Region of Delhi, India.