How Strong Women Change the World: Dr. K. Vasuki's March Towards a Sustainable Revolution in Kerala, India

Dr. K. Vasuki.

Published September 18, 2020


In 2018, I was playing a game in Hayes Hall on UB’s South Campus as a part of the CGHE Global Innovation Challenge. This game requires all participants to form a circle, and one by one attempt to eliminate their opponents by tapping an appendage in one, swift motion. Players were dwindling, but - perhaps due to my years of dance training, or my super human mom skillz – I was dodging my opponents and still “in.”

Breaking norms toward positive change

“Dr. Vasuki is a presence and a force. She is open to new ideas and to questioning the ways things are done. Her professional experiences have shifted her values and beliefs about who she is and how she should live. ”

The time came when just two participants remained: me and one of our distinguished international guests, Dr. K. Vasuki, the 42nd District Collector of Thiruvananthapuram, in the state of Kerala, India. Dr. Vasuki had established several green protocols throughout her district and at major state and national events. In January 2016, she supported and partnered with a group of 17 UB faculty and students in Maradu, Kerala where they gathered, analyzed, and synthesized information to create, in collaboration with the municipal government, a water, sanitation, and waste management plan. We invited Dr. Vasuki to Buffalo to share her work. Despite Dr. Vasuki’s esteem, her jet lag, and the beautiful, light yellow sari she was wearing, I was unwilling to accept defeat. Alas, in one fateful movement, Dr. Vasuki lunged toward me, we rolled on the floor, and she swiftly tapped me out and stood victorious.  

This truly happened. And it is, ironically, a wonderful representation of Dr. Vasuki’s persistent pursuit of her goals – despite the challenges and difficulties that arise.

Dr. Vasuki has a history of leading communities toward positive, yet difficult, change. In 2015, the state of Kerala hosted India’s National Games, the equivalent of the Olympic Games in India. Dr. Vasuki, then Executive Director of the state of Kerala’s Suchitwa Mission, an agency dedicated to creating strategies and policies for waste management, and Thiruvananthapuram district collector, ordered a swift directive that no throw-away items were to be used. Only ceramic, metal, and reusable plastic were allowed. In 2016, she urged city residents to trash their use-and-throw habits and hosted the first green swearing in ceremony for India.

She has been touted as an Iron Lady of Kerala – leading the state through one of the worst flood disasters in a century, and making her district one of the primary nodal points for flood relief and assistance for other flood affected districts.

Dr. Vasuki at the 2018 Global Innovation Challenge.

Dr. Vasuki at the 2018 Global Innovation Challenge

Where it began

Trained as a physician, Dr. Vasuki began her career with the civil service in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in a rural, forested area. As a person with roots in a metropolitan area, this lifestyle was quite different, but life changing.

One particular exchange with a community member remains vivid in her memory. Standing near a waterfall, she asked an elder from the community why he doesn’t move to the city. He responded “Why would I want to move to a town or city which cannot give me clean air to breathe or clean water to drink. Do you think a city can give water as pure as this waterfall? See how clean my environment is?”

We live in a world that awards certain kinds of lifestyles. People chase money, power, and fame, and those in power often push their communities toward “improvements” that are having a devastating impact on the environment.

What results is the “developed” world thinking that the “undeveloped” are in need of their help. In fact, rural communities in India are sometimes described as “primitive” or “tribal.” This perspective is not specific to India; it is global and problematic. For example, a person from the United States, who is likely to generate massive amounts of solid waste that gets swiftly dumped into landfills, is quick to point fingers at the problems with waste management in largely self-sufficient communities where solid waste is visible, scattered about the landscape.

For a young woman who only knew concrete jungles, Dr. Vasuki was forever changed by her time in the lush green jungles of Madhya Pradesh. She could not assign the word “primitive” to a group of people who have managed to live without destroying their planet. Questions came to life in her, ones that she carried to the state of Kerala when she was assigned head of Suchitwa Mission.

In Kerala, Dr. Vasuki met some really bright and passionate environmentalists – people who she understood (at the time) to be “anti-development.” Their interactions ignited concerns and questions that only grew through her own research. Some findings reaffirmed her investment in sustainable waste management – that most, if not all, products we use contain toxins. Some findings were surprising – that newborn babies are born with more than 200 different toxins in their umbilical cords.

In pursuit of a “developed” life, lifestyle diseases are on the rise, she notes. The comforts that we chase to make our lives easier and enjoyable end up destroying our bodies and the environment.

Yet, Dr. Vasuki is quick to admit that not all development is wrong. Humanity is in constant pursuit of being and doing better. But, she is adamant that we must realize when we have reached a limit, especially when what we are reaching for serves only the 1%.

Dr. Vasuki is a presence and a force. She is open to new ideas and to questioning the ways things are done. Her professional experiences have shifted her values and beliefs about who she is and how she should live and raise a family.

What's next?

The entire planet is in a mid-life crises. Climate change is looming. Humans are destroying nature with little regard to the effects. For Dr. Vasuki, it’s time for a course correction. Communities must return to living in a way that heals us and our planet. We are living in a time where we have the opportunity to redesign our life. For Dr. Vasuki, the starting point is agriculture.

Due to changing economic and employment patterns, the people of Kerala have increasingly left the field of agriculture to pursue modern white-collar dreams. This has resulted in a drastic reduction in food production; Kerala is currently dependent on the outside for most of their vegetables and fruits. Now, as Director of Kerala’s Department of Agriculture Development and Farmers’ Welfare, Dr. Vasuki is in charge of the Government of Kerala’s mission to achieve food self-sufficiency and to bring more young people into Agriculture and allied sectors under the banner “Subhiksha Keralam.”

Her new project supports self-sustainable communities. Starting as a pilot project in one community through a long-term intervention, Dr. Vasuki aims to create a zero waste society, one that is dependent on a local economy and has little to no carbon footprint. She believes this can happen only if the youth come back to their rural communities and take up farming again. But, she admits, it is a long process. To get there – to raise and nurture self-sufficient communities – requires a community-wide change of mindset. This means that the aspirations and dreams of generations must be redefined; success and the pursuit of happiness therein, cannot equal power, money, or fame, but something that can be found in every human.

Dr. Vasuki is in a unique position of power to help to redefine programs and policies toward this goal. She firmly believes in the human ability to adopt and adapt to change, change that is needed for a safe, healthy and fulfilling future. She believes in the human power to transcend existing limitations and challenges. She believes that the change required to save this planet and humanity from environmental degradation can be led by like-minded leaders from across the globe. A global people’s revolution towards a sustainable future is possible. She invites her community and others to begin to adopt lifestyle changes like minimalism, reducing one’s carbon footprint, and incorporating self-sustainable, local, green economies.

People are already looking for alternatives - for themselves and for this world. We just need to show them the way. For Dr. Vasuki, the time is now ripe; ripe for a global revolution. All we need to do is to decide to bring it on.

And now, she challenges all of us: “The choice is in your hands. The power is in your hands. Decide.”