Civil Society Groups Ask Leonardo DiCaprio to Revoke Support for 'Cauvery Calling'

Activists said that the campaign would assist the "denigration of systematic and serious efforts necessary to address complex environmental and social justice causes".

New Delhi: The Coalition for Environmental Justice in India and 95 civil society groups have written a letter to climate activist and actor Leonardo DiCaprio expressing their concern over his support toward the Isha Foundation’s ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign.

On Saturday, DiCaprio shared a link on Facebook endorsing his support for the ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign. “India’s rivers are severely endangered with many of its smaller rivers vanishing. Join Sadhguru and the Isha Foundation in their fight to preserve the Cauvery River,” DiCaprio wrote.

In the letter, signed by the coordinator of the Environment Support Group Leo F. Saldanha, the coalition wrote that DiCaprio “may not have been appropriately advised” when it came to supporting the ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign and urged him “to withdraw the second part of the message”.

Also read: Soon, We May Not Have a Cauvery River to Fight Over

“Cauvery Calling’, a nationwide campaign launched by the Isha Foundation, aims to plant 242 crore trees along the Cauvery river and has called for people to donate Rs 42 per tree.

The letter noted that a series of urban and industrial projects had polluted the river – which remained a critical source of livelihood for four southern states of India – and welcomed DiCaprio’s support to rejuvenate the Cauvery.

The coalition then pointed out that the ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign was not the appropriate platform for rehabilitating the river basin and that the Jaggi Vasudev and Isha Foundation’s “populist and simplistic methods” would assist the “denigration of systematic and serious efforts necessary to address complex environmental and social justice causes” and called on DiCaprio to withdraw his support for the campaign.

The letter added that the ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign’s proposal to save the river by simply planting trees on the banks of the river was only one of several necessary activities and a process that had to be undertaken “based on local needs, and sensitive to local ecological dynamics” while also taking into account constitutionally empowered Panchayats.

The coalition also called the Isha Foundation’s approach as one that promoted “a monoculturist paradigm of landscape restoration which people of India have rejected long ago” and warned that the programme could “create unintended and unforeseen social and ecological consequences” and lead to drying up of streams and the destruction of wildlife habitats.

The coalition also drew attention to the Isha Foundation’s “low credibility in conforming with Indian laws protecting human rights and environment” and cited a PIL filed in the Karnataka high court against its fund collection and instances where the foundation had encroached upon land belonging to Adivasis.

Pointing out that the ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign was “not a programme that will protect Cauvery, her forests, her biodiversity, her children, and her childrens’ children”, the coalition requested DiCaprio to experience “first-hand the kind of hard work essential to safeguard Cauvery” and join “grassroots-based, consultative, collective and networked efforts, to rejuvenate Cauvery”.

Speaking to the NewsMinute, Leo Saldanha said that it was worrying that Rs 10,000 crore from the public is being collected by misusing their faith. “At the same time, public concerns are not being addressed”, he said.

Also read: Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘Ice on Fire’ Whitewashes Climate Justice, Prompts Backlash

The full text of the letter has been reproduced below:


Dear Mr. DiCaprio,

You have taken enormous responsibility in playing a leading role in promoting rights of indigenous communities, protecting wildlife, case sensitively promoting conservation strategies, and, needless to state, pushing for clear action to tackle global warming.  Your actions are globally influential and help boost, and immensely, positive and progressive efforts for human rights and the environment.  Which, we are sure, you undertake with necessary and due caution. It appears to us, the Coalition for Environmental Justice in India, however, that you may not have been appropriately advised in supporting the ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign advanced by Jaggi Vasudev of Isha Foundation.

Cauvery, from its origins in the high mountains of Kodagu in Karnataka, is a river that drains a substantial part (over 81 000 sq. km.) of southern India.  Without its life nurturing flows, livelihoods of millions of farmers and fisherfolk would collapse, and agriculture and cities would disintegrate into chaos. Besides, biodiversity, forests, grasslands and the massive deltaic region that this river nurtures would be devastated.

In recent decades, a slew of projects have been promoted by diverting the river’s waters with massive dams, to support water intensive agriculture, generate hydropower and bring water to ever expanding urban and industrial projects, all without informed and democratic decision making. Thereafter, the mostly untreated refuse water from cities and industries is drained back into the river, causing havoc to her life sustaining capacities – making stretches of the river amongst the most polluted in India.  Yet, Cauvery’s waters are a critical resource to four southern states of India, and are being contested over intensely, resulting even in violent conflicts between peoples of the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Clearly, Cauvery needs all the help she can get now. In that sense, your support to rejuvenate Cauvery is very welcome.

However, the ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaign is not a programme that comprehends the river basin’s realities, and her future well being.  It appears to be a programme that presents, rather simplistically, that the river can be saved by planting trees on banks of her streams, rivulets, tributaries and the floodplains of the river.

Planting trees is welcome, but only when it is done where needed, and by choosing appropriate species. It is a process that is best done consultatively, based on local needs, and sensitive to local ecological dynamics. Besides, such a programme must be undertaken with appropriate social action – ground up, involving constitutionally empowered Panchayats, and statutory Forest Rights Committees, Biodiversity Management Committees, Ward Committees, etc. Needless to add, tree planting is only one of the many many activities that are needed to rejuvenate the river; and tree planting alone won’t achieve the critical task of saving Cauvery. It is also important to note that even when tree planting is taken up in the most appropriate way, as described above, there is a critical need to stop mindless destruction of forests and watersheds of the Cauvery, which is taking place extensively across the rivers’ watersheds, all in the name of ‘development’.

The tree planting promoted by Isha Foundation, by inviting people to donate money to plant 2,420,000,000 trees, may appear incredibly attractive. But on deeper investigation, it comes across as a method that promotes a monoculturist paradigm of landscape restoration which people of India have rejected long ago. Besides, such a programme could create unintended and unforeseen social and ecological consequences, as planting trees in certain regions (grasslands and floodplains for instance) could result in drying up of streams and rivulets, and destruction of wildlife habitats. Further, it can also lead to encroachments of the floodplains and riverbeds, as has happened at numerous places.

Isha Foundation has very low credibility in conforming with Indian laws protecting human rights and environment. No less an authority than the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, a constitutional body, has reported that the foundation has built its headquarters into an elephant corridor and on land belonging to Adivasis (original inhabitants of India, who are indigenous communities).  It is also noted that Mr. Jaggi Vasudev and Isha Foundation have often resorted to populist and simplistic methods on various public concerns, and thus aiding denigration of systematic and serious efforts necessary to address complex environmental and social justice causes.

As a matter of fact, a Public Interest Litigation has already been filed in the Karnataka High Court against fund collection for ‘Cauvery Calling’. The link you have shared on your Facebook page of the Isha website reveals that the volume of money being gathered is over Rs. 10000 crores (US$ 1.5 billion). The implications of such massive funds being made available to a private foundation, particularly one that as a very weak, and rather dubious, record of compliance of human rights and environmental laws, is quite worrying. ‘Waterman of India’ Rajendra Singh has remarked that Jaggi Vasudev’s ‘Cauvery Calling’ is a campaign “just to earn name and money”.

It is our considered view that you may have been poorly advised, or not have had the time to personally investigate the back ground of the promoters of ‘Cauvery Calling’, before you embraced the programme with this message on Facebook: “India’s rivers are severely endangered with many of its smaller rivers vanishing. Join Sadhguru and the Isha Foundation in their fight to preserve the Cauvery River.”  Indeed the first part of your message is most welcome. However, we urge you to withdraw the second part of the message, as it amounts to promoting Isha Foundations ‘Cauvery Calling’. This is not a programme that will protect Cauvery, her forests, her biodiversity, her children, and her childrens’ children. It will certainly not save Cauvery. On the contrary, support for this kind of a campaign sets a very wrong precedent.

We invite you to the Cauvery basin so you may appreciate first-hand the kind of hard work essential to safeguard Cauvery for perpetuity.  It will also be an opportunity to experience the deep humanisms intrinsic to peoples of the Cauvery basin, and a time to notice the amazing natural diversity that abounds her graceful spread across South India. We would like you to join our grassroots based, consultative, collective and networked efforts, to rejuvenate Cauvery. Meanwhile, we urge you to withdraw your call for support to ‘Cauvery Calling’ for reasons cited above.


Handed over by:

Leo F. Saldanha, Coordinator, Environment Support Group

On behalf of Coalition for Environmental Justice in India

24th September 2019

Endorsed by:

Movements, Networks and Civil Society Organisations:

  1. All India Forum of Forest Movements
  2. All India People’s Forum
  3. All India Union of Forest Working People
  4. All India Women’s Hawkers Federation
  5. Alternative Law Forum Karnataka
  6. Aruna Rodrigues, Lead Petitioner in Supreme Court for a moratorium on GMOs
  7. Baiga Adhikar Shakti Sangathan
  8. Baiga Mahila Sangathan
  9. Beyond Copenhegan Collective
  10. Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha, New Delhi
  11. Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, Odisha
  12. Bindrai Institute for Research Study and Action, Jharkhand
  13. Caste Annihilation Movement, Chhattisgarh
  14. Centre for Financial Accountability New Delhi
  15. Chennai Solidarity Group, Chennai
  16. Chhattisgarh Hawker Federation, Chhattisgarh
  17. Chhattisgarh Mahila Adhikar Manch, Chhattisgarh
  18. Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha, Chhattisgarh
  19. Chhattisgarh Nagrik Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti, Chhattisgarh
  20. Citizens Concern for Dams & Development
  21. Citizens Forum for Mangalore Development, Mangalore
  22. Coastal Action Network
  23. Community Environmental Monitoring, Chennai
  24. Dalit Mukti Morcha, Chhattisgarh
  25. Delhi Forum, Delhi
  26. Delhi Solidarity Group, New Delhi
  27. Domestic Workers’ Union, Delhi
  28. Environics Trust, New Delhi
  29. Environment Support Group, Bengaluru
  30. Equations, Bangalore
  31. Financial Accountability Network India, New Delhi
  32. Focus on the Global South, New Delhi
  33. Ghar Banao Ghar Bachao Andolan, Mumbai
  34. Hawker Adhikar Rakashwa Committee
  35. Hawker Sangram Committee
  36. Henri Tiphagne, People’s Watch, Madurai
  37. South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP)
  38. Himdhara – Environment Research and Action Collective, Himachal Pradesh
  39. India Climate Justice
  40. Indian Social Action Forum
  41. Indigenous Perspectives, Manipur
  42.  INSOCO, Kerala
  43. Institute for Democracy & Sustainability, Delhi
  44. Intercultural Resources, New Delhi
  45. Jan Sangharsh Vahini, Delhi
  46. Jharkhand Jangal Bachao Andolan, Jharkhand
  47. Jharkhand Mines Area Co-ordination Committee, Jharkhand
  48. Joe Athialy Centre for Financial Accountability, New Delhi
  49. Kabani, Kerala
  50. Kerala Swathantra Matsya Tozhylali Federation, Kerala
  51. Khan Kaneej Aur Adhikar, Jharkhand
  52. Kisan Janta, Kerala
  53. Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, Madhya Pradesh
  54. Lok Adhikar Shakti Sangathan
  55. Lok Raj Sangathan
  56. Lok Shakti Abhiyan, Odisha
  57. Machimaar Adhikaar Sangharsh Sangathan, Gujarat
  58. Manthan Aadhyan Kendra, Madhya Pradesh / Maharashtra
  59. Matu Jan Sangathan, Uttarakhand
  60. Mines, Minerals and People
  61. Mitanin Swastya Seva Sanghatan, Chhattisgarh
  62. Nadi Ghati Morcha, Chhattisgarh
  63. Narmada Bachao Andolan Madhya Pradesh
  64. National Alliance of People’s Movements
  65. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights
  66. National Fishworker’s Forum
  67. National Hawkers Federation
  68. Navadanya, New Delhi
  69. Nayi Rajdhani Prabhavit Kissan Kalyan Samiti, Chhattisgarh
  70. New Trade Union Initiative
  71. North Bengal Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers
  72. North East Peoples Alliance, Manipur
  73. Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, Gujarat
  74. Peoples Forum Against ADB
  75. Plachimada Solidarity Committee
  76. Pondicherry Slum Dwellers Federation, Pondicherry
  77. Public Finance Public Accountability Collective
  78. Public Services International
  79. Rastriya Rajmarg Prabhavit Kissan Nagarik Samiti, Chhattisgarh
  80. River Basin Friends
  81. Rural Volunteers Centre
  82. Samajwadi Samagam
  83. Samata
  84. Sanyukt Trade Union Council, Chhattisgarh
  85. South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, New Delhi
  86. Srijan Lokhit Samiti, Madhya Pradesh
  87. Teeradesa Mahla Vedi, Kerala
  88. The Research Collective, New Delhi
  89. Toxics Watch Alliance, New Delhi
  90. Trans National Institute
  91. Vettivel Collective, Chennai
  92. Vidharbha Van Adhikar Sanghatana
  93. Water Initiatives
  94. Working Group on International Financial Institutions
  95. Ashok Shrimali, Mines, Minerals & People, New Delhi


  1. Aditi Chanchani, Bangalore
  2. Anil T Varghese, Delhi Solidarity Group, New Delhi
  3. Bharat Mansata, author, editor, activist and co-founder of ‘Earthcare Books’ (Kolkata)
  4. Himanshu Thakkar, Environmental Activist and Water Expert, Coordinator-South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP)
  5. Meena Subramaniam, Independent artist, Kumily, Kerala
  6. Namrata Kabra, Environmental Lawyer, New Delhi
  7. Niraj Bhatt, Life Science Researcher, Chennai
  8. Nityanand Jayaraman, Chennai Solidarity Group, Chennai
  9. N. Ram, The Hindu, Chennai
  10. Om Prakash Singh, Environment and Climate Action, Chennai
  11. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Author, Academic, Film-maker, Journalist
  12. Ramnarayan, Ecologist, Uttarakhand
  13. Ranganathan Manohar, CARE, Bangalore
  14. Ravi Rebbapragara, Samata, Visakhapatnam
  15. Sana Huque, Sahana Subramanian, Mallesh K. R., Abhijna Bellur, Environment Support Group
  16. Sharachchandra Lele, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment, Bangalore
  17. Sharadha Narayanan, Senior Researcher- Environment and Climate Action, Chennai
  18. Simar Kohli Das, Lifetide Collective for Water Sustainability, Justice and Harmony, Bangalore
  19. S. Saroja, Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group, Chennai
  20. Suprabha Seshan, Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Kerala
  21. Tara Murali, Architect, Chennai
  22. Vandana Shiva, Navdanya, New Delhi
  23. Vinay K Sreenivasa, Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore