Nine-year-old Krishna has been looking forward to playing his favourite game of waging a battle against the Kurichi Kulam, a fishing pond in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.
It will be his second week in the cleanup drive undertaken by the people of the city.
His first attempt was a huge accomplishment, he says. It helped him feel like a Superman for protecting the environment.
Looking at Krishna’s dedication to clean the pond, R Manikandan is transported to his childhood. As a child, Manikandan would draw water from a nearby public well in Sundarapuram until it dried up in 2000.
This bitter memory, coupled with the news of drying water bodies in Coimbatore, and across the country, pushed Manikandan to take action rather than being another spectator.
His first cleanup activity was with the Coimbatore Panchayat fifteen years ago. Knowing that he would need an extra set of hands for the massive cleanup drives, he joined the government authorities and started helping them every weekend.
Speaking to The Better India, Manikandan says,
While growing up, everyone around me complained about the issues in society, but there were very few who acted upon them. So, I would identify the polluted water bodies and notify the authorities. With their help, I would clean the ponds and lakes.
After gaining expertise and experience, the 37-year-old founded Kovai Kulangal Padhukaapu Amaippu in February 2017.
“A few like-minded people had good intentions, but there was no organised way to carry out the cleanup activities. I also wanted to bring about a behavioural change among the people and make them realise how they can contribute to safeguarding the environment,” says Manikandan.
He owns a small lathe workshop in the city.
Prathap Nandagopalan, one of the volunteers, met Mandikandan during the famous Jallikattu protests in 2017.
He tells The Better India, “Water is our primary resource. Due to climate changes, the monsoon season is irrational. In such a situation, conserving existing water bodies becomes very crucial. Coimbatore receives rain during monsoon and water from the Shola forests throughout the year, but polluted and blocked water streams cut off the water supply to our homes. We need to treat and reuse the water we have.”
The Noyyal river originates from the Western Ghats and travels 180 kilometres, joining the Kaveri river at Karur. It fills around 32 lakes that come under the jurisdiction of the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation (CMC) and Central Public Works Department.
Most of the water bodies have dried up due to encroachments, waste management, and lack of maintenance.
The NGO is now reviving one pond at a time and ensuring adequate water supply in the city.
One water body at a time
Two years ago, when Mandikanan and his teammates pressed the ‘send’ button on WhatsApp, they had not expected their weekend activity to turn into a full-time mission. Around 50 citizens turned up at Perur lake at 6 am to remove the Juliflora. The volunteers also de-silted the lake.
The 300-acre lake had 400 volunteers the very next week!
Mandikanan attributes the rise in volunteers to social and local media.
It took the citizens around three weeks to clean the 300-acre lake. The eight tonnes of waste removed was given to the Municipal Corporation.
The success of Perur lake was a huge morale boost for Mandikanan’s core team comprising 50 people. There has been no looking back since. They have cleaned multiple water bodies, including ponds, check dams and lakes.
Another significant cleanup drive was at the Vellalore lake. Two decades ago, the water channel of the lake was blocked due to waste dumping by encroachers around the water body.
Since the team did not have sufficient funds, the volunteers freed the lake from human and plastic waste manually.
They worked for eight weeks and opened a 6.5-kilometre stretch of the channel. With help from the PWD, the volunteers also rehabilitated encroachers from a 1-kilometre stretch.
“It was one of our toughest and most memorable projects. The encroachers and sludge inside the lake made it very difficult for our volunteers to step inside and clean it. It was because of their determination and efforts that the lake was cleaned,” says Mandikanan.
The Sundakamuthoor ancient well was covered with mud and waste, but with the help of the heritage department, the volunteers recovered it.
Other water bodies that the NGO was able to clean are Sengulam lake, Kuniyamuthur water channel, Kumarasamy lake, Valankulam lake, Chithiraichavadi check dam, and the Singanallur check dam.
Post Cleaning Activity
Merely cleaning the water bodies was not enough, says Prathap. He continues, “All the efforts of our volunteers will go in vain if the lake comes back to its previous condition. A project is completed only if it can sustain itself.”
The NGO would thus undertake extensive awareness drives with the locals residing near the respective lakes. In addition, the NGO sowed 1.36 lakh palm seeds in and around the water bodies that they restored.
They are now growing a Miyawaki forest at Vellalore lake. It is a Japanese method of tree plantation that grows saplings ten times faster, with the forest being 30 times denser. Around 2,500 saplings of 60 varieties of medicinal plants have been sown. The final goal is to create a forest with 16,000 trees.
In terms of impact, the clean lakes and new plants have resulted in the return of 75 species of migratory and wetland birds.
Dumping waste directly into the lake has led to the disappearance of exotic species of birds across the country. The cleanup drive is bringing back the flora-fauna of Coimbatore, says Prathap.
Where the NGO stands today
The two-year journey of Kovai Kulangal Padhukaapu Amaippu saw some successes and several challenges. From acquiring permissions each time they wanted to clean a pond to sourcing enough funds for the activities, the NGO overcame challenges along the way.
For now, the funding of the cleanup campaign is done via donations from volunteers and citizens.
When asked about the final goal of the NGO, Mandikanan answers, “The objective of the NGO was to channelise the activities and make citizens responsible. We aim to revive, restore, and rejuvenate, as many water bodies in the city as possible.”
If you wish to help or join the NGO, contact them here.
With inputs from Ahmed Sherrif
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)