If you see a band of youngsters cleaning up a lake in the city at dawn, they could well be Arun Krishnamurthy and team from the Environmentalist Foundation of India. Akila Kannadasan meets the Chennai-based eco-warrior

Pallikaranai then: Was paradise. Kingfishers, cormorants and egrets thronged the marshland.

Pallikaranai now: Is a dump-yard. Construction debris, plastic, chicken waste and more taint the waters.

It’s the same story all over the country; we are polluting our lakes and rivers with no concern for mankind or the flora and fauna they harbour. River Noyyal is in bad shape; so is the Vaigai. The Ganges’ is yet another sad story. But, there’s hope, say Arun and his team of young volunteers from the Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI).

If he sees a polluted water body, Arun Krishnamurthy doesn’t walk off merely tut-tutting like most of us. He cleans it, literally. The 26-year old has cleaned up 17 lakes in the country so far, including five in Chennai and in cities such as Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad. Through EFI, his NGO, Arun has shown that the common man can do great things.

Chennai, Kanchipuram and Tiruvallur districts boast about 300 lakes that are a haven for a variety of water birds. But today, most of them are being exploited, says Arun. Roads disturb their landscape. “Buildings block inlet and outlet channels of water bodies. But, we cannot blame the Government. It’s the people who are insensitive. Just because we have water at the end of a tap, we take it for granted.” By polluting water, we are not only risking our future, but that of several life-forms. “When was last time you saw a frog in Chennai?” asks Arun.

Armed with gloves, sacks, and a truckload of enthusiasm, Arun and about 100 school students walked into Keelkattalai in August this year. They cleaned-up the lake from 7 a.m. to 11.30 p.m. “We collected about 107 sacks of garbage,” says Arun.

Arun spent his childhood in Mudichur, a village 29 km from Chennai. Life in Mudichur was free from the pressures of development cities grapple with. Dhamodharan, the panchayat head, was a hero figure for young Arun. He encouraged people to segregate garbage and cleaned up a pond in the village.

The seed Dhamodharan sowed in the youngster took shape when Arun moved to Hyderabad to work with Google. He cleaned up the Gurunadham lake with volunteers. Arun was 22 then. He walked into residential areas with posters in hand to convince people to participate in the clean up. He eventually gave up his job to work full time for the environment.

Students are EFI’s backbone. Arun regularly visits schools to garner volunteers. It was during one such programme that he met Amritha Kumar, R. Mohan, Kripa Ragu and Aashna Khanna, who are among his most active volunteers. Arun wants to make EFI a tool to inspire young energy. The girls in his team have formed the ‘Environmentalist Foundation for Women’ to encourage more women to work for the cause of the Earth.

Motivated by EFI, the residents of Perumbakkam pooled in money and restored the Arasan Kalani lake in their neighbourhood. It is such people who keep him going. For, Arun wants EFI to be “an agency that drives people’s participation”.

EFI is spreading its wings across the country with vigour — they are staging a street-play on environment in Kanyakumari by the confluence of the three seas as I write this. There’s plenty planned for the summer — the team is travelling to Coimbatore, Tiruchi, Puducherry, Vishakapatnam and Vijayawada to clean-up water bodies. They also plan to run a home for stray dogs in Tambaram with funding from the municipality. But their dream, says Arun, is to establish a home for injured stray animals. “Dogs, cats, cows, goats, hens…our home will treat birds and animals for free,” he says.

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* The EFI team consists of 47 volunteers of which 29 are girls.

* They stage street-plays to create environmental awareness and train youngsters on the same.

* They are setting-up biodiversity parks in schools to revive traditional plants including vasambu, vallarai, thippili and keezhanelli.

* On April 26, 2013, 127 EFI volunteers cleaned-up the stretch between the Besant Nagar beach and Neelankarai from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. continuously.

* EFI manufactures cloth-bags using self-help groups in Mudichur.

* Volunteers explain the behaviour of animals to visitors at the Vandalur Zoo and see to it that the public do not misbehave with the animals.

* Arun was selected as a Young Laureate for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2012 and the Google Alumni Impact Award in 2011.

* He has made two documentaries on the state of our water bodies and on sea turtles titled Elixir Poisoned and Kurma respectively (They are open for viewing on YouTube).

* For details, visit indiaenvironment.org