A solitary figure is crouched over the sands under the rays of the early morning sun on the stretch of the beach adjoining the Adyar river estuary and the Theosophical Society in Chennai. He makes his way slowly, picking up trash, cups, cans, plastic covers — anything that he can possibly collect in his wicker basket. I watch as he drags the wicker basket lightly over the sand, harnessed by a knot to his gnarled and weather-beaten hand. He pauses momentarily, squinting at the horizon as he surveys the work ahead. Sekhar, a 75-year-old appearing man, with a shy smile (he does not know his true age) and a slight hunch, moved to Chennai about 21 years ago seeking work. He has since found gainful employment with a group of civic-minded citizens who initially employed him with personal contributions to pick up trash nearly 20 years ago. He is now paid a ‘princely' sum of Rs. 500 a month, in addition to ad hoc contributions from charitable folk who visit this stretch of the beach.
Sekhar is literally a one-man operator who maintains some semblance of hygiene and decorum along these sands. He arrives everyday promptly at 6 a.m., and cleans the beach for approximately an hour. In the evening, he typically arrives at 5.30 p.m. and again spends an hour removing refuse. The cleanliness along this stretch is in stark contrast with the beach a mile further south, in the residential area of Besant Nagar.
A visit to the stretch of the beach referred to as Elliott's beach these days reveals an astonishing array of remnants originating from human civilisation (or lack thereof) that includes every conceivable entity not suitable for human consumption or sale. There is unfortunately no Sekhar here to pick up the littler dropped with impunity by the thousands of people who visit the beach everyday.
My mind wandered back to the period 30 years ago when these beaches were pristine, where the shores were still strewn with shells and seaweed as opposed to the current grotesque collection of human ingenuity. There were no Sekhars then, nor were there throngs of insensitive tourists to pollute the beach. I pondered over this immense resource that we have in Chennai, miles of the otherwise pristine public beaches for one and all to enjoy and the immense impact they have had on the lives of millions of people who call this city their home. However, the level and scale of pollution that threatens these sands on a daily basis, together with growing helplessness and resultant apathy of its citizens, represents an existential threat to this ecosystem. How much longer will it take before the beaches are rendered unfit for recreation and for the larger purpose for which beaches were meant — as a beachhead against natural calamity and ecosystem for a myriad of life forms? Something needs to be done soon and it may require many Sekhars and many civic-minded citizens who have been the happy beneficiaries of the largesse of Chennai beaches. The intent of Wordsworth's solitary characters in many poems was to show how to be one with nature. Perhaps, the citizens of Chennai could use Sekhar's example to rally efforts to make the environment, at least around the beaches, a priority and allow all of us to be one with nature.
(The writer is John W. Wolfe Professor of Cardio vascular Medicine, Professor of Medicine and Radiology, The Ohio State University School of Medicine, Columbus, U.S. His email is: Sanjay.Rajagopalan@osumc.edu)