On the eve of World Environment Day, we track campaigns and groups that have striven to clean up Chennai's beaches without trampling coastal communities and creatures underfoot

Save Chennai Beaches Campaign

The proposed Elevated Coastal Expressway from Light House to Kottivakkam was formally called off in September 2011 as it was perceived to be a threat to the livelihoods of residents in 14 fishing hamlets and to the delicately balanced eco-systems in the region. Environmentalists of different stripes provided the information necessary to combat the proposal while some others sustained the struggle by organising regular meet-ups. Leaders of fishing hamlets were, of course, part of the collective.

The initial impetus for this people's movement came from an unlikely quarter, a fisherboy named Saravanan from Urur Kuppam. When he learnt that the Expressway would cut through his hamlet, he sought more information about the project by invoking the Right to Information Act, says writer-environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, one of the key players in the campaign. Nityanand recalls how a peanut cart was pressed into a ‘rath yatra' aimed at spreading awareness about the plight of fisher folks.

SCBC followed clearly-drawn strategies, one of which was taking media persons, town planners and other people on walks around the areas that came under the ambit of the project.

“Let's Reclaim Our Beaches”, a youth group helped in many ways, including making videos of these walking tours, where naturalist Murugavel, Nityanand and V. Arun (Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network) spoke about the ecosystems that were imperiled by the project.

At a time when elite environmentalism — where aesthetics is passed off as environmentalism — is rampant, this struggle offers a semblance of hope, says Nityanand. Sacrificing self-interest (an expressway would immeasurably benefit them), middle-class citizens spoke up for the fisher folks and the life forms thriving on the coast.

LetsROB

With its attention-grabbing name — which expands to “Let's Reclaim Our Beaches” — and a dedicated team of young volunteers, this group shot to notice around five years ago for its impressive beach cleanups.

It has however moved on from addressing the symptoms, which include a litter-filled beach, to dealing with the roots of the problem, ranging from our consumption patterns to the politics of trash.

One of the founders of the group, Siddharth Hande, who holds a Masters degree in Environment Studies from Monash University, Australia, believes a deeper understanding of waste is missing in our attempts to manage it.

Picking up waste in one place and dumping it in another is not the proper way of doing it. During a recent audit of the Adyar Estuary, LetsROB (letsrob.org) found 663 unique products that could be traced to around 300 companies. Dumped at various points of the Adyar River, they had flowed into the estuary. More than anything else, the discovery points to a serious lifestyle problem rooted in faulty consumption patterns, says Hande.

On the politics of trash, Hande says trash is found in greater quantities at low income areas, not because the poor are more lacking in civic sense but because the garbage pickup trucks bypass them.In line with seasoned environmentalists such as Nityanand, Hande and other young volunteers at LetsROB decry superficial beach cleanups that scratch only the surface.

With a core of 15 regular volunteers — who can mobilise around 300 others at any point of time — the group now addresses the larger issue of waste through efforts guided by research and a holistic approach.

For a video, go to http://bit.ly/prince-letsrobhande

Sea Turtle Protection Force &

Students Sea Turtles Conservation Network

Survivors of time, these two organizations have been noticed for conservation work involving the endangered Olive Ridley. They have won many students and lay people to the cause.

To varying degrees, they have promoted a holistic approach to beach management, which entail looking out for communities dependent on the sea, partnering with them in conservation work, and teaching environment education to youngsters with the sea as the model.

Sea Turtle Protection Force (STPF) is an offshoot of Supraja Dharini's Tree Foundation India (treefoundationindia.org), which is geared to all of the afore-mentioned goals.

“Turtle walks are always accompanied by a bit of environmental education,” says Akila, a full-time volunteer at SSTCN (sstcn.org).