Citizen groups are reclaiming Chennai’s water bodies

Armed with Whatsapp groups and oodles of initiative, these unaffiliated, apolitical groups are binging about change in spades

July 15, 2019 05:34 pm | Updated July 18, 2019 06:36 pm IST

It used to be a flat, nondescript plot of land, identified only by the nearby temple. But in a span of less than a week, it has become a reservoir, complete with varying levels going down to a depth of nearly 30 feet and a four-feet-high bund around it to keep pollutants at bay. The newly revived temple tank by Gangai Amman Koil in Karukku, Korattur, is one of seven in the city to have been made monsoon-ready by Ambattur Water Bodies Conservation Group, an apolitical collective of Chennai citizens.

Be it lakes, ponds or tanks, reservoir restoration projects are underway in full swing in different neighbourhoods of Chennai, from Velachery and Perambur to Ambattur. A number of these initiatives seem to be purely citizen-led, though they have roped in some NGOs for expertise, and approached the civic administration for support.

Gangai Amman Koil tank, Karukku

For instance, SP Nedumaran, one of the founding members of Ambattur Water Bodies Protection Group, explains, “JCB machines charge up to ₹8,000 a day, and we need the machine for at least three to four days, depending on the size of the tank or lake. There is only so much money we can spend from our own pockets.” So the group, which has around 250 members, reached out to acquaintances and friends : environmentalists, PWD officials, people in the State Government... “ SP Velumani, Minister for Local Administration provided this JCB to us,” he adds, beckoning to the large whirring machine behind him, scooping up earth to deepen the tank.

But before the machine takes over, work begins by hand, carefully picking up and digging out plastic waste from these near-dry water bodies. “In this tank, we cleared about 20 gunny bags of garbage before the machine could start work,” says Nedumaran.

The machine uses the same scooped earth to pad up a bund that rims the tank. For a bystander on the road, the bund is knee-high at some points and shoulder-high at others. For someone standing inside the nearly-dry tank, the curve of the bund begins at a height of 12 feet from their shoes, and slopes upwards for another 12. The math is exact.

“The central part of the tank, filled with water, is five feet deeper than the rest. The water you see in it is ground water, that rose up after the desilting was done,” adds Margabandu, a retired chemical engineer, another member of the group. “We shouldn’t dig deeper than this, or we will be putting a strain on the water table.”

Shiva Vishnu temple tank, TNEB Colony

A two-minute drive away sits another temple tank, about half an acre in area. Completely readied by the Ambattur group, this one has been handed over to local residents of TNEB Colony in Korattur.

“They will clear the storm water drains around it, observe which way the water flows when it rains and create inlets into the tank accordingly,” says a group member, who has been coming to the area from Anna Nagar to help out every week.

Velachery lake

Meanwhile in Velachery, a group of 30 volunteers gathered at the crack of dawn on the banks of the lake, last Sunday. Bright yellow rubber gloves were handed out, masks donned, and with purposeful strides, the group set about picking up plastic lying around them. The motley group comprised 11-year-olds to 70-year-olds, and some that had come from as far as Ramapuram and Thiruvottiyur. They worked swiftly, picking up discarded bags, cups, covers and made neat heaps. Soon rakes and spades were brought out to go beneath the grass and find rubbish that had been building up over the years. A couple of storks paddling around cast curious glances at the volunteers.

As the sun rose, the number of volunteers swelled to 100. A few children from the neighbourhood slum joined in too. “When they are concerned enough to clean the lake for us, I thought we should lend a helping hand too,” smiles Mani, a 11-year-old, handing a plastic bag to his friend, Dinesh, to dump in the gunny bags lined up on the shore. By 9 am there were about 50 such bags filled with garbage for the Corporation to pick up.

Says Parthasarathy N, one of the lead volunteers who had come from Thiruvottiyur, “We plan to do this every Saturday and Sunday till the monsoons arrive. The entire movement is driven via whatsapp messages and everyone here has come voluntarily.” Parthasarathy is part of a group of volunteers that has been cleaning lakes since the 2015 floods, which served as a wake up call. “The Velachery lake was once nearly 300 acres large. Today it has shrunk to barely 50 acres,” he says, adding, “for now we’re manually picking up all the garbage... first the plastic waste and then we’ll target glass and other material. But we need machinery to do a better job. We have sponsors that are willing to supply us with the machinery, we just need the go-ahead from the government.”


In Periyakulam: what appears to be a three-acre large, recently-cleared garbage dump surrounded by homes and cattle sheds, stands at a spot that once used to be a seven-acre lake. “We can’t do anything about the encroachments, but we can clear up the space that is left,” says Margabandu. “So much garbage has been puking up here, that we just couldn’t clear it by hand.” So a group of trucks have made their way into the clearing, to clear not only garbage but also a spiky, invasive weed that had overrun the place.

“It usually takes us three to four continuous days to complete cleaning, desilting and restoration. This spot will take longer, but we can do it,” says Margabandu.

And then, on to the next reservoir waiting to be rescued.


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