While putting in an appearance at the Valmiki Nagar beach, one blows past a burial ground. A dilapidated well as dry as the Atacama desert, if not drier, is attached to the graveyard. One notices a successful attempt to make the burial ground a garden of remembrance.
Saplings, some of “adolescent” age, stand swaddled in greenhouse cloth, as if to bring alive the memory of those resting there. The saplings have their feet on a carpet of green woven by nature just for that landscape — the creeping vine, Ipomoea (pes-caprae), commonly known as beach morning glory.
The creeping vine is made for beach sands, a high degree of resilience against saliferous air built into it. It also latches on to the land with the grip of a monitor lizard. With its sand-binding capacity, this creeping vine is a bulwark against erosion of beach sands.
The only thing that can peel it away from its “home” is any well-intentioned beach cleaning activity, and of course, any targetted wilful attempt to have it removed to meet a misplaced idea of tidiness. Well-meaning but ignorant beach cleaners — people’s, institutional and even government groups — tend to remove them along with litter.
P Jayanthi, an active volunteer with Valmiki Nagar Residents Welfare Association reveals that from the beginning this residents’ group has been opposing any attempt to have the Ipomoea uprooted.
Thanks to their adamant stand, Jayanthi notes, the beach is not robbed of its sands during cyclones.
The bed of Ipomea at the burial ground found ahead of the beach demonstrates this group’s science-based commitment to protecting nature close to their turf.
(On a tangential note, Valmiki Nagar Residents Welfare Association has received an award, as part of the first batch of awardees, under the People’s Movement for Cleaner Cities)
Jayanthi notes the saplings had been planted and protected by the Association, putting its hands up enthusiastically when Greater Chennai Corporation encouraged residents’ groups to green their own neck of the woods.
“We planted saplings trees in instalments, racking up an impressive number of 350.” She adds that due to anthropogenic factors, which include letting stray cattle loose, and some natural causes, the numbers have whittled down considerably.
Further up, at the beach, patches of Ipomoea are found intact.
Before the pandemic, Jayanthi continues, the Association would organise a beach clean-up every Sunday, and now, this residents-driven exercise has become sporadic.
However, when the beach looks bedraggled, Jayanthi notes, residents promptly place a call to Greater Chennai Corporation officials who can do something about that look.
By wading into the beach sands, the Association had a good thing going, and should therefore work towards increasing the frequency of this engagement.
That is not to ignore the fact that beach clean-ups by residents, no matter how regular, are not a sustainable solution, if unaccompanied by larger exercises at the policy and enforcement levels.
Jayanthi herself underlines the limitations of an intervention that is entirely residents-driven. Seasons change and enthusiasm wanes, as demonstrated by the pandemic.
“What washes up on the beach is more dangerous than what people leave behind. Significant amounts of micro plastics are washed ashore, suggesting that strict implementation of solid-waste management rules alone can bring about lasting and meaningful change,” Jayanthi elaborates.
Another move by the Association has indirectly aided in the conservation of Olive Ridley turtles.
The Association opposed the establishment of a high-mast lamp post in their corner of the beach, going after the idea at full tilt. “With high-mast lamps, commercial activities would arrive. We did not want that.”
As this section of the beach is plunged in complete darkness at night, the nesting Olive Ridley turtles (which tend to make a beeline for well-lit areas) do not stray as far from the coast as would bring them to harm.