Tamil Nadu

Where a civic initiative is a metaphor for creating space for alternative ideologies

An amphitheatre at Elakyampatti Lake under construction by Dharmapuri People’s Forum.—Photo: N. Bashkaran  

If a civic initiative could be a metaphor for creating space for alternative voices and political ideologies of dissent, then the 10-acre lake revival project by Dharmapuri People’s Forum (DPF) at Elakyampatti on the Salem main road could be deemed one.

Until a few months back, the Elakyampatti Lake was a fallow 10-acre garbage dump. It all began with an RTI filed by Thalirgal and Ainthinai – two civil society groups rooted in alternative ideas of development and ecology.

When the RTI revealed that no money was spent for the lake’s revival in two decades, Civil Society Activists, Thalirgal and Ainthinai – saw potential in the lake, not merely as a civic project - but also as a space for critical discussions, and dissent to mainstream ideas of development.

Dharmapuri People’s Forum came into being for this project. “We wanted to create a sense of ownership over the project amongst the public,” says Balasubramani Dharmalingam, coordinator of DPF.

After an oral consent from the district administration for the civic initiative, the lake revival commenced. Today, four months on, the lake is desilted, deepened up to 12 feet, and bunds are constructed. In addition, a ‘viewpoint’ to watch the sun-rise, a yoga platform and an amphitheatre has also been set up. The desilted sand form island pockets across the expanse of the lake, with over 3,000 saplings planted on them. Of these, 2,000 saplings have come from the homes of members of Thalirgal and Ainthinai. “Remaining saplings were donated by the forest department. In one or two years from now, these dunes will be a forest thicket, with no human activity inside,” says Mr. Dharmalingam.

True to the spirit of ecology, the revival of the lake has barely used cement or concrete, and the walkers’ path is a levelled mud bund. The revival project has hinged largely on manual labour. Machinery was used only to desilt and deepen.

This week, the project completes 150 days of labour by volunteers of DPF, for who it was a lot more than just a week-end initiative. “Each morning, 50 volunteers water saplings, and during the day, 20 volunteers tend to the lake work.”

Manual labour is volunteered 12 hours every day. “We are seeing the shrinking of public spaces for discussion of alternative ideologies. Worse, the public has become depoliticised and there is a total erosion of critical questioning of the status-quo. The lake with its amphitheatre is not a civil project, but is conceived as a space for thought and debate,” says a volunteer.

It is perhaps for this reason that the project has steered clear from seeking funds from the administration. Every rupee spent has come from friends, and friends of friends, and the link has grown stronger with each day, says Mr. Dharmalingam.

“But, we have accomplished this with just Rs.15 lakh,” he says. A space for dissent in the wake of dwindling public spaces may well ring a bell. Remember the controversy in Chennai when a few concerned people wanted to screen the critically acclaimed and controversial film Muzzafarnagar Baqi Hai ? They were prevented from screening it.

The volunteers of DPF hope the Elakyampatti Lake will be such a space where voices of dissent will be allowed to be heard.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 8:24:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/where-a-civic-initiative-is-a-metaphor-for-creating-space-for-alternative-ideologies/article7675773.ece

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