For the sake of a lake

Arun Krishnamurthy, founder, Environmentalist Foundation of India, gives insights into its future plans

October 26, 2017 04:10 pm | Updated 04:10 pm IST

Arun Krishnamurty and core-group planning the clean-up of Kilkattallai Lake

Arun Krishnamurty and core-group planning the clean-up of Kilkattallai Lake

Though his organisation has been creating environmental change in multiple states of the country for nearly a decade, Arun Krishnamurthy says he doesn’t know what it means to be an activist.

“The idea is not to point fingers, but to do something about it,” says the founder of Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI), in a tête a tête with MetroPlus , as his not-for-profit outfit spreads to other countries in the region. “We all know what the problems are, and who is to blame. We know we don’t live in a perfect world. My point is, what’s wrong with pitching in?”

Krishnamurthy first began “pitching in” to help the environment in 2008, when he was an IT professional in Hyderabad. “Some friends and I would volunteer in Chennai. When we were placed in Hyderabad, we began looking at a lake near my office, which was in bad shape,” he says.

“We went knocking door-to-door around the neighbourhood, spreading the word.”

A strong start

It was their first lake restoration, and the turnout was immense. “After that, other people began inviting us to their neighbourhoods for clean ups. The Government encouraged us, too. By the end of 2008, we were volunteering in four different lakes. The activity that used to take place once in two weeks, turned into a weekly and then a bi-weekly one,” he recalls.

The trick was to make communities feel involved with the water body, to see it as something valuable. “Everything was centered around the lake, from Diwali and Pongal celebrations to schools adopting lakes as themes,” he says.

The organisation spread, as did its members, with each of them building an environmentally-conscious community in whichever city they migrated to. Krishnamurthy, for his part, would visit Chennai every two months or so, and began spreading awareness in schools here. Now, a large part of their strength lies in local volunteers, especially students, even though the core team has remained pretty much the same through the years.

EFI now has operations in Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Pune, Mumbai and New Delhi and a host of other towns, with the hub of all activity being in Chennai. Each project was a learning experience, says Krishnamurthy. “Governance, policy, whom to approach and what kind of permissions to take,” for instance, are things no amount of environmental research could have taught them.

Learning it right

Though Krishnamurthy has a degree in hydrological engineering from UNESCO’s IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, he insists, “Field-based learning has given us much more clarity. Though on the surface, the issues may look the same for any lake that needs restoration, the local geographic, population, and encroachment and water usage patterns are always unique.”

Krishnamurthy gives a personal example. “I grew up in Mudichur. But I realised I didn’t know it at all when I began working on an EFI project there. There are seven ponds, two big lakes, and problems that you could understand globally: highway development projects cutting into lakes, changing population, waste segregation and management,” he says.

Yet, working at habitat restoration was a challenge. Despite the fact that the locality was badly hit in the 2015 floods, the flow of locals volunteering to improve things saw hardly any increase post the disaster. “Mudichur is our social laboratory where we are trying to learn, unlearn and evolve.” The broad targets for EFI now are, “Restoration of as many fresh water bodies as possible, and investing time and energy into public outreach,” not only in India, but also in Sri Lanka, which now hosts the outfit’s chapter.

“We have a nine-year plan ready for Sri Lanka, and have begun work in Kandy and Southeast Sri Lanka,” Krishnamurthy says, adding that they work with other NGOs and social outfits.

EFI also plans to work in Bhutan next year, but with a slightly different intention.

“Bhutan already has an in-built community conservation model. We want to learn from them, and see if they can teach us things that we can expand to Northeastern and South India,” he says.

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