“A thick sewage soup”: Kumaran Mahalingam’s description of the Muttukadu lake is as graphic as it is eye-opening. It’s what he remembers of his standup paddle expedition at the lake, back in 2015. “We could barely continue paddling for five to six kilometres towards the city. I’m sure if we do it today, it will be even less,” he recalls.
The Muttukadu lake expedition was congruent with the 50 other that he had taken up around India during that time — from Leh, to the Ganges and Cauvery. This discovery, of diminishing water bodies and the extent of pollution in the ones left, was horrifyingly consistent. And so in 2016, he started Paddle for Future, an organisation that teaches water sports such as kayaking, paddling, and canoeing, and channels the funds collected from those towards conservation of the very lakes they practise on.
Kumaran started learning stand up paddling in 2014 at the Bay of Life in Kovalam. “The day I started, the ocean had been very choppy. So we moved to flat water, at a granite quarry which had collected rainwater. I took to it immediately,” he says. Since then he started looking for water bodies in and around Chennai where he could practise paddling, and was disappointed on learning the extent to which the real estate boom of this decade had tarnished lakes.
However, through Paddle for Future, Kumaran has gotten in touch with over 3,000 people, most of them willing to join him in his efforts to clean up lakes. “We have around 30 people for each session. And these sessions are conducted in two batches,” he explains. “So while one batch is practising, we encourage the other to help out volunteers with the clean up and planting vegetation.” He finds that volunteering comes with lower hesitancy when it is combined with water sports.
“At the core of Paddle for Future, we are trying to reconnect people with water bodies through sports,” says Kumaran. “Paddling communities and the fisher folk, depend on lakes, but the rest of the people are very detached from them.” With this level of neglect, lakes become dumping yards. “Even if there are clean-ups, the garbage removed finds its way back to the lakes eventually,” he adds.
All this can be changed by the simple act of people regularly going to these lakes. “When you go inside the water, paddle, canoe, you begin to feel a sense of ownership, and cohabitation,” he says. Kumaran has been organising paddling events in lakes near Medavakkam, Pallikaranai, and Melakottaiyur. “I found that eventually, looking at our efforts, the locals also came around to the idea of taking responsibility for these lakes.”
A geologist by profession, Kumaran divides his life between Gurugram, where he works, and his hometown Chennai. “I spend three continuous weeks working there, and three off weeks here,” he explains. The same passion for Nature that led him to starting Paddle for Future, prompted him to take up a job in the field of geology. Kumaran also gives talks in schools on geology, and hopes to inspire children through them.
“Even Paddle for Future is as much about education and research as it is about sports,” says Kumaran. He encourages students to treat the expeditions as outdoor classrooms, and learn more about microhabitats, calculate the level of pollution through basic tests, as well as understand the origin of the waste they collect. “I want children to look at all the plastic, trace their journey, and go back home as more conscientious consumers,” he says.
Through his ‘Kuppai 2 Kappal’ project, he encourages children to tinker around with the plastic waste they have collected. “We created a paddle board out of all the plastic bottles we found during our clean-up, and PVC pipes. A normal paddle board costs ₹40,000, this one cost ₹2,000,” he says. He also wants to train students in kayaking and standup paddling so that they can take up these sports professionally when they grow older.
Until now, Kumaran has only held events in suburban lakes, and wishes to start doing so in the lake in Perungudi and Chetpet too. “It is tough getting permission from the Government to paddle inside lakes, there’s a lot of paperwork involved,” he says, adding that he would like to make a plea, “The Chennai Smart City is generating a lot of funds for the improvement of this place. It would be great if water sports could be included in it, as a part of lake conservation. Plus, it will help create a lot of local employment opportunities.”
To get in touch with Kumaran, call 9971091541.