It feels like a carnival at Ukkadam, home to the Periyakulam Lake. It is the final Sunday of volunteering, as the monsoons are expected any time now. School children are shrill with excitement, college students jump out of buses laughing and shouting out greetings; picnic umbrellas dot the area. The CRPF, the police and people from the Armed Forces work together in precision, as if performing a drill. Three hundred NCC cadets take up position. A large group of employees from a cement factory talk animatedly, while nearby, the entire team from a Tamil daily has shown up. “Instead of being only the observers who write about events, we unanimously decided to pitch in with volunteer work,” says one of them.
More cars and buses turn into the site, entire families on two-wheelers drive in. Several senior citizens take charge and direct people to the various areas from where they will begin digging. Bhanumati mami leans into a microphone and belts out a popular film song: Anne anne sippai anne; namba ooru nalla ooru, ippo romba kettu poche anne. The song is greeted with whistles, applause and requests for more songs. Mrs. Pandian, retired Botany teacher, sits on a bench taking down the names and contact details of those who have volunteered. Cousins S. Athmika and V.P. Shivani have been dragged out of bed on a Sunday morning by their grandfather. Someone from Krishnagiri offers to give a demo on how to bathe in one and a half litres of water.
Mud is shovelled into shallow metal and plastic basins (in blue, green and red) and passed from hand to hand. Snatches of IPL talk and loud instructions fill the air. Musicians join the fun. The murasu, melam and thapattam set the pace, and as they vary their pace, from slow to brisk, the tempo of work also increases. There is clapping and dancing. When they are not digging, people are taking pictures on their smart phones. Tempo travellers carrying tea, coffee, biscuits and buttermilk serve free food to the volunteers. Coimbatore’s famous Annapoorna has sponsored upma, khichdi and sweets for everyone.
Periyakulam used to be one of Coimbatore’s biggest lakes – spanning 320 acres, with a catchment area of 63 sq km — but it was gradually asphyxiated by water hyacinth, raw sewage and garbage till it became mere shimmers of water in a sprawling, muddy area, with orange specks interrupting the brown expanse. Last year, Siruthuli, the NGO dealing with water bodies in Coimbatore, took up the matter with the Government. The permit to work on the lake came through at the end of April and on May 1, the de-silting operations began under the direction of Coimbatore Corporation, Siruthuli, Residents Awareness Association of Coimbatore (RAAC) and the Vijayalakshmi Charitable Trust. Corporates have also pitched in. And the people of Coimbatore have showed up every Sunday to lend a hand.
In a little over a month the landscape has changed. Where there was once just garbage and undergrowth, there is now clean and scrub-free ground. Round-the-clock work has cleared the humongous mess and made way for bunds. Five Poclain earth movers swing, dip, scoop and dump vast quantities of soil from one place to another. More than 8000 volunteers pour onto the bed of the lake and imitate those actions. Forming a human chain, they bend, scoop, pass and throw pots filled with soil on to a growing mound that is part of a 20-ft wide, six-and-a-half kilometre long bund around the lake. Four islands have been painstakingly created at the centre of the dry lake. Saplings will be planted on them and along the bund. Seventy per cent of the work is complete.
“When I was a kid, I used to think Periyakulam was an ocean,” says 60-year-old A.R. Basheer Ahmed, who has always lived near the lake. “It was huge. Karuvelam trees grew in the middle of the lake and I remember the birds singing.” He and his friends played around the lake. Basheer is just one of the 700 others residents of Ukkadam who have come to help. “We want our lake to regain its lost beauty. At a time when divisive forces are at work, we need to join hands for more such causes,” he says. He hopes there will be a walking track created around the lake, just like old times.
Why do they do it? “I know machines can do the same job we are doing and more efficiently, but the personal satisfaction we get is unmatched,” says N. Thulasidas, vice-president of the Indian National Cement Worker’s Federation, who has come with a 52-strong team. “We came prepared for more than just two hours of work. When people come together for a cause such as this, it will definitely succeed. We hope we will soon be able to boat on this lake.”
Lalit Mahesh, who has just graduated from school, has come here with friends from Pollachi. He says, “People can do what earthmovers cannot. They can inspire. To see the work happening firsthand is very satisfying.” Lalit is well aware of the water situation in Tamil Nadu and the world. “Tamil Nadu faces an 11 per cent water deficit,” he says. “By 2045, that deficit will increase dramatically. Already, one person out of three in the world has no access to potable water.”
For 51-year-old B. Ganesh, the lake represents livelihood. It provided his daily catch for 18 years. But it became progressively difficult for him and his fellow fishermen to eke out a living. “The lake used to be so beautiful in the mornings when I set out with my friends for my daily catch. We used to enjoy drinking the fresh water that was available in plenty even a decade ago.” The fishermen have volunteered with clean-up efforts in the past, and they welcome this drive wholeheartedly as well.
M. Lukman, a fruit vendor, has spent all his life near the lake. “It teemed with birds, and the greenery and water made it look like something out of an English travel channel,” he says. He hopes this initiative will improve the plight of other wetlands as well, as the livelihood of several fishermen has been severely affected. “Plenty more needs to be done, but I have faith that the lake will be restored to its original glory.”
Many people share this belief. What is happening at Periyakulam is more than just physical shramdaan, or donation of labour, as R. Raveendran of RAAC says. “When the lake comes alive, we will know we had something to do with it. This ownership will ensure that we will never let it come to such a pass again.”
The Mookaneri Lake in Salem was dying from sewage and garbage. The Salem Citizens’ Forum, led by its convenor, environmentalist Piyush Manush, set about de-silting and cleaning the 58-acre lake. Excavators dug up the earth and 45 islands were created in the middle of the lake. Volunteers planted saplings and today, the islands are home to 12,000 trees. Volunteers came in every Sunday morning for seven months to help green the area. They sowed grass and strengthened the bunds using vetiver, elephant grass and bamboo. Work was completed in 2010. “Now, bird life has increased and the recharge of ground water is very high,” says Piyush. The group has since taken up work on three more water bodies in Salem — the 4.5-km-long inlet channel to the Ismail Khan Lake, the 80-acre Gundakal Lake on the Salem-Bangalore highway, and the 40-acre Ammapettai Lake.
(With inputs from Vaibhav Shastry)
First published in The Hindu, Sunday Magazine