Citizens’ participation in the governance of public assets such as waterbodies in the areas where they live is essential for their preservation. The recent restoration of Salem’s Mookeneri lake is a good example of this. By R. ILANGOVAN recently in Salem

IT was a stinking cesspool of raw domestic sewage and plastic waste. Even the resident and migratory birds such as herons, cormorants and Brahmini kites that had made it their nesting habitat for years had deserted it. Farming activities carried out in the vicinity had to be abandoned. The lake was dying. The once thriving 58-acre (one acre is 0.4 hectare) Mookeneri lake in Salem city in Tamil Nadu, located right at the foot of the Shevaroy hills in the Eastern Ghats, would have become extinct but for the timely intervention of the Salem Citizens’ Forum (SCF), a motley group of eco-sensitive citizens, which virtually pulled it back from the brink of death. The lake today is a sparkling spread of water. The Mookeneri lake is not the only victim of neglect in the city, which was once known for its lakes and tanks. According to the 2011 Census, Tamil Nadu is the most urbanised State in the country, with 48.45 per cent of its population living in cities and towns. This urbanisation brings with it the bane of pollution and encroachments and has left a significant number of waterbodies gasping for breath and dying, while many others have “vanished, leaving no trace”.

These dying and dead urban waterbodies prompted concerned citizens and forum members in Salem, a tier-II town, where one has to dig a bore well to an average depth of 800 feet (243 metres) to tap groundwater, to undertake the unenviable endeavour of resuscitating at least three of the city’s waterbodies, including the Mookeneri lake.

In fact, the SCF’s core team approached the then Collector, J. Chandrakumar, with a detailed “mission revival” report. He was pleasantly surprised with it as it was distinctly different from the traditional idea of “mere excavation” and contained a comprehensive scientific and technical package for the lake’s rehabilitation and for the formation of a bird sanctuary, all with citizens’ involvement. “Our proposal impressed him. He immediately asked the Water Resources Organisation [WRO], a wing of the Public Works Department [PWD], Government of Tamil Nadu, which maintains lakes and tanks, to find out the feasibility of handing it over to the forum for ‘adoption’,” says V. Piyush Manush of the SCF.

The WRO, in a letter dated April 30, 2010, recommended that the forum “adopt” the Mookeneri and Ismail Khan lakes, both located within the city, besides the Gundukkal lake, for eco-restoration. The adoption agreement allowed the SCF “to desilt, form mounds, plant saplings and also create bird sanctuaries”. “The Collector’s faith in us was amazing. We have not failed him,” says Meena Sethu, an educationist and an active forum member, proudly. The rehabilitated Mookeneri lake today stands testimony to her claims.

At the break of dawn on May 13, 2010, it was a “sight to behold” at the Mookeneri lake. The first basket of the silt obtained from the dying and dry bed of the lake, which incidentally was last full in 2002, was removed amid shouts of joy from an enthusiastic crowd of volunteers, students and the general public who spontaneously took part in the exercise of lake resurgence. The job involved the digging of 45 circular trenches in the lakebed, each a minimum of 5 m in depth and 5 m in diameter. The excavated silt was “redeployed” to erect six-metre-high, 25-metre-diameter mounds.

The mounds in the lake resemble the tiny islands of an archipelago. The trenches enabled the water to quickly percolate into the lakebed since the thick layer of the silt that was removed had acted as a plastic film and prevented percolation. Foremost, the mounds in the lake act as an effective deterrent against resident predators such as cats and stray dogs, a potential threat to nesting birds. Tree saplings were planted on the islets while bamboo, turf grass, elephant grass, etc., were planted on the slopes to aid soil retention. Medicinal plants were planted to keep the water quality pristine. “We are constructing an amphitheatre and a pathway on its bund for walkers and joggers,” says Meena Sethu. Since the trenches filled up with water while the restoration work was still under way, the services of a couple of coracles had to be summoned to get members of the team to the mounds so that they could plant saplings. “Trees have grown to 20 feet high and the birds also returned. The works were completed in November and the lake, by December, had started receiving water. It was ‘once-in-a-life-time joy’ when you saw the lake brimming with crystal clear water,” Anand Kumar, another member of the core team, says proudly.

The team’s work has not disturbed the rights of the small number of ayacutdars. The revived lake has also become a place of attraction for local people, who throng there during weekends. The SCF has taken up the restoration of the Ismail Khan lake. The success of the “Mookeneri model” has inspired many. The residents of Ammapet in Salem city approached the forum to help them rejuvenate the sprawling Kumaragiri lake in their locality. On March 28, 2012, the Salem Municipal Corporation passed a resolution permitting the people and the forum to “adopt” the lake. Coimbatore has also not hesitated to adopt the “Salem model”. The Residents Awareness Association of Coimbatore (RAAC), in association with Siruthuli, a pioneer voluntary organisation working in the field of conservation of waterbodies, has taken up the revival of the PWD’s 320-acre Ukkadam Big Tank.

The SCF members have had their share of frustrations and failures too. Bureaucratic inertia has been an irritating impediment to the restoration process. They could not complete the task at the Gundukkal lake in Theevattipatti village near Salem. “With the assistance of the local people, we were able to take up the restoration. But, unfortunately, the officials were reluctant to remove encroachments. The work remains unfinished today,” Piyush says. Encroachments and pollution, both domestic and industrial, play spoilsport with waterbodies. Activists, hence, urge the State to strictly enforce the provisions of various State and Central legislations to protect waterbodies. “We have lost 50 per cent of the waterbodies we had some two decades ago. Urban waterbodies like the ones in Salem are the main victims,” says Nitya Jacob of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based non-profitable organisation. “Unless encroachments are cleared from lakes and channels, waterbodies across the country can never be saved,” he says.

The Chennai-based activist Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth, a biodiversity research organisation, endorses these views. She and her team have identified 474 waterbodies in the greater Chennai area, including the Pallikaranai marsh, that are gasping for breath because of waste dumping. “We are trying to influence the government to include local citizens in the preservation of waterbodies at the policy level,” she says. Jayshree points out that many have been classified as wasteland in government records. “They should be redefined specially as waterbodies so that they can be saved from encroachments,” she says.

Piyush and his team say that it seems to be an eternal battle to keep the revived waterbodies safe from “human predators” such as polluters and encroachers, mainly the land mafia. One day, the entire Mookeneri lake was found polluted because of the immersion of idols made of plaster of Paris and toxic dye. “We could not see even a single bird. There was an eerie silence and the lake water resembled a cesspit. We were crestfallen and felt like crying,” says Piyush. Taking moral responsibility for this act of pollution, he “surrendered” before a Salem court on September 25, 2012. “I construed it as negligence on my part, which is an abetment to the crime [here pollution]. Hence, I chose to surrender,” he said in justification of his petition. The magistrate duly rejected it. However, the incident sent a strong message to those who polluted the lake.

“A square foot of land in the lake’s neighbourhood costs Rs.3,500. Anti-socials had even attempted to drain out its water. They want the lake to remain dead. We have been resisting them,” Meena Sethu says. “This is an extremely critical initiative. On the one hand, lakes are ecologically important for groundwater restoration and supporting diverse activities in urban areas, which have been ‘concretised’. On the other, the restoration process connects people to nature,’’ says the activist Kanchi Kohli of the Pune-based environmental group Kalpavriksh. Activists, she points out, are working for the revival of waterbodies in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune. It is high time that lakes got their space in the urban environment. Beyond citizens’ role, government agencies must also be involved in their revival and maintenance, she remarks.

“We have no external source of funding. Neither any outside agency nor the State has funded us [for the lake revival works]. We collect contributions from people and stakeholders. The contribution received from each donor is listed and updated in our website and each donor is sent a weekly mail regarding the progress with all the details of the resources raised and spent,” says Piyush. Citizens’ participation in the governance of public assets, such as waterbodies, in the areas where they live, activists say, is essential for their preservation.