India’s burgeoning economy is putting pressure on its natural resources. Arun Krishnamurthy is determined to restore the health of an important lake, rallying a community to help him create an oasis of beauty and respite.
Why does a bright, young Indian give up a very promising career with Google for life as an environmentalist? “Quitting Google in 2010 was a tough decision,” says Arun Krishnamurthy. “They were wonderful employers. But I felt I was slipping into a comfort zone.
“A full-time job left me little free time to follow my true passion,” says the 25-year-old, who won a Rolex Young Laureate Award in 2012 for his project to restore Lake Kilkattalai, a 1.5 km2 stretch of polluted water at the edge of the city of Chennai in southern India.
This quiet, young man, whose CV is dotted with impressive community-participation projects in conservation and environmental education, does not readily talk about himself. But one way to get him started is to ask him about his most prized possession, a diary he has kept since he was in fourth grade. The diary became truly precious when his mentor, British primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, wrote a few words in it during a visit to India.
“Can you believe it? Dr Jane Goodall, the world’s best-known expert on chimpanzees, wrote in my diary,” says Krishnamurthy. Goodall inspired him, a microbiology major, to become a full-time environmentalist.
First he ran Roots & Shoots India, under Goodall’s Roots & Shoots network, which assists young people to identify and fix problems in their communities. Then, in 2011, he founded his own NGO in Chennai, calling it the Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI). Active in three Indian cities, one of EFI’s most exciting programmes is the Lake Biodiversity Restoration project, which has so far cleaned up 12 lakes across India.
Krishnamurthy’s project to restore Lake Kilkattalai has several phases: first, the natural habitat and pollutants are mapped; garbage is cleared; silt is removed and the lake’s periphery strengthened; the last phase involves reintroduction of native aquatic species and plants.
Krishnamurthy says his Rolex Award has been a huge morale-booster. “Since then, we have organized two clean-ups of Lake Kilkattalai. We have removed a lot of garbage, cleaning the southern and eastern ends of the lake. Polythene, thermocol [plastic] and industrial waste that were dumped into the lake over the years have been taken out.”
The lake is also being encroached on all sides, EFI has sought permission from the Tamil Nadu state government to adopt and restore the lake completely. An initial strengthening of the lake’s embankments has been carried out through the government’s Public Works Department and five more clean-ups are taking place to remove the remaining garbage. “After that, based on permission from the Public Works Department, we plan to lay protective fencing,” says Krishnamurthy.
The clean-up team consists of around 900 volunteers, recruited through school programmes and street theatre for practical conservation work. Most of them are aged under 20 and have received training from Krishnamurthy.
“The lake, which feeds the Pallikaranai wetland, is home to several species of birds and pond turtles. It is being choked,” says Krishnamurthy. “If it continues this way, 20 years down the line, this lake could become a forgotten story. I am determined not to let that happen.”
Scarce water supplies
Krishnamurthy is taking his campaign to schools and communities. “Most people involved in our Kilkattalai lake project are seasoned volunteers of EFI. However, with our extensive awareness campaigns, slowly people from local neighbourhoods have started showing interest. One of the proposed interventions in the coming months is to interest people in becoming a ‘Lake Guardian’, as we are trying to get people living around the lake to become more protective of it.”
EFI has already contacted 600 families in four apartment complexes and more will be reached in the coming months.
The battle to restore and protect Lake Kilkattalai is emblematic of the challenges faced by environmentalists in this emerging economic power. The depletion of lakes is affecting urban India’s ability to replenish scarce water supplies. The dumping of garbage and dangerous effluent into water bodies has also turned them into potential health hazards.
Krishnamurthy believes partnering with the corporate sector can help him achieve his environmental objectives. How does he plan to get them interested? “As part of their corporate social responsibility, companies sponsor marathons, rallies and so on. Many of their employees are eager to do something, but are clueless where to go. If companies can come forward to fund part of these lake restorations, including fencing and de-silting, they can send volunteers for clean-ups. Then it will be a holistic social development with everyone playing a role in conservation.”
Krishnamurthy became interested in restoring lakes while working for Google in Hyderabad. “The first lake we cleaned, Gurunadham Cheruvu, was in Hyderabad, in May 2008. The second one was Lakshmi Pushkaram in Chennai in 2009,” he explains.
Krishnamurthy also finds the time to run a communications company that takes care of his day-to-day expenses. The firm advises enterprises on how to invest in social and environmental campaigns to improve their public image. The work blends smoothly with his passion – EFI. “I work 14 to 16 hours a day. I am not exaggerating. That is how my life has been since 2010. Everyone at EFI is a volunteer, including me. Half of what I earn goes towards my NGO,” he says.
Would he have it any other way? The answer is a resounding “no”. “My business is designed to support my NGO. All that I think and do is related to EFI,” he adds.
Krishnamurthy’s brand of environmentalism seems to work. “Until now we haven’t hit a roadblock where we haven’t had sufficient funds,” he says.
Published in 2013