Mrs. Vanitha Mohan is the managing trustee of the famous NGO – Siruthuli and executive director of Pricol Limited, who has made immense contribution in environmental conservation and entrepreneurship. She has taken up various activities such as desilting of tanks, afforestation program, sewage and solid waste management. IMoT forum is much privileged to publish the interview of Mrs. Vanitha Mohan in ‘The Agraria‘ e-Magazine.
To start with, Siruthuli is doing a stupendous job in giving life to our neglected environment. What is your source of motivation for an Environmental NGO and is there any significant reason behind the title Siruthuli?
In Tamizh there is a saying “Siruthuli Peru vellam” meaning “small drops together can make an ocean”. That was the genesis behind the name Siruthuli and that’s how we wanted it to be – Siruthuli, small drops of effort, time, resources work to make a big ocean of prosperity for mankind. It is just that somewhere along the line we lost those small drops when each one started moving unconsciously towards a very selfish kind of existence which is why we see so much of environmental degradation happening all around us. we will not be there without nature’s grace. But if we are not there, nature will prosper very well. In the early 2000’s, year after year the monsoon failed and in 2003 the situation turned very bad. There was no water in the Siruvani reservoir. There was no water even in the bore wells. Most of them have gone dry and it was a panic situation.So, it was a question of do or die. So, that’s when we said let’s do something.Instead of just talking about it, let’s plunge into action in whatever way it is possible, let us do something. So, that’s how the whole thing started.
The dawn of every civilization occurs is a mother river. In that way, Noyyal is the Mother of our Coimbatore. How do you see the present condition of Noyyal? Whom do you think is responsible for the encroachment of Noyyal?
It is not just encroachment, it is a whole lot of things which have contributed to the degradation of the river. We have the Western ghats bordering the Western part of the city, which is literally like a horse shoe enveloping the Coimbatore region. So with the average annual rainfall of more than 2000 mm falling in the western ghats, naturally the water has to find its way into the river in the plains. That is how the river Noyyal originated in the catchment area of the western ghats.
Over a period of time the forests slowly disappeared due to man made reasons. There are about 22 streams originating from the southern part of the river and 12 streams originating from the northern part of the river, All of which would empty their water into the river Noyyal. That’s why Noyyal was a perennial river. Over a period of time all these streams were encroached for cultivation because the streams change their course as water exerts pressure along its path. When the river changed its course the farmers started encroaching into the streams and they started cultivating. So, over a period of time the streams started disappearing. So, there was no way water could find its way to the river.
Then the river is also silted up and when the water comes trembling down it just goes off in a jiffy without standing anywhere. There is a mantra for water management – wherever water runs, make it walk; wherever it walks, allow it to stand and where it stands allow it sit in the lap of Mother Earth. When it comes trembling down the hills, it comes at a great speed. So, what you do is build small structures, not check dams just some like speed breakers. In water management language it is called the gabion structures – little check dams. If you arrest the speed of water and then you make it walk instead of just flying past so that more water seeps into the ground and then walks into water bodies like lakes and ponds. Coimbatore used to have a lot of little ponds, lakes and so on is very famous for it.
Now all these water bodies also got silted up due to lack of maintenance. So,what happens is there is no space to the water to find its way and stand.So, whenever it comes it just floods the whole place and its gone. So, what happened was there is no way to store the water and then people started mining sand from the river. Now, sand is the most important thing for a river.It is like the heart, the river will die if there is no sand. Rampant sand mining has also been the main reason for the river’s functioning.
So, these are all the reasons and I think it is totally manmade. Today we have water scarcity and people standing in queue to get water. This situation has been created by us. Let us not blame the government, we are the people who are at the field level watching all these happening. Is it not our responsibility to take the ownership of Noyyal and do whatever we can??? So, we have to rally around to make a difference if we want to have water.
This summer is indeed special for Coimbatore because of the summer rains. Is there any measures taken by Siruthuli in harvesting the rainwater and if yes give us a glimpse about that?
Wherever we have harvested, the rainwater has come and filled up and we have created about 650 rainwater harvesting structures in public places. All of that have been in water logging places. But what Coimbatore can actually implement is more than 3000 rainwater harvesting structures especially in key areas which are getting water logged such as Kikani underpass, Avinashi road, Trichy road and so many. In all these areas we need to address the issues and ensure that there is no overflow or flooding.
Restoring and rejuvenating water bodies, recharging the groundwater table may sound simple. But what are the practical difficulties in achieving them?
One is the high cost. It costs a lot of money when you need to have large earth moving equipments, JCB’s, tractors, poclains and not everybody has the resources to go and take up something like that. Like if you take up one water body it is going to cost you probably 25 lakhs or more – it’s a lot of money and there is no support. This is ideally what the government should be doing. So, that is our challenge. The second biggest challenge is the encroachments where people have been allowed to put up huts and little houses in the tank bed area which shrinks the area that is available for the water to be stored.Third challenge is now a lot of these water bodies are being used as sewage water tanks for the city sewage to flow into. Also they are being used as garbage dumps but I would say that has stopped. Now, people dump garbage not inside the water bodies but along the bunds. It is not fair, over a period of time, wastes will find their way into the water body and pollute it.
Speaking of waste, it is an underutilized resource. Profit out of waste is still an underdeveloped sector. How has Siruthuli managed to recycle and reuse solid waste?
It is not at all possible to manage 800 tonnes of garbage generated by the corporation. But still we are trying to create awareness among people to treat wastes at home so that we don’t bring anything to the street or the garbage yard. If we look at the Vellalore garbage yard, it is not fair what is happening to the people in and around that yard. I want my house to be garbage free, but that doesn’t mean that I can go and dump into someone else’s neighbourhood. There is so much of garbage piled up over there for so many years that there are a lot of chemicals leaching into groundwater. So there is a tremendous amount of groundwater pollution happening in that particular area. We have to create zero garbage homes where the garbage is segregated into biodegradable and non-degradable and in the non degradable section, we should try to reduce the plastics as much as possible.
In my home, we don’t allow any plastic bags. When going to the shops, we will take a bag from home. Even if I forget the bag, I will carry it individually in my hands but will not take a plastic bag. Unless we enforce that discipline, garbage will find its way to water channels to clog them. And when there is rain, it will not find its way into the water body resulting in flooding. If the government has to manage the wastes, they have to put a lot of focused efforts. There are cities in India, which are managing the garbage very well. It is just that, we need to prioritise, what is important for a city.
Water and pollution free environment are primarily important, so if we are not going to manage the garbage well, it is going to pollute the environment, if we are not going to manage the rain water well, it is not going to provide enough water for the population which is increasing day by day. Just rain water harvesting within the city will give us so much of water. In the previous tenure of our late CM Madam. Jayalalitha, she made rain water harvesting compulsory. When it was made mandatory definitely things started improving as every house harvested rainwater preventing large yields of water flowing out of homes to flooding the roads. But once it is not addressed, have a look at the Chennai floods which is the prime example of water mismanagement. All that water could have been saved. Chennai has lot more water bodies than what we have in Coimbatore. But it was mismanaged so badly that it not only caused a lot of damage to man and material but also most of them went into the sea and today they are complaints on water shortage. Tanks are available everywhere. Now it is a question of prioritising what we want in life.
Establishing green cover is a productive idea but it is not being completely accomplished due to the lack of maintenance of planted saplings. What are the measures taken by Siruthuli in maintaining and protecting the green cover?
It is very difficult to maintain a lot of trees by watering it day to day. One is the cost, second thing is we need a lot of people and definitely we don’t have so many people to go around watering trees all over the city. Now, what we have decided is wherever we plant these trees, we install the drip irrigation. For the drip, we ensure that there is a borewell or any water source somewhere to which the drip lines are connected and the drip line waters the trees. Once it is done for three years, the drip lines can be removed and installed somewhere else. Because, watering is very crucial and after sometimes the trees will create their own moisture in the soil.
Can you give your insights on “Miyawaki” method of forestry? How much of it can we see in the future? Is there any significant challenge or disadvantage with this method?
Miyawaki today becomes relevant because the space that is available for planting trees is reducing very rapidly within the urban scenario and what is also important is that we have a variety of trees. Now, if I have a home in about 10 cents of land, I can probably plant about one tree if going by the regular conservative method. Suppose I have the Miyawaki method which is originally from Japan formulated by Akira Miyawaki. He said each tree has different environmental impact. Each tree has a different way of contributing to the atmosphere. Now, if all those trees are put together very closely, we shall reap the benefits.
Within an urban scenario we see houses literally next to each other. There is hardly any gap between houses and office buildings. For instance in Coimbatore alone there are about 400 reserved sites, Starting anything from about 20-25 cents to about 5 acres. Now, if you are able to create lung spaces in all those reserved sites, that will become an oxygen factory for that locality where people can go and breathe fresh air. we are cutting down huge number of trees to make way for the buildings and expansion of road network in the city. Now what are we going to do without trees. It is like we put ourselves in a room with all the windows and doors shut. Just visualise Coimbatore, where is the oxygen going to come from, do we have any oxygen making machines which is pumping out the oxygen for the people to breathe? No,these trees are the ones which is removing the pollution from the atmosphere and is providing valuable oxygen for the people to breathe.
Now, why is the whole place getting hotter by the day? It is because we don’t have trees and water in the water bodies. When there’s water standing in the water bodies, it adds lots of moisture to the air. That is why Coimbatore with completely filled water bodies had a salubrious climate for a good part of the year in the past. Now, when there is no water standing anywhere, we don’t have trees anywhere, then how do we expect moisture to be in the air.
So,Miyawaki is the method where we plant trees very close to each other and it becomes an urban forest. For instance, if you could stand next to the Miyawaki forests that we have created in various parts of the city, it is like standing next to an AC room. we call it urban oxygen parlours where we can significantly see the change in temperature. So, that is how important trees are, especially in an urban scenario. So, we are trying to create urban forest inside the city wherever possible. As these are planted very close to each other, the trees don’t grow big, but the desired green biomass will be available. We choose only the native trees for planting under Miyawaki method.
In every activities of Siruthuli, you would have come across people from different walks of life. How much are they aware about our current environmental scenario? And how supportive were they for your activities?
They are very supportive. From the beginning, consciously we started creating lots of awareness. Parallel to our activities we focused a lot on creating awareness in schools, colleges, residential localities, institutions and among the farmers. So, we constantly engaged them. As we engaged with them, there is a fair amount of awareness which accounts about 10-15% which still has a very long way to go. Because, literally we have to get green in our mind. Only if we get green in our mind on a constant basis, we will be able to save every drop that falls in our lap, protect every tree that we see in front of your eyes from being cut or plant every vacant area that we see with a tree. A behavioral change has to induced if we want to go back to the days of eco prosperity.
How far is Siruthuli from achieving its objectives?
Many more to go. It is like I just started the journey to the moon. Environmental protection is a continuous process in which every he or she has the responsibility. So, it is an ongoing project. Maybe if you ask me will you be able to recover the river, Yes,if we consciously do whatever we are doing now constantly, whatever we are planning, probably in the next ten years we will be able to see some success. But that depends on the government. It is not something what a few hand full of citizens can accomplish as there are so many governmental functions which are involved in that. So, it is not something that we can do tomorrow. Protecting environment, ensuring that we have a clean and green Covai which is our motto, is a life long project which will continue as long as there is life in Coimbatore. It has to be done on a daily basis.
In this more than a decade long journey, what is your major learning?
Major Learning is if you go against nature, you will pay a big price for that. So when you learn to live with nature in peace, nature will give you all that you required to live. Our learning is that, “Wherever we have worked to protect and preserve nature, it has helped us”!
As interviewed by D. Manivannan & R. Harini Shri of Third Year B.Tech. Energy & Environmental Engineering, TNAU.
Photos : Siruthuli NGO Facebook page.