He has an air of spirituality and wisdom that is beyond his 29 years. As he sits in his office and tells me about the journey of Environment Foundation of India, I cannot but help wonder what I was doing with my life when I was his age. Nothing important comes to mind. And here I am, face to face with this young man, who has already helped save and restore over 39 lakes and 54 ponds in the country!
Arun Krishnamurthy is one of the world’s youngest awardees of the Rolex Award for Enterprise. The award recognised his contribution to the restoration of Chennai’s Kilkattalai lake, which is one of the main feeders to the Pallikaranai marsh.
In his mind, Arun considers it a greater achievement that as an eighth grader, he was able to convince the President of Mudichur panchayat, to put up a fence around a pond that he believed was under threat of encroachment.
Arun had noticed that a fairly large lake, which everyone believed was under the watch of the IAF, disappeared slowly but surely, thanks to relentless encroachments and the Highways department. He decided that he had to do something about the pond near his house, where he and his friends would jump in playfully and bring out any garbage or flotsam that they found in the water.
He approached the President of the Panchayat, Mr Damodaran, to put up a fence around the pond. Not only did he agree to that request, but he also asked the boy and his friends to point out other water bodies where they believed action was required to be taken. Thus began Arun’s abiding journey with scientific conservation of water bodies.
The fire was lit, but what about the fuel?
Arun says the school and college he attended imbued in him a great love of nature, and he was fortunate to work under a mentor who put him in touch with Dr Jane Goodall, the great conservationist. (Arun is also a recipient of the Jane Goodall award for young leaders in conservation). And he learnt a lot about respecting and living in harmony in Nature from each one of them.
When he went to work at Google in Hyderabad, he found himself reporting to a person who appreciated his cause and commitment, and gave him a free hand as long as he met his work commitments. So Arun began visiting schools and colleges to impress upon students the need for environment conservation, and to enlist volunteers for cleaning some of the lakes in Hyderabad.
In May 2008, he embarked upon the first clean up – of Gurunadham Cheruvu. Over 60 volunteers showed up through word of mouth; the corporation sent garbage trucks, the Commissioner came himself, and with eight weeks of systematic cleaning they made a big difference to Gurunadham Cheruvu. They had spent a grand total of only Rs 1600 on supplies. A movement was born!
Arun began dividing his time between Hyderabad and his home, Chennai. As word of his work spread and more people started to come in, Arun quit Google in 2010 to work fulltime on environment conservation. Environment Foundation of India, EFI, was thus formed in 2011, to take forward the activity of scientific lake restoration, which includes garbage clearing, desilting, bund strengthening, study of native flora and fauna, etc.
Over the last eight years, Arun and his band of volunteers have worked tirelessly, one weekend after the other, to restore Keelkattalai, Arasankazhani, Perungalathur, Mudichur and several other lakes in and around Chennai to their pristine state. Their weekend activities now go far beyond just cleaning and include tree plantation, wall painting, waste management education, herbs restoration, sparrow reintroduction, and many many more!
All their activities are low cost, and Arun keeps it simpler by not accepting any donations in cash. Supporters are welcome to fund the purchase of equipment such as rakes, gloves etc. As for Arun, he supports his minimal staff and family through his media company and his day job as a teacher at a school in Chennai.
Who are EFI’s nature-loving volunteers?
Arun believes that students make the best volunteers (though older people are welcome!) Not only do they bring their best attitude to the work, but they also question the status quo, tackle problems head on and come up with solutions. “Between 2008 and 2011, as a 24 year old, I led a band of 10 to 16 year olds in lake cleaning, and while no one took us seriously at first, we kept working and kept cleaning lakes. Students made posters and videos for increasing awareness, enacted street plays to bring home the message to lesser educated people in the community. Their enthusiasm and concern is very real,” he says.
Arun shares some interesting insights about students as volunteers. Of the thousands who have showed up at EFI clean ups in the last five years, 25-30 percent come back for more than one weekend. 18 to 30 year olds make up 60 percent of the volunteers who sign up for the weekend cleanups. In all these years of working with them, Arun has spotted a few trends too! Boys like to sign up for cleaning, while girls like to come for green drives and tree plantation. Girls typically start to volunteer in school, boys only think about it when they get to college.
Arun also sets great store by local administrative officials and his firm belief is that we must all work with the government, and not at cross purposes or independently. He believes he has developed great working equations with several people in the administration because he is willing to listen to what they have to say, and work with them. This, he says, is your and my way of participating in a democracy – by strengthening the hands of the government where they are doing good work.
Arun also exhorts citizens to be the eyes and ears of the government when it comes to environment conservation. Recently, citizens of Adambakkam sent letters and pictures to EFI, of an encroachment along the far edges of Adambakkam lake in southwestern parts of Chennai. EFI immediately contacted the local administration and the encroachment was removed post haste.
Being everywhere at once
EFI’s activities have now spread to Trivandrum, Coimbatore, Delhi, Shillong and Srinagar! Young people all over India are recognising the value of lakes and water bodies and reaching out to EFI for help. Arun travels to each of these places to do the initial study. He is also the chief motivator and empowers the volunteers for the activity. But he remains a Chennai boy at heart. He believes this city is a magical place, with four rivers (Kosasthalaiyar is actually a confluence of two rivers, he tells me), the beautiful coastline, hills just beyond the periphery – everything one could ask for!
The day I met him, he said he had been walking by the beach near the Ashtalakshmi temple in Besant Nagar, and he saw a pod of dolphins in the distance! All you have to do is learn to see with open eyes and mind, learn to appreciate the gifts, and learn to give back more than you take.
For more on Arun and EFI, check out:
EFI volunteer app on Android store