Situated around 25 km from Chennai, Chitlapakkam is a small town with a population of around 60,000 people. What set the residents of this town apart are their efforts to improve their community by working together, solving civic issues from waste disposal to even reviving a huge lake in their neighbourhood.
Formed in 2013, by three residents in the area, ‘Chitlapakkam Rising’ is a citizens’ volunteer group that was conceptualised as an effort to clean the neighbourhood. Sunil Jayaram, Udaya Utthandi and Ezhildasan connected through Facebook to co-found this volunteer organisation to improve their neighbourhood.
The Chitlapakkam Rising was an initiative that started with the motive to find solutions for basic civic issues like waste disposal. “There was a Facebook group run by Udaya Utthandi and Ezhildasan for Chitlapakkam. Three of us connected through the group and decided to use the platform for our social activities. The FB page was then renamed, Chitlapakkam Rising. Now ours is a very active volunteer organisation with around 6,000 volunteers,” Sunil Jayaram tells The Better India.
He adds, “We started with cleaning our streets, removing the garbage in our area thereby motivating the residents to keep the neighbourhood clean. We slowly expanded our activities by painting the walls of a nearby railway station after removing all the posters and creating awareness through the artwork. Gradually, we saw more people participating in the initiative and that’s how it all began.”
After three to four events, the community saw wider participation of residents from Chitlapakkam and even beyond. “So, we registered Chiltapakkam Rising as a charitable trust and decided to continue our activities. As we continued doing several social activities, our work eventually caught the attention of the media and we started getting more recognition,” he adds.
Other than their initiatives, Chitlapakkam Rising works hand-in-hand with the government, the local governing bodies like panchayat and also supervises their activities in their neighbourhood.
‘Save Chitlapakkam lake’
In 2015, during the Chennai floods, Chitlapakkam was one of the areas that were severely affected. It was a turning point for the volunteering group when they realised the need for shifting their focus towards strong citizen activism.
“The Chitlapakkam lake was neglected for several years and it was one of the root causes for the floods. The lake was left without desilting, deepening and proper inlet for water for several years,” says Udaya Utthandi, co-founder of Chitlapakkam rising.
He further explains, “The condition of the lake was miserable, it was filled with garbage and sewage. So, in 2015, we started the ‘Save Chitlapakkam lake’ awareness movement. We did a series of awareness programmes and even filed a PIL (public interest litigation) in the Madras High Court.”
The battle to revive the Chitlapakkam lake went on for years. Sunil says, “The government delayed the cleaning work. So, in 2019, we took up the initiative to clean the lake and around 1,200 volunteers came forward for the task. That effort caught the government’s attention and they soon sanctioned Rs 25 crore for cleaning the lake,” he says with pride.
“The reviving of the lake is still a work in progress,” adds Udaya. “The pandemic did delay the work but we can say that almost 60 per cent of the lake has been cleaned. A walkway has also been set up around the lake.”
Sunil says, “Accepting our request, the government has also built two artificial islands in the lake which we are planning to green in future. The restoration process of the lake is almost done and we are waiting for the handover.”
Painting the Town ‘Green’
Other than cleaning the lake, this volunteer group has also been working relentlessly to green their area by planting tree saplings across the town, especially on roadsides. They also had adopted the Miyawaki model of planting trees.
Sunil says, “In 2019, we decided to green this region and plant over 1,500 trees across the town. Around 500 trees were planted by adopting the Miyawaki method of afforestation, 100 were planted in a small park in Chitlapakkam and the rest in the compound of the central warehouse in Chitlapakkam. We still water them and make sure that they survive.”
The group planted several native varieties of trees like Naaval (Malabar plum), pungai (Indian beech), poovarasu (Indian tulip), vembu (neem), sarakondrai (golden rain tree), vengai (Indian kino), malai vembu (Malabar neem), teak etc. in Miyawaki model.
“As a volunteering group, we spent around 1 to 2 hours every week for our green activities. Mostly on Saturdays, a few of us go around the town and plant trees in the available spaces near roads by keeping a tree guard,” adds Sunil.
A Gardening Community
During the pandemic, the citizens’ group had to deal with the issue of waste management. Jai Kumar, a resident of Chitlapakkam and a volunteer in the citizen group came up with the idea of encouraging the residents to do terrace gardening.
“Waste management has always been an issue in Chitlapakkam and therefore we used to create awareness among the residents to dispose of waste responsibly,” he says.
During the pandemic, the residents were encouraged to practise source segregation, says Jai who also was looking for a practical solution for managing the wet waste as well. “That’s how we started the terrace gardening promoting activities in the area and encouraged the residents to start terrace gardens and to nurture them with the compost made out of the wet waste.”
Soon, a WhatsApp group was created to form a network of terrace gardeners in the area. He says, “There were around 30 houses who were already into terrace gardening. So, we formed a group for them on WhatsApp and encouraged the rest to take up gardening. Now the group has over 120 members who have taken up terrace gardening in the area.”
Jai further explains, “The group members post pictures and videos thereby encouraging each other. Also, we stick to a policy of not buying seeds or saplings from outside and promote only sharing or exchanging of seeds among the members. For this, we organise meet-ups once in a while.”
Talking about plans, Sunil says, “There are a lot of unresolved issues in Chitlapakkam but we believe that with our efforts we could find solutions for everything. Now we are trying to set up a model school here.”
“Also,” he continues, “it’s good to know that several such initiatives are mushrooming across the city. I wish they also stay strong and work relentlessly towards the betterment of their community.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)