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The Rediff Special/Shobha Warrier in Chennai
Small miracle, big hearts
December 26, 2005
Very few of us imbibe Mahatma Gandhi's words: 'We must become the change we want to see in the world.' Very few of us want to do more than criticise the state of affairs around us. Very few of us take up the initiative to change things. One Chennai neighbourhood is a glowing exception.
Their little miracle holds the promise that if more of us think and do like they do, big changes are easy.
In the 1970s, the dried up Parthasarathy temple tank, in Triplicane in Chennai, had become a cricket ground for children. It was symbolic of the city's water woes.
Now, the tank has more than five feet of water, thanks to the rainwater harvesting efforts of the neighbourhood. Just take a look at the pathetic condition of most temple tanks in the city and you will realise just how much effort has gone into the Parthasarathy tank's rebirth.
T J Ramani, a Triplicane resident, has vivid memories of the tank full of water in the early 1960s. He saw the water receding and disappearing over the years. As a 21-year-old, it pained Ramani to see the abandoned and pitiable temple tank.
"As an individual, how much can one do? I knew the answer to the problem was getting the youngsters of the area together," says Ramani. "Many of the elders in our area also urged youngsters like us to clean up the tank instead of wasting our time playing cricket."
Thus, in 1977, the Srinivas Young Men's Association was born.
"We didn't have any money or any sponsorship like we have today. But we were young, so we did all the cleaning work ourselves. Yes, the tank looked clean but there was no water," says Ramani, who is now the SYMA president.
The dedicated bunch of youngsters appealed for government help. But what really turned the tide was a sudden visit by the then Tamil Nadu chief minister, M G Ramachandran, in 1987.
He had come to attend a do at dancer Vyjayanthimala Bali's house. She, an old Triplicanite, drew his attention to the temple tank.
"I was told that as he [MGR] was going to Fort St George via Beach Road, he asked his chauffeur to drive by the tank in Triplicane. He came and saw the dry tank, and he ordered the concretising of some of the portions of the tank so that it would retain water," Ramani recollects.
SYMA soon discovered there were storm water drains from the temple to the tank, constructed centuries ago.
"We are talking about rainwater harvesting now but our forefathers had done the same thing years and years ago. But only water from the temple was diverted to the tank and not from anywhere else," Ramani says.
SYMA wanted to bring water from outside also to the temple tank, and sought the state government's and the Corporation of Chennai's permission.
The youngsters collected money from the residents and constructed more storm water drains. An expert brought in by SYMA identified two places where wells could be dug for water harvesting.
SYMA's little miracle got a pat on the back when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa started a temple tank development scheme recently. She selected ten tanks, and one of them was the Parthasarathy temple tank.
And when the officials found out about SYMA's good work, they asked the group of good samaritans to make a film to educate others about rainwater harvesting.
SYMA's CD, which sought to spread the serious message of rainwater harvesting through humour – featuring popular theatre personality S V Sekhar -- was released by the chief minister when she opened the Rain Centre in Chennai.
Another remarkable achievement for SYMA is the way they popularised rainwater harvesting among the residents of Triplicane; much before the Tamil Nadu state government made it compulsory.
H R Parthasarathy, a bore-well contractor and an SYMA committee member, volunteered to harvest rainwater for them, for free.
With water from each street going to the tank, and with all the residents harvesting rainwater, Ramani says the water table of the area has risen by 20 per cent.
"Every member [of SYMA] has taken up the motto of spreading the idea of rainwater harvesting. Our ultimate aim is to bring the water table to the highest possible level," says a proud Ramani.
Now, with a pathway lined by trees, the once abandoned tank has become a landmark of beauty.
To ensure the trees are cared for, SYMA came up with the idea of star trees. So, like the Hollywood Boulevard has sidewalk stars for legends, every Tamil star has a tree at the Partharasathy tank complex.
"We encourage all those who visit the tank to at least water their star trees and also plant their star tree in their own neighbourhood or anywhere in the street," Parthasarathy says.
But do the pressures of life in the 21st century give people enough time to care for their fellow human beings?
"We don't waste time," says Ramani. "The moment we are back from office, we dedicate ourselves to social work. Similarly, mornings are also dedicated to community work."
If only there were more SYMAs across the country.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
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