January 26, 2010

Pondicherry beach…doesn’t exist. In the general sense of the word.

You have the pavement and then you have a small wall of rocks and then- splash! Waves crashing against them and sending up a delightful spray onto your face.  Or you falling off the rocks and into the sea. Either way.

The Pondy sea-front is stunning. Not just beautiful- but so calm and serene. Even when there’s a rock concert on, like this weekend.  Of course there are crowds. Of course there are people selling things. But you don’t feel like you’re in a mad rush of humanity as you often do in Madras on the weekends.

Almost no vehicles, no speeding maniacs, no random screaming and hooting- and surprisingly small amounts of litter. (As far as I could see and memory guided me). All of this is made easy of course by Pondy’s size and by more than half, if not all, the sea-front being owned by the Ashram.

Here you have an ‘organisation’ that believes in simplicity, cleanliness, beauty and quiet. And they own your sea-front. What more could you want? Alas! That Madras belongs to the people.
Or is that what we’re going to change?



Turtle Walks

January 16, 2010

So after much procrastination on my part I finally got down to writing a blog post!

Its 12 o’clock in the night and Neelankarai beach is eerily quiet.

The beach is so much more alive and happy at this time of the day, and its actually cold! Plastic bags flutter around in the breeze, leftover by the crowd that was probably here.

Anyway before I begin to ramble…Its turtle walking season again!

Hopefully some of you have been on a turtle walk. For those of you who haven’t, you’ve definitely missed out on something! 6 kilometres of walking on the cool wet sand and searching for turtle nests and hatchlings, a wildlife lovers paradise! I’ve always wanted to visit Gahirmatha in Orissa and watch the Arribada.

For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s when turtles mass nest on the beach! And by mass nesting I don’t mean a few, but hundreds and hundreds of turtles converging on the beach at the same time! Chennai has its own nesting sites all along its coast for the Olive Ridleys. We do get an occasional Green turtle too.

Sadly this year there have been numerous dead turtles washed up on the beaches. We even found a sperm whale last week!   Trawling and gill nets drown the unsuspecting creatures and wash them onto the shore. Hatchlings die of dehydration as soon as they are born because of the lights on the beaches that distract them from their goal – the sea.

What is the cause for all of this?  Who is responsible? It’s us! Every year they put up more lights on the beach for ‘safety’. More trawlers are sent out to the sea to fish, and more people come to the beaches and litter.

There is a solution to this just like most other problems : If you live near the sea switch off your lights from 12 to early morning during turtle nesting season (which is from January to April)! Clean up after you have fun at the beach! And don’t forget to use those trash cans! Only then will you be awe struck like I usually am when I go on a turtle walk or visit the hatchery.

Nothing beats watching turtle hatchlings emerge from their nests. They truly are magnificent creatures.

Anjana, ROB


January 11, 2010

People complain about the state of our country a lot. People also complain about the state of our city a lot. People definitely complain about the state of their street a lot. and people love complaining that their fridge is too loud, and their neighbours are too cold.

People tend to complain a lot, apparently.

This isn’t a bad thing, and I’m definitely not saying it is. It isn’t a great thing, either. It sort of shows that people care about where they live, and how they live in it. But there’s a distinct disconnect between what people are saying, and what people are doing.

There seems to be a general feeling of ‘Arrey yaar… let him take care of it, no? Why me?’ going around town. This isn’t very new. I believe the scientific term for this feeling is called ‘laziness’. Laziness is a dangerous thing, these scientists say. They say it’s very contagious, and to make sure to wash thoroughly once in contact with it. There’s no easy cure for it. Once the bug is caught, it’s extremely hard to get rid of.

What we’re trying to do at ROB, is make people understand that it isn’t someone else’s problem. It is, in fact, our problem. Laziness isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. It’s going to effectively doom us all to hell, but apart from that, it achieves near nothing.

Why is it our problem? ‘Cause if there’s a problem around where we live, then it should be our problem. Firstly, because it’s where we live. If we aren’t going to care about that, there isn’t much else to care about, and secondly, because there’s a chance we’re contributing to that problem.

Let’s take our (meaning ROB’s) favourite example, of the beach. Specifically, Besant Nagar beach.

There’s a lot of garbage down at besant nagar beach. A lot of it also doesn’t belong there. If you see a ‘surf excel’ packet there, it isn’t likely that people wash clothes there. Someone’s obviously dumped something in the Adyar estuary, which carried down stream, and washed up on the shore.

A solution to this problem? Generate less garbage.

How does one generate less garbage? Instead of buying new pens, buy new refills. Better yet, use a fountain pen and ink. Don’t buy as much packaged items. You might think you really need that packet of Lays right now, but you probably don’t.

It’s quite simple, but we seem to be waiting for some sign from the gods that it’s okay to not pollute.

It just takes some getting-off-our-backsides. Not a lot of it, just a little.

Krishna, ROB

Star of the Sea

January 9, 2010

That, according to Berty Ashley is what Stella Maris means. (Also according to wiki and latin translations).

And that is where we all were today. Long hours of plotting went on behind closed doors and windows. Unearthly howls were reported by terrified neighbours. Eerie music and flashing lights…
Well, that was actually the disco party at the Taj. But ROB came pretty close as well.

And we sure attracted attention in Stella! Sid and Krish’s song (with enthusiastic backup by other ROBbers) was a resounding success. (Pun, geddit? Sigh. Never mind.)
Moving on- Nityanand Jeyaraman was the judge for the Debate held at Aquilae (It’s what they’ve called their culturals). The topics had the participants stymied for a while. One doesn’t often see topics like ‘Annual Beach Clean Up by NSS students- solution or problem?’, ‘Corporate Social Responsibility- eyewash or sincere effort?’ and ‘Is student activism key to capturing the essence of democracy’ as topics for a debate. Not all three together!

But they were- and defended/fought for quite well by the participants. Nity seemed in his elements asking people questions that really made them stop and think and defend their stance, as opposed to rattling off arguments they’d prepared minutes ago.

ROB volunteers floated around Stella- the white, be-turtled t-shirts could be seen dotting the grounds very prettily. The ROB stall, selling the same (t-shirts not volunteers) did pretty good business.

There was a low table covered with t-shirts and the Bhopal Calendars as well as information on the aftermath of the Bhopal gas leak.
Strung up between trees were the Robbers’ photographs of the beach, hanging between the ROB banners.  Very attractive,  (We Robbers seem high on aesthetics!) attention grabbing- and likely to stay in your mind!

The Robbers from Stella did a great job co-ordinating this outreach and ROB as a group responded marvellously.

A huge thanks to Stella Maris for allowing us a stall in the culturals! And a huge round of congratulations to the volunteers responsible for today. From where I was sitting (pretty much all over the college :D) we did great!

Akhila, ROB

Chennai? Madras?

January 8, 2010

The lovely weather’s lasted a much longer time than anyone (except perhaps, a rabid optimist) would have hoped.

Sitting on the beach and wanting to slip into a sweater or (at the very least) a full-sleeve shirt is fantastic. Sitting outside and breathing in air that feels clear as crystal and cold enough to make you realise that your breathing is wonderful. Madras, is this?

Global warming, people say. It’s not fair really. It’s so bad for the world. And so good to us Chennai-ites. Then again, maybe it’s just good ol’ Madras December/January back again.

This is the time of year when sounds carry, more people stay in, fans go off, blankets come out. It’s like being on vacation without stirring an inch!

Also- with this kind of weather, cleaning the beach will be a joy. Goodbye, reluctance-breeding-stickiness.

Inhale, invigorate yourselves. Go for a walk along the beach.
Remind yourself why you love it, why you love Madras. And why it’s all worth reclaiming.

Akhila, ROB

Rabid Optimist

January 8, 2010

The last three days have confirmed that notwithstanding all criticisms that I’m a cynic, I am actually a horribly, hopeless optimist.

Three days ago, a reporter from a Tamil weekly called me to find out if I could speak to him about pollution in Chennai. He came along for the meeting, and we decided to cycle along the beach in front of Urur-Olcott Kuppam, and walk up towards Broken Bridge. I do this all the time. Whenever I want to impress upon people that we’re screwed, or that the Corporation is lying when it says it’s doing its job, or when I want to impress upon my students the magnitude of the problem we face, or when I just want to tell people that in Adyar Estuary and the Besant Nagar beach, we’ve actually inherited an incredibly beautiful, diverse, livelihood-supporting environment that has gone to seed, this is where I come.

Winding down the narrow gullies of the fishing village, where life is played out on the streets, we end up on the beach. Here you’re assaulted by the filth, the raw sewage flowing like a thick black snake along the white beach sand. Plastic confetti festoons just about anything that sticks out of the ground. Children are playing dangerously close to the cesspools. You have to walk carefully to avoid the shit that dots the beach like land-mines.

I talk to the journalist and his photographer about this, about how this is a blindspot for the multinational Neel Metal Fanalca vested with the contract to clean up our neighbourhood and dirty Perungudi, where the garbage is dumped. They come here once in a while, clean up a bit at a time. Not the same diligence they show in the upper-caste areas a few streets away. The photographer says “These slum people are like that only. See what happened when we moved them to Semmencheri. The Government built beautiful Railway quarters style houses. But these people have messed it up. A few years of their living and that place is now flooded in garbage and sewage.”

Strange, how well entrenched the stereotype is of the poor being dirty, even loving the filth. Try this experiment in a well-to-do locality and see if you come up with a different result. Take Gopalapuram or Poes Garden, or our own upper-caste island of Besant Nagar. Tell Neel Metal that they can take the next week off. Tell Metrowater that we’ll make do without their piped water. Disconnect your bore pumps for a week. Despite your Chanel or Yves St Laurent, I think you’ll stink. Your street won’t look a lot different from Semmencheri.

The difference between the middle-class neighbourhood and Urur Kuppam is in the infrastructure. There is all of 16 public toilets each for men and women in all of Urur-Olcott Kuppam. No running water in the beachfront houses. Go figure.

I said as much to the photographer. We then walk up to the Broken Bridge. The tide was just coming in. The edges of the River were littered with trash. The water was black with sewage. What has been lost in terms of biodiversity due to pollution in the river is now more than made up by the diverse kinds of trash that the river and sea bring in.

The most populous visible trash species is perhaps the thermocolus indicus — commonly known as thermocol or styrofoam. Competing with this white, ghost like packaging material that cushions electronic material from the rude shocks of the real world is the chappalia booticus, or the Common Indian slipper that keeps human feet from feeling the earth. The volume of trash is mind-boggling. If all this trash were fish, our fisherfolk would be living in Besant Nagar, right next to the IAS officers, smelling downright pretty.

All this trash is what is brought in by the River with every flushing. After every rain, the river and the sea angrily throw back at us a small portion of what we cast off as post-consumer waste. Last November, after the first rains, the Corporation collected the trash from the stretch of beach between the Broken Bridge and Urur Kuppam. More than 50 bags of trash were collected, neatly bagged and left on the beach. Then, it appears, that the Corporation ran out of will. The meticulously bagged trash was never removed from the sand to the trash cans 200 metres away.

In mid-December, the boys from Urur Kuppam reported sighting penguins on the beach. They were referring to these black bags, flecked with white sand and half-buried. From a distance, the fluttering pieces of white and black did resemble penguins.

Three days ago, when I walked along the beach, the penguins were all dead, gutted and spilling their innards — thermocolus indicuschappalia booticus and a variety of trash species belonging to the genus plasticus abominus — onto the beach, right along the surfline.

Wave after wave of cynicism hit me. How in the hell are we going to leave behind something that vaguely resembles what we inherited for our children? We’re told time is running out, but society, government, people, you and I are behaving as if we are living in a motel, as if we have another planet to go to when we wake up tomorrow.

On January 30, a bunch of youngsters (the same guys that put together this awesome website www.letsrob.org) are sowing some seeds of revolution. They are planning a voluntary, beach clean-up. They are planning to pile up the trash two storeys high in the middle of Besant Nagar beach as a monument to our stupidity, as a statement that we may have sent rockets to moon, but that we’re not potty trained. And they’re planning to celebrate on the beach on 31st. They plan to celebrate a celebration that will leave no trash on the beach after its over. That is some ground for optimism. Actually, I’ll clutch at straws, and youth action may actually be a lot more robust than straws. . .more like floating logs, I think.

I’ll end this rant with a poem by a dear friend from Bhopal. His name is Sathyu, and like me, he is a “rabid optimist.”


I am a rabid optimist
For me
Every tree that continues to stand
Every stream that continues to flow
Every child that runs away from home
is an indication
that the battle is not only on
It is being won.

You may tell me about
the nuclear arms race
And all I can tell you
is that an unknown child
held my hand
with love.

You will try to draw me
into the plateau of practical life

Tell me
that not only god
but all the religious
and irreligious leaders are dead
And all I can tell you
is that across the forest
Lives a young man
who calls the earth
his mother.

You will give me the boring details
of the rise of state power
after every revolution
And all I can tell you
is that in our tribe
we still share our bread

You will reason with me
And I will talk nonsense like this
And because
the difference between breathing
and living life
is the difference between
reason and poetry
I will read poems to you
Poems full of optimism
Poems full of dreams
And maybe a poem better than this.


Nityanand Jayaraman, ROB

4 days in….

January 5, 2010

Four days into 2010 and things are looking up a bit.

The campaign’s gaining momentum and everyone seems to be bursting with creativity. Hurrah!

We have some outreaches coming up in schools and colleges. Also, we’re doing posters and pamphlets.

Volunteers always welcome of course 🙂

Anyway, so having realised past New Year Resolutions about ‘not littering’, till it’s a behaviour pattern thing now, this year, my Resolution is- get as many people as possible to pick up their own trash.

Seen that scooty ad? The one with the plastic bottle dumped out of a car window etc. etc.? Well, that’s going to be my style this year. If you think it’s a good resolution, or just a good idea in general, here’s a plan of how to proceed.

Walk in front of people and ask them politely to pick up their bag/paper/can/packet/wrapper/peel/plate/cup….(and on till the cows come home). And some people will.

But some may not- so what do you do? If you’re alone (and the litterer is not!), content yourself with mutterings  and pick up the item and throw it away. If you’re not alone and there’s a decent size crowd around, sneer, say “Litterbug” as loudly as you can and then pick it up and throw it away, walking across the litterer’s path.
(NOTE: This is even more effective if the litterer is alone!
NOTE: Litterbug- person who litters. NOT to be confused with shutterbug, most likely the guy with you clicking this lovely scene!)

Then again, there are the other  loud remarks e.g. “Dustbins exist for a reason!” (Which work of course, only if there’s a dustbin nearby. So not advisable for most of Elliot’s Beach stretch.)

However, all this works only with a lack of inhibition. Hence, my other resolution, to not let ‘image’ and ‘what will other people think’ bother me too much this year.  Which goes right in hand with my 1(b) Resolution: Learn to pick up other people’s trash. Cleanliness is larger than you and me.
Yuck and all…but I will!

However, a word of caution, many poor fools litter because they don’t know any better. They shouldn’t be ridiculed. They should be educated. If they have mental blocks against learning and new ideas and express this- go right ahead and scoff.

And have a GREAT year 😀

Akhila’s Resolutions:

  • Make people pick up their own trash; clean up after themselves
  • Learn to pick up other people’s trash. It’s for the ‘greater good’!
  • Give up on hang-ups about attracting attention/what people will think. Go right out and embrace stares 🙂

Akhila, ROB