New life for Chennai lake

December 20, 2012

Why does a bright, young Indian give up a very promising career with Google for life as an environmentalist?

The answer is compelling: fear of being too comfortable.

“Quitting Google in 2010 was a tough decision,” says Arun Krishnamurthy. “They were wonderful employers. But I felt I was slipping into a comfort zone. A full-time job left me little free time to follow my true passion,” says the 25-year-old, who has won a Rolex Young Laureate Award for his project to restore Lake Kilkattalai, a 1.5 km2 stretch of polluted water at the edge of Chennai in southern India.

This quiet, young man whose CV is already dotted with impressive community participation projects in conservation and environmental education does not readily talk about himself. But one way to get him started is to ask him about his most prized possession, his diary. He has had it since he was in fourth grade. The diary became truly precious when his mentor, British primatologist Dr Jane Goodall, wrote a few words in it during a visit to India.

“Can you believe it? Dr Jane Goodall, the world’s best-known expert on chimpanzees, wrote in my diary,” says Krishnamurthy. Goodall inspired him, a microbiology major, to become a full-time environmentalist.

First he ran Roots & Shoots India, under Goodall’s Roots & Shoots network. Then, in 2011, he founded his own NGO in Chennai, calling it the Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI). The organization is active in three Indian cities. One of its most exciting programmes is the Lake Biodiversity Restoration project, which has already restored six lakes across India.

Today, as the proud winner of a Rolex Award, Krishnamurthy is excited. “It is a refreshing breakthrough that has reinforced the confidence of the entire team. Now we believe that if we have the right intentions, help will always arrive. We intend to execute our project per plan and prove that change is possible.”

His team is comprised of some 900 volunteers, recruited through school programmes and street theatre for practical conservation work. Most volunteers are under 20 years old and have been trained by Krishnamurthy himself.

Krishnamurthy’s project to restore Lake Kilkattalai has four phases: first, the natural habitat and pollutants are mapped; second, garbage that has been dumped into the lake over the years is cleared; third, the lake is desilted and its periphery strengthened; the last phase involves reintroduction of native aquatic species and plants. The first phase took place in August this year.

“The lake, which feeds the Pallikaranai wetland, is home to several species of birds and pond turtles. It is being choked,” says Krishnamurthy. “If it continues this way, 20 years down the line, this lake could become a forgotten story. I am determined not to let that happen,” he says.

The battle to restore and protect Lake Kilkattalai is emblematic of the challenges faced by environmentalists in this emerging economic power. Depletion of lakes is affecting urban India’s ability to replenish scarce water supplies. Dumping of garbage and dangerous effluent in water bodies has also turned them into potential health hazards.

Lake Kilkattalai, a polluted stretch of water on the edge of Chennai, is being restored by Arun Krishnamurthy. © Rolex Awards/Stefan Walter

Krishnamurthy believes partnering with the corporate sector can help him achieve his environmental objectives. How does he plan to get them interested? “As part of their corporate social responsibility, companies sponsor marathons, rallies and so on. Many of their employees are eager to do something, but are clueless where to go. If companies can come forward to fund part of these lake restorations including fencing and de-silting, they can send volunteers for clean-ups. Then it will be a holistic social development with everyone playing a role in conservation.”

Krishnamurthy became interested in cleaning up dirty lakes during his Google days in Hyderabad. “The first lake we cleaned, Gurunadham Cheruvu, was in Hyderabad, in May 2008. The second one was Lakshmi Pushkaram in Chennai in 2009. When we clean up a lake, we remove garbage with the help of volunteers. The actual restoration entails protective fencing, deepening of the water body and cordoning it off from encroachments,” he explains.

Krishnamurthy also finds the time to run a communications company that takes care of his day-to-day expenses. The firm advises enterprises on how to invest in social and environmental campaigns to improve their public image. The work blends smoothly with his passion – EFI. “I work 14 to 16 hours a day. I am not exaggerating. That is how my life has been since 2010. Everyone at EFI is a volunteer, including me. Half of what I earn goes towards my NGO,” he says.

Would he have it any other way? The answer is a resounding “no”. “My business is designed to support my NGO. All that I think and do is related to EFI,” he adds.

Krishnamurthy’s brand of environmentalism seems to work. “Until now we haven’t hit a roadblock where we haven’t had sufficient funds,” he says.

Patralekha Chatterjee

Learn more about Arun Krishnamurthy

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