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Signs Of Light: Good News From South Asia
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Piyush Manush: Rejuvenating Dying Lakes of Salem

Piyush, a common citizen from Salem in Tamil Nadu is working tirelessly to restore various lakes in the region to their natural splendour, despite many hurdles. What does it mean to be responsible? Who and what are we responsible for? Are we only responsible for ourselves? Our family? Our community? What about the mountains, the rivers, and the land? Who takes responsibility for them? If you are Piyush Sethia, then you take responsibility for all of it. He single-handedly decided to restore the barren hills and the dried up lakes in Salem at the tender age of 20 by planting thousands of trees and digging trenches on hills around his hometown. Project Harithima – begun in 1997 – was one of the many projects that this green entrepreneur has championed. Since then, he has involved himself in activism, and has also gravitated towards constructive environmentalism with the setting up of SEED (Socio-Economic Environmental Development), SCF (Salem’s Citizen Forum) for outreach, and the Coop Forest for conducting nature camps and as an experimental co-operative space for green entrepreneurs. Piyush even took moral responsibility for not being able to save the picturesque Mookaneri Lake from pollution by idols made of Plaster of Paris and toxic dyes. He had toiled to rejuvenate the lake with local support and his SCF team, transforming it from a drought-parched barren land into a delicate, island-strewn lake teeming with life.

He ‘surrendered’ before a judicial court, lamenting his inability to keep up the promise he made to the public of stopping the pollution of the lake.

piyush-manush Born and brought up in Salem, the reason why Piyush started out doing what he did seems perplexing, yet simple. When asked about it, he says nonchalantly, “Common sense”. Probed again, he replies in an even more casual tone, “Common sense.” Maybe that’s how it feels to someone who has ‘lived’ a place, and not just lived ‘in’ one. A chance meeting with fellow activist Nithyanand Jayraman inspired him to become an activist in Salem, a hotbed for bauxite and magnesite mining, with companies like Vedanta, Jindal Steel Works, and Dalmia all being accused of violating environmental laws and regulations in the region. Taking responsibility requires one to ascertain who or what they identify with. It also requires one to internalize who or what they do not represent and do not stand for. Piyush has refused to register any of his forums as an NGO as he seeks no accreditation from the government in any form whatsoever. “Years ago, a government official enlightened me on how registering SEED would put me at his mercy. How he could make me jump through hoops for him. It struck me that he was right, and I haven’t registered any organization with the government,” he clarifies. Piyush’s vocal dissidence, and his insistence on not identifying himself with the institutions of power, have put him in grave situations. In 2010, sedition charges were levelled against him for circulating a pamphlet as part of the Campaign for Justice and Peace at a Republic Day function. The sedition charges were later dropped after widespread criticism from civil society. Work started on the Mookaneri Eco-restoration Project in 2010, with 150 local men, women, and children gathering at 6 AM every Sunday to clean the lake and de-silt it. Once the excavators dug the soil and created islands, people planted 25,000 saplings and prayed for rains. The sky gods complied, and soon the dried-up lake turned into a vibrant natural system.

More than 50 varieties of birds, both migratory and resident, and trees towering over 20 ft. tall covered these islands of hope.

12239739_1688948761342645_1168228134874484927_n The secret behind the rejuvenation, Piyush explains, has to do with the de-silting process, which NABARD has deemed as the best de-silting process for lakes. So, in spite of 2011 and 2012 being below par years in terms of rainfall, Mookaneri hasn’t seen a drastic decrease in water level. What makes the restoration project a real peoples’ movement in Piyush’s eyes is the effort of the community in raising funds, taking up awareness initiatives independently, and having a sense of ownership over the lake. He cites the enthusiasm of the local youngsters in organizing massive funding drives to keep the movement alive. The forum has been invited by many other communities and NGOs to implement similar rejuvenation efforts in their communities.

Piyush, however, has put the responsibility back on local communities by asking them to adopt his model, instead of waiting for a non-local like him to find a quick-fix solution.

kids1 All isn’t hunky dory though, as Piyush and his team have to ward off real estate sharks who constantly eye the lake as nothing but valuable land ‘gone waste’. There have been frivolous petitions to stop the work, with the nexus of land grabbers, politicians, and governmental authorities to blame. He laments that it’s not easy doing practical, grassroots work where many stakeholders may have ulterior motives. There seems to be no other choice but to persist and resist. Piyush heads to Kumaragiri lake, the fourth lake restoration project undertaken by SCF. On the way, one wonders, “What makes one take the responsibility and burden of protecting common areas? Is it instinct? Common sense? Experience?” Maybe it takes all of them. At the lake site, none of the three seem relevant. Here, it’s sheer energy and optimism which seems to keep the local community involved in the project. Projects include the diversion and purification of the lake’s sewage, and building islands and planting trees on them. However, there is a sense of inevitability in Piyush’s tone. His work is no mean feat, considering the frequent tussles with government authorities, political leaders, and the police. In the mind of an environmental activist, there are no half measures. One of Piyush’s long-term goals is to achieve sustainability in agriculture. He wants people to come back to farming because of its viability, in a ‘reverse migration’, as he puts it. A major step in this regard was setting up the ‘Coop Forest’. It is an experimental space for green entrepreneurs and their economically beneficial green projects. The 180-acre cooperative forest, located about 60 kms. from Salem, is an oasis in a desert at first glance.

Replete with bamboo trees, fruit orchards, and a vegetable garden, the place exudes serenity, often under-valued by city dwellers.

15672639_10154964322244617_5913282605977752126_n The forest, which has 11 fresh water ponds, also has a biomass gasifier and a bio-gas unit. As Piyush says, the sun’s soft energy should turn into gas, and the hard energy should return to the soil. So, kitchen waste generates cooking gas, and the dried weeds, twigs, and grass return to the soil for moisture retention. Piyush invites green entrepreneurs to start a project of their choice while residing in the forest. They get to share the fruits of their projects with and within the community. Recent experiments with aloe vera and guava juices, areca sheath plates, and bamboo plantations have been successful. Coop Forest also attracts children, who come there to admire nature and get into the thick of things. They build mud houses, plant trees, dig trenches, learn about organic farming, or simply trek through the terrain. It is a place where nothing is abstract, and everything is experiential. Children splash into the freshwater pond, and come out on to an island of hope. To know more about sustainability initiatives or being a co-traveller, contact Bhoomi on the website, or via email.

Like this story? Or have something to share? Write to us: contact@thebetterindia.com, or connect with us on Facebook and Twitter. NEW: Click here to get positive news on WhatsApp!

( Source: BetterIndia, Posted: Jan 17, 2017)
 
The Robin Hood Army

The Robin Hood Army wields a double edged sword fighting food wastage and hunger with one mighty strike. The initiative in Pakistan began in 2015 with volunteer Robin Hoods filling 100 empty tummies in a week. One year later, the army has mobilized and they plan on reaching 500,000 individuals across seven different countries. This is a simple and truly inspiring concept that is confronting two major global issues. May they march on and serve the world.

( Posted: Jan 17, 2017)
 
Waste Pickers Who Work with Pride

50 year old Suman More heads SWaCH, collective of 2800 waste pickers that provide garbage collection and other allied waste management services to 520,000 households in Pune.

( Source: IndiaTogether, Posted: Jan 11, 2017)
 
Why Anupam Mishra was our Water Guru

In a lifetime of barefoot research for Gandhi Peace Foundation, Anupam scoured much of the country trying to understand collection, storage and dispersal in traditional water systems. He tracked tanks and stepwells extensively.

( Source: CivilSocietyOnline, Posted: Jan 4, 2017)
 
Enabling the Disabled in Workforce

At Sharayu Precision, Subhash Chuttar employs over 36 mentally and physically challenged men and women who work at jobs ranging from riveting, drilling and greasing to polishing and packing. Chuttar has won the Helen Keller Award instituted by the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People.

( Source: InfoChagngeIndia, Posted: Dec 20, 2016)
 
Waves of Change in Rural Health

CHETNA, based in Ahmedabad, has been working with seven NGO partners like ALERT in Gujarat and Rajasthan on communication strategies to create awareness as well as ensure that the National Rural Health Mission programmes and services reach people in rural areas, however remote.

( Source: InfoChagngeIndia, Posted: Dec 13, 2016)
 
Harvest from the Skies

Five model rainwater-harvesting projects from The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi show how the fast depleting groundwater table can be recharged.

( Source: InfoChagngeIndia, Posted: Dec 6, 2016)
 
Refurbishing Sports Shoes into Chappals for the Poor

Ramesh and Shriyans who started Green Soles in Mumbai learnt that around 35 crore pairs of non-biodegradable shoes are discarded every year .

( Source: TheWeekendLeader, Posted: Nov 29, 2016)
 
Educating the Daughters of Militants

Adhik Kadam from Pune has adopted 200 daughters of Kashmir militants killed in encounters, giving them shelter and providing them with an education.

( Source: BetterIndia, Posted: Nov 20, 2016)
 
Karachi Doctor Transplants Hope

Dr. Adib Rizvi in Karachi than 300 transplants and 260,000 dialysis sessions in 2015 alone, with follow-up treatments and medications provided for free.

( Source: Dawn, Posted: Nov 16, 2016)
 
Serving Senior Meals

Since 2012, a group of senior citizens in Borivali, Mumbai have been getting their meals home-delivered without fail by Mark and Yvonne D Souza, in a unique meal service initiative.

( Source: TheWeekendLeader, Posted: Nov 9, 2016)
 
Cafe with A Mission

As a street kid in Mumbai, Amin Sheikh had seen it all before he came under the care of an orphanage. The gritty survivor, now runs a cafe that is changing the lives of street children like him

( Source: TheWeekendLeader, Posted: Nov 2, 2016)
 
Mahasweta Devi, The Compassionate Writer

The writing of Mahasweta Devi stemmed from her political beliefs and activism. She was fiercely committed to fighting oppression in any form and spent a lifetime giving a voice to the unheard. She raised her voice several times against the discrimination of tribal people in India.

( Source: CivilSocietyOnline, Posted: Oct 25, 2016)
 
Hope In Bihar

Under progressive governance and grassroots action by its citizens, Bihar would be well on the path of progress. 0

( Source: IndiaTogether, Posted: Oct 19, 2016)
 
Nepal Plans Anima Rescue Shelters

Amid escalating human-wildlife conflicts, the government has come up with a plan to set up proper wildlife rescue centres inside protected areas, forest areas and community forests.

( Source: eKantipur, Posted: Oct 11, 2016)
 
Zilong Wang: Medicine Journey

The quiet directness of Zilong Wang, his articulate, measured way of speaking and something so open about him makes an immediate impression. If one is around him very much at all, its impossible not to feel, in some measure, hope for our future. Because he was soon leaving on a solo bicycle pilgrimage across the U.S. and ultimately around the globe, I asked if we could record a conversation before he left. We met a couple of days later to talk, but first he handed me a lovely ink drawing his grandmother had done

( Posted: Oct 5, 2016)
 
The Forest on Their Plates

The tribal women from Rayagada, Odisha fought to throw out white rice and soy nuggets and bring millets and seeds back into their diet

( Source: The Hindu, Posted: Sep 27, 2016)
 
Lessons from Living in Nature

Nisha Srinivasan and her husband Ragu Padmanabhan had Silicon Valley careers, when in 2008, soon after having their son Aum, they promptly sold everything and moved to rural India. They wanted to farm, but had no experience in it and so set out as students of the land -- for instance, when they planted 9000 trees on their barren land, thousands didn't make it, but thousands blossomed into a mini-forest. They jumped in with the intention of living and being in a way that was better aligned with their inner voices, and learning what they needed along the way. In their own words, they saw it simply as an"experiment in laying a new path on an old road that leads to simplicity, sustainability and dare we say, spirituality." Nisha shares more from their journey in this disarming and inspiring piece.

( Posted: Sep 22, 2016)
 
Creating a Refuge for Animals

When Leslie Robinson, an American tourist heard that the authorities in Tiruvannamalai were going to kill street dogs, he decided to stay back.

( Source: BetterIndia, Posted: Sep 21, 2016)
 
Reserved Forests Status for Maharashtra Mangroves

Maharashtra has notified 15,087.6 hectares of mangroves across the state as reserved forest, becoming the first state in the country to do so.

( Source: DownToEarth, Posted: Sep 14, 2016)
 
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