2 TN eco-warriors show creativity and grit to win accolades

R Manikandan has been desilting reservoirs in Coimbatore for 15 years, helping replenish the groundwater level, while 14-year-old Vinisha Umashankar has developed a ‘solar-powered iron cart’ to save trees and provide employment

R Manikandan, 37, and his team have been desilting water bodies in Coimbatore district for the last 15 years.

Two enterprising and environment conscious people from Tamil Nadu — a 37-year-old and a teenager — have been honoured for their outstanding work in nature conservation.

R Manikandan, 37, and his team have been desilting water bodies in Coimbatore district for the last 15 years. As a result, the ground water table in the district has gone up and the water crisis has become a thing of the past. The Union Jal Shakti Ministry recognised Manikandan’s efforts and honoured him with ‘Water Warrior’ award for 2019.

Vinisha Umashankar, a 14-year-old school girl from Tiruvannamalai district, has found an answer to charcoal-based cloth iron — a ‘solar powered ironing cart’. It does not need charcoal as fuel and harnesses solar energy, which saves a lot of trees from being cut. Besides, it does not cause pollution. In 2019, Vinisha won Dr APJ Abdul Kalam INSPIRE Award for her innovation. Recently, she won the Children’s Climate Prize, instituted by Children’s Climate Foundation, Sweden. She received a cash prize of ₹9 lakh.

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Cleaning lakes, canals to increase groundwater levels

Till the 80s, most houses in the outskirts of cities and rural hinterland of Tamil Nadu had wells, which met the drinking and domestic water needs of people with ease. Due to rapid urbanisation in the 90s, the joint family setup got disrupted and houses got divided, thus leaving little or no place for wells to exist. Those remaining have dried up too due to fast depleting groundwater.

R Manikandan, 37, of Sundarapuram, Coimbatore, has seen it all. From wells filled to the brim to those that are bone dry now. “I was 15 when a well near my house dried up and was left with nothing but rocks. It used to meet all our needs before. We had even built a house using its water. I always dreamt of bringing water back to the well some day,” he said.

One day, about 15 years back, Manikandan was cycling down the neighbourhood with his friends when they saw a canal in a sad state. “Canals are important to recharge the groundwater. There was a check dam on it as well but it was in a dilapidated condition. The water was leaking through the check dam and going waste. We didn’t know what to do. So we wrote a letter to the local corporation and the fault was rectified immediately,” said Manikandan.

That was the day when Manikandan decided that he will dedicate his life to conservation of water and cleaning of water bodies with help from government and volunteering groups. Today, he runs an engineering workshop in his village for a living, but water remains his passion. “I gradually learnt about the importance of conserving water bodies. Every time I came across a water body that needed attention, I would immediately write to the local authorities. However, most of the time while I would get replies, nothing would happen on ground. So, I thought of getting into an action mode,” he said.

Manikandan and his team members have been cleaning water bodies around Coimbatore for 15 years now. They set up ‘Kovai Kulangal Padhukaappu Amaippu’ (Coimbatore Pond Conservation Organisation) in 2017 to take their work forward.

“We don’t have enough resources. We raise funds and volunteers through social media. In the last three years, we have cleaned four big ponds and five ‘kuttai’ (smaller ponds),” said Manikandan, adding that these water bodies now hold much of the rainwater that helps to recharge ground aquifers. No wonder the water level of Coimbatore district has been rising steadily, as per recent surveys.

Manikandan believes that if more water bodies are desilted, the region can sustain higher water levels with ease.

Situated right below the Western Ghats, Coimbatore gets an average yearly rainfall of 618 mm. The district also has Noyyal river, a tributary of Cauvery. The 180 km long river fills 32 tanks of the district and has 3,510 sq km of river basin. Several years back, the river helped cultivate nearly 3,50,000 hectares of land, but the Noyyal river has become heavily polluted now due to effluents released by the textile industries located nearby.

“Many of the tanks located along the river are slowly drying up. Now we are trying to conserve them,” said Manikandan.

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Speaking to ‘The Federal’, Coimbatore-based artist Jeevananthan said that voluntary organisations like Manikandan’s ‘Kovai Kulangal Padhukaappu Amaippu’ and ‘Siruthuli’ have  helped increase the groundwater levels and bring back greenery to Coimbatore.

“Manikandan and his team helped restore a 500-year-old well located between Ukkadam and Kovaipudur. They have also created a Miyawaki forest along Vellalore lake where now we are able to sight different bird species” he said.

Manikandan virtually received the award from Jal Shakti Ministry on November 11. The award carries a prize of ₹2 lakh.

Mitigating air pollution

Vinisha Umashankar with her solar-powered iron cart

When the entire north India is choking because of air pollution caused due to a variety of reasons, class IX student Vinisha Umashankar from Tiruvannamalai has come up with a nature-friendly solution that can fight pollution and help people who iron our clothes. Vinisha’s ‘solar powered ironing cart’ not just saves trees from getting cut but also reduces air pollution caused due to burning of wood charcoal. In addition, it saves money for the ironer.

“To get one kg of charcoal, 12 trees need to be cut. People who iron our clothes need to use 5 kg of coal every day for which they have to spend ₹700 every day,” says Vinisha, who is studying in class 9 at SKP Vanitha International School, Tiruvannamalai.

In districts like Thoothukkudi, Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram and in 10 other districts, people used to cut ‘Seemai Karuvelam’ (Prosopis Juliflora) trees for charcoal. Since coal has a high level of carbon, it has great demand in industries. The business of cutting trees and selling charcoal heap has even given birth to a new industry, locally called as ‘karimoottam business’.

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Vinisha’s young and sensible mind thought it was such a waste of natural resources like trees.

The importance of her innovation can be understood better if one understands the importance of Annamalai hills, located in the South Deccan Plateau. The area has dry deciduous forest and has considerable wildlife. Natural challenges like forest fires and man-made problems like illegal tree felling have rendered much of the hills naked, devoid of any green cover. Efforts are being made to save the remaining forests, but Vinisha thought she needs to do more in less time. That’s how her internationally acclaimed award-winning innovation came into existence.

Having an interest in science from her young age, Vinisha started reading about climate change in 2012 and understood the importance of saving trees and forests.

“One day when I came back from school, I saw an ironing wallah (ironer) using charcoal to fire his iron. He was coughing due to the smoke coming from the burning coal. He also had trouble handling the iron box because it weighed almost 5 kg. If you put 2 kg coal inside, the iron becomes way too heavy to carry. Carrying this weight every day causes them shoulder and wrist pain. I decided to make a simple, weightless and portable iron cart using solar power,” Vinisha told The Federal.

“When my innovation becomes commercial, it will be priced around ₹40,000 to ₹50,000. This may look like a bigger amount, but if the ironing wallahs buy this cart, they can make profits for the next eight years by avoiding the cost of purchasing coal. Besides, they can move from one place to another with their solar cart and get more business. Since, the cart uses very limited and local products, in case of a malfunction, it can be repaired within a couple of hours by a local electrician as well,” adds Vinisha.

Asked for her opinion about Greta Thunberg, a world renowned teenage advocate of climate protection, Vinisha says with a gleam, “I believe in action not activism.”

Vinisha received the Children’s Climate Prize, instituted by Children’s Climate Foundation, Sweden, at a virtual award ceremony held on November 18.

 

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