More than 30 young people were assembled on the banks of the Adyar River next to Surya Nagar in Kotturpuram early in the morning on March 2. Armed with orange gloves and white rags, they were on a cleaning mission as part of the Chennai Trekking Club’s efforts to clear the area of all non-biodegradable waste.
According to Peter Van Geit (44), the founder of the Chennai Trekking Club, "This is the 14th session of the cleanliness drive that we are carrying out in the city. The waste that is seen on these banks has not been dumped by the locals but has been washed in during the floods. There were thick layers of garbage here but now it has reduced as we have been cleaning this place for the past two weeks."
On the other side of the river, heaps of garbage still dot the bank, and the river runs an alarming black colour. "We can reach the other side of the river but the land is too steep for us to clean it up. The water is black in color as many illegal sewage connections are connected to the river," said Peter.
Most of the waste that can be seen on the slope consist of cloth, glass bottles, plastic bags and other household trash. Peter and his team of volunteers have been gathering together all the non-biodegradable waste for transportation to the common dumping ground in Pallikaranai by trucks of the Chennai Corporation.
The Chennai Trekking Club began the cleaning drive in the city two months ago, in the aftermath of the Chennai floods. "We started the relief work in different places like Cuddalore and Pulicat. Many slums were in a very bad condition and all the drainage water was inside their homes. We were helping them out in Cuddalore and Pulicat. Later, we decided to start cleaning near the Adyar and Cooum rivers in Chennai."
The cleaning drive came about as a result of a shared passion among the club’s members for the environment, says Peter. "The Chennai Trekking club carries out trekking trips to beautiful natural locations like virgin forests, mountain ranges, rivers or lakes. Nature is very close to our hearts. So that's where we started. It also helps to create awareness and reach out to thousands of people and sensitizing people about the issues."
Building awareness, Peter feels, is an urgent task, as waste disposal is a crucial problem for Chennai. “There are 6000 tonnes of garbage which leaves the city every single day. Most of it ends up in water bodies, rivers and the ocean, which are our lifelines. Chennai has the highest per capita waste generation in the country. There is no segregation of waste in the city and all of it is accumulated in Pallikaranai, one of the few wetlands remaining in India. 90% of our garbage footprint can be reduced immediately by segregating dry (recyclable) and wet (compostable) waste at our home.”
For the volunteers, many different reasons have drawn them to the initiative. Roopa, a doctor said, “I joined this initiative to help people in cleaning the place but it has changed many things for me. Now, I go home and try keeping the place clean and segregate the waste.”
Bensh, an engineer, said that he comes from an agriculture background and was drawn to an earlier tree plantation initiative. He later joined the cleanliness drive as he thinks it is the social responsibility of the people to do such things. For Mohan, it is about making new friends and enjoying time spent usefully in cleaning such places.
In the past, the group has carried out cleanliness drives in Chitra Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur, Pallaikarnai and few tree parks.
Peter Van Geit began the Chennai Trekking Club about eight years ago. "I'm a very active person in sports. I wanted a platform to connect. I set up a website and started sharing stories and images of trips and in some time people started joining me for cycling, swimming, running and trekking trips." Now, the Chennai Trekking Club has more than 27000 members.
Besides their current cleanliness drives, the Club also carries out tree-planting initiatives, an annual coastal clean-up drive, workshops on nature, restoration of historical sites and organic farming. It also organizes trekking trips on weekends, swimming classes, triathlons and marathons.
Inspired by their example? Surely a task as large as cleaning up the city could use many more volunteers.