'It takes a village', goes an age-old African saying, to bring about meaningful change in society. In Tamil Nadu's Tirupur district, this quote was taken quite literally in 2013, when an entire community – from industrialists to daily wage workers – joined hands to transform the Andipalayam lake from a picture of complete scarcity to a water body brimming with life.
In 2005, at a time when Tirupur was yet to be carved out from Coimbatore and Erode as a separate district, the city was facing immense water shortage. The drought across the state in 2002 had massively impacted the industrial town and groundwater levels had plunged below 1,200 feet.
"The situation was very similar to what Chennai is facing now," says Kumar Duraisamy, the Project Director of VETRY, an NGO that spearheaded the transformation process. "We realised that the only solution was to restore our existing water bodies so that we can stabilise groundwater levels again," he says.
The Andipalayam lake, upon inspection by the NGO, was completely cut off from its main water source, the Noyyal river, by encroachments in the five kilometres surrounding the water body. Over the past 15 years, industrialists and agriculturalists had set up temporary structures over the three waterways leading to the lake as they dried up in the drought.
"The first step that we took was to approach these encroachers and request them to remove the structures," says Kumar. "Given the desperation for water in the Tirupur taluk, they readily agreed," he adds.
Over the next few monsoons, water slowly began to make its way into the lake. But this was not enough to restore it to its original grandeur.
The lake was unable to retain a large quantity of water as the rains stopped and groundwater levels were yet to improve. In 2013, VETRY set a larger ball into motion.
"It was time to involve the local people in the effort to clean the lake, desilt it and make it deeper," he tells TNM.
The work began in March, much before the monsoon and the NGO brought in more experts and common people to join the 'movement' to restore the water body.
55-year-old K Shanmugaraj, who was then the President of the Builders Association in India, used his knowledge of the workings in the Public Works Department to acquire their cooperation. The local media, especially Dinamalar, reported incessantly about the mission to desilt the lake, drawing public attention.
"It was a wonderful journey," recalls Shanmugaraj. "In the first week, we had 3000 residents of Tirupur coming on a Sunday, holding plastic baskets to collect mud from the lake's surface. People would stand in long lines, passing on the container of silt," he adds.
At a time when social media was not being used to the capacity that it is now, the organisers depended merely on local media and word of mouth. As days passed, at least 5,000 people would arrive on a weekly basis to help with the desilting measures. Across Tirupur, the Andipalayam lake became an important subject of discussion
Industries and unions, meanwhile, took the efforts to the next level.
"We had hired six excavators to speed up the desilting work and several industrialists helped us pay for them on a daily basis. It cost close to Rs 15,000 a day and we used the excavators for at least two to three months," says Shanmugaraj.
The Tirupur quarry association, meanwhile, delivered free loads of rocks to the site to initiate dry stone packing around the water body. Some residents even contributed to the buying of other equipment at the site while companies sent their staff to the site to join the efforts.
"It was important for people to acknowledge their link to the water body, in order to increase awareness about conserving it," says Kumar. "While corporations could donate over Rs.10 lakh for the cause, a daily wage worker would give us Rs.100. Everything mattered," he adds.
By the end of April, the desilting work was done and the stones from the quarry set up by hired and experienced help. With the PWD's assistance, the lake was deepened by another 1.5 metres.
"Once the work was done, it was a tense wait till the monsoons in November," says Shanmugaraj. But as the monsoons came, the project proved to be a huge success.
Currently, the lake has water up to 38 feet in its circumference of 2.8 kilometres. It stretches across 60 acres and with water body brimming, groundwater levels have increased dramatically over the last six year. Water can now be found at 200 feet from the surface in the five kilometres surrounding the lake.
"From being dry for 15 years, the lake has transformed into a spot of biodiversity. We have built two islands in the lake and planted fruit trees," says Kumar. "The same project can be carried out throughout the state if the local communities come together."