Note: This story was published in Jan 1999. Both the organization that was involved and the activities covered in the story are dated.

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Our community, our responsibility
An Adyar beach gets a breath of fresh air
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January 1999: Any successful effort to improve cleanliness in public life in India requires tackling the many underlying deficiencies in the system. The pioneering efforts of some organizations are showing how this can be done. India Together presents one such story, which we hope will herald similar and continuing efforts by other communities of ordinary citizens, people like you and me.

Elliot's Beach, a 2-km long part of the Marina coastline in suburban Chennai, recently witnessed a truly remarkable movement. In January 1998, a group of people led by A. Shankar, an Adyar-based businessman, formed an organization named Friends of the Beach, under the aegis of Exnora International. Their objective was to make a contribution to the environmental well being of their neighborhood beach. Shankar, a beach addict, was dismayed by the the deteriorating conditions at the beach, and resolved to do something about it.

Elliot's Beach is not very different from many of the beaches that dot the long stretch of the Marina, among the longest urban coastlines in the world. Growing crowds generate tons of garbage every day; this is often left unattended to by a grossly inefficient garbage disposal system. Further aggravating the situation, nearby slum and hutment dwellers often use the shoreline as an open-air toilet. Despite their embarrassment, they have little choice; they are simply too poor to afford an alternative, and there are few, if any, decent public toilets in the area.

Another problem that caught the attention of the campaigners related to safety. The sea washes ashore floating debris from time to time, some of this is a flotsam of rugged and abrasive pollutants. These have the potential to cause harm, especially to children playing on the shore. More workers and equipment were needed to remove them from the beach regularly.

The first thing the Friends of the Beach campaigners did was to establish the infrastructure for the beach to be cleaned periodically. Some of the hutment-dwellers were employed on a daily basis from 6 AM to 11 AM to clean the beach. They were provided uniforms, footwear and relevant accessories. Second, mass cleaning campaigns were held on the first Sunday of every month. Students, members of Exnora, Rotractors, and neighborhood youth zestfully came forward to participate. The physical involvement and feeling of shared responsibilities quickly led to an exchange of thoughts and ideas, as well as increased awareness.

Since Chennai Corporation has limited resources to maintain the beaches, the Friends of the Beach volunteers made arrangements with the civic body to place 15 garbage collection bins in the beach area. It has been very encouraging to them to see that the bins are being used. According to the campaigner's assessment, the beach requires at least fifty bins, and working on filling the shortfall is a priority.

An important aspect of this campaign is the underlying activities. The volunteers make a continuing effort to get the local schools, clubs and colonies involved and aware of the problems. The campaigners plan to stage socio-cultural get-togethers and similar events on the beach. A fund raising activity is being planned is to sell T-shirts with "My Favourite place? Elliots Beach!!" slogans.

Importantly, the campaigners have recognized that merely posting signs that read ""Do not throw litter on the beach", does not achieve results. In the absence of usable infrastructure, such efforts fail. Notices and signs become weak in their recommendation, if they are not supplemented by the requisite facilities.

While Shankar and his team are happy that their campaign has begun bearing fruit, they realize that a good deal more needs to be done. They re-iterate that achieving and sustaining high standards is important to make a clean beach a reality and perpetuate the achievement. There is a compelling need for installation of pay-and-use toilets, additional garbage bins and keeping the beach clean of debris. Sponsors for the planned social get-togethers are also being sought.

An excellent outcome of this campaign is that it has inspired another community further south along the coast to get together for a similar effort. If this takes off, indeed, much of the populated coast sees the promise of becoming like the Oregon coast in the United States. Every mile of the Oregon coast was adopted by the local residents to keep it clean and safe, under funding from the local city and county governments.

Much has been said and written about the upkeep and cleanliness of public places in India. It is not clear however, that attention has been paid to what has been tried, and importantly, what has worked. The Friends of Beach campaign comes forth as a stellar example of a responsible community taking the lead in establishing a cleaner neighborhood for themselves.

Vincent D'Souza
January 1999

Contact information

A Shankar
Friends of the Beach, Chennai
Tel : 91 44 4993199 (office)

This article is reprinted with permission from the Adyar Times, Chennai