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Vol. XXXI No. 13, October 16-31, 2021

Connected by Water for Life

by Padmapriya Baskaran

Chief Executive, Sanitation First

Ashokamitran’s family and others paying their tributes.

On 22nd of September, 2021, the villagers of Kumudimoolai, a non-descript village in Cuddalore district, got together to celebrate the 90th birthday of legendary writer, Ashokamitran. They placed “pori and kadalai”, on a plantain leaf, decorated his image with garlands, and took turns to offer flowers. Most of them had not even heard his name or knew anything about his writing until 2019. How then did he become an icon of reverence for the village?

It all began when friend and fellow heritage enthusiast Ravishankar, eldest son of Ashokamitran after following the work that my organisation – Sanitation First – did in providing vulnerable communities with safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene services – offered to build a toilet for Jaishankar, a surgical amputee in Kundiyamallur village. Jaishankar had severe gangrene formation on one foot due to poor medical care and had difficulty in moving. During the day, he would not eat so that he did not have to move alone to a secluded spot to relieve himself. When Ravi met Jaishankar a few months after a toilet was built for him with ramp and handrails, he was immensely happy to see him eating well and looking healthy and happy. While returning to Chennai after the visit, Ravi mentioned his desire to revive a water body in memory of his late father.

A plaque remembering Ashokamitran.

Ashokamitran had moved to Chennai in 1952 when the newly formed T’Nagar and West Mambalam were experiencing acute water shortage. The daily ordeals middle class women underwent to secure water for their households made him write the famous novel Thanneer in the early 70s. Ravi mentioned that his father had always made sure that water was saved, consumed responsibly and never wasted. He felt reviving a water body and making sure the users did the same would probably be the right tribute to him.

Sanitation First has long been working with communities in reviving and rejuvenating traditional water bodies, and so the search began for the right tank. Kumudimoolai was the first to come to our mind, since the organisation had worked there for long on water conservation and sustainable sanitation. The village has over 350 ecosan toilets (urine diverting dry toilets, that convert human waste into soil enriching compost). It was the first village in Cuddalore district to be declared open defecation free owing to these ecosan toilets. They save over a lakh litres of water every day from being flushed down. Sanitation First has also built a 60,000 litre-overhead tank and toilet blocks in the middle and primary schools.

Above, right and opposite: the restoration activity at the Kumudimoolai tank.

The panchayat with over 450 families has close to 2,000 people who are dependent on the waters of the Neyveli mines for agriculture. Water from the Paravanar river is stored in the overhead tank and used for drinking and cooking, but for all other needs, the village was dependent on the Pillayar Koil Kulam. When the waters ran dry during summer or during power cuts, this water was also used for drinking and cooking.

But the tank was in bad shape. The retaining walls had fallen and the steps were broken. The inlet and outlet were broken and passage clogged, making the water sluggish. The depth of the tank was less than 2 metres and there was a lot of seepage due to the poor retaining structure. We felt renovation and restoration of this tank would help to recharge the water resources and enhance the eco-system in the village and having worked with the community over the last decade, were confident they would take care of the tank responsibly.

Before the commencement of work, the villagers were brought together and an agreement was achieved between members of different communities that they will work together twards the common objective. The community offered their contribution by clearing all the garbage and encroachments around the tank. The inlet and outlet were first repaired, and the depth of the tank deepened to three meters. The wall on the northern side, closer to the houses and worst affected, was reinforced in 2019 and the steps reconstructed in a senior-citizen friendly manner. This portion was inaugurated by Ashokamitran’s family in September 2019 when a copy of Thanneer was provided to the Kumudimoolai library which has since inspired several villagers, particularly the youth to understand his literary work and passion for water conservation better.

With COVID applying the brakes on the rest of the renovation for over a year, we decided to complete it fully in 2021 with Ravi’s consent. The west and eastern walls were completed with additional steps and ramps and the southern side which was more or less intact was reinforced. The entire structure was painted and when the tank filled to capacity, it was a matter of joy and pride to watch. The construction of walls was done with RCC instead of the original concrete slab structure, which had a limited life span.

Ravishankar seen with the villagers along with his father’s epic novel Thanneer.

Between 2019 and 2021, the tank became a haven for those who had to stay indoors because of the pandemic. Senior citizens and children came to the tank to study or rest and this prompted us to provide cement benches on two sides and these have since, never been left empty.

Ravi plans to provide tuition services and a telescope at the local school and it is so heartwarming that this bond has been created between Ashokamitran’s family and the village through “Thanneer”(Water), as witnessed by the birthday celebrations and we at Sanitation First, do hope this is an inspiration to several others to come forward to rejuvenate water bodies and reduce reliance on underground water sources.

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