Transforming the Poonga: A Note from Joss


Storks in the Adyar Poonga wetland park, Chennai
Storks in the Adyar Poonga wetland park, Chennai

Nine years ago when we gave the concept master plan of the Adyar Wetland Park to our client the government of Tamilnadu we didn’t  know quite what we were getting into.  All I knew was that we had been given an opportunity to nurture a change, to help protect and restore a sixty-acre patch of the planet in the middle of a huge community of ten million people.  We signed a contract and played a pretty hard game.

We have moved a few steps down the path.  There are 19 different dragon and damsel flies and a painted stork  has been seen.  Fungi of many colours and the sight of the white-bellied sea eagle is common. Let’s not kid ourselves: it was tough being chained to the Public Works Department rates and standards.  It was a battle with a system that doesn’t understand that plans can evolve, change, but it’s  also been an experience of working with many dedicated, impressive government officers as well as some  immovable monumental bureaucratic egos and thousands of citizens craving for the transformation  of the city landscape.

The Pitchandikulam team is still there helping to maintain the park and now we have extended our responsibility to another 300 acres of the Adyar estuary.

A community in harmony, well-grounded, will show tendencies in its practices of a much larger longer term plan.  It seems often these days that knee-jerk surgery is more the order of the day. It is not exactly the 100 year plan that we dream of, but we will try .

Living in the beautiful forest that we have planted in Auroville, never would I have imagined spending more than a fleeting visit to the mayhem of Chennai.  In the early morning in Chennai , it is a train or a jet plane and mostly crows that wake you and not the myriad sounds of a waking diversity that greets us in Pitchandikulam.

But this search for gold amongst the garbage is the challenge.  When you look up into the wide sky of the wetland and thousands of fruit bats fly between you and the emerging stars and because of how we have created the protected space, one only hears the frogs you  rejoice in the sink of silence that is here and hope that it helps some residents of the vast city to see and then work towards a healthier future for their environment .

It has been a hope that the people around the wetland would see it as their jewel, the place where not just the rainwater flows but they flow there also.  To know of its healthiness would be a boon while struggling with the challenges of the city.  To walk along the wetland’s peaceful paths would help heal the damage that this massive urbanization creates.  It would help to remember where we come from and guide us to work towards the day when the banks of the Adyar can watch the peaceful river flow again.




Let’s green Tamil Nadu with nurseries


Date: 31st Oct 2016
Location: Chinnarampatti panchayat, Tirupathur block, Vellore district, Tamil Nadu


How can good ecology practices be the root of social and economic development? This is a key question for all of us in Auroville, and we at Pitchandikulam Forest are happy to be part of an initiative in an exciting project to manifest one such idea at a large scale.

Tamil Nadu, a state with 60m people, separates out the complex business of local  government into five levels: habitat, villages, panchayats, blocks, districts and at the state level. One panchayat consists of a few villages (as low as 2), one block is 15 or so panchayats, one district has 10-15 blocks, and the state overall has 32 districts.

The state government implements programmes through several departments with as many as 52 schemes and policies  in rural economic development and ecology, for example:

  1. the 100 Days programme, which guarantees local women a hundred days paid work a year
  2. the Green Villages programme, which supports tree-planting on the local level

Both are promising, but in practice can face the following challenges:

  1. 100 days work a year at a minimum wage is not enough for a sustainable livelihood  (although it is worth noting that this scheme is not meant to provide permanent livelihood support and only supplements income during the non-agricultural period of the year, hence the 100 days)
  2. Local villages often do not have access to good seedlings and the traditional knowledge about what to plant and how to ensure that the plants thrive has been lost in the ‘modern’ ways of life

In September, as part of our needs-based training for social enterprises, we were asked to help out in Chinnarampatti, a panchayat at the foot of the Jawadhu Hills in the Eastern Ghats, in northern Tamil Nadu.

The Chinnarampatti Nursery

Twenty ladies created a small nursery in their village with their own local knowledge and understanding.

The panchayat secretary, Mr Madesh, initiated this nursery scheme through the 100 Days programme, which pays a salary to local women for 100 days a year, and is administered by the Department of Rural Development in the Tamil Nadu state government. He was looking for help from Auroville: technical training in running a nursery for the women’s groups.

The local women came to Auroville, stayed for three days in September, and received technical training through the Sustainable Livelihood Institute, sponsored by the State Government. Pitchandikulam Forest provide training in seed collection, plant identification, germination techniques, nursery maintenance, compost making and how to plant properly. We used our young forest and education centre at Nadukuppam as a host location for training with the team of experts from Pitchandikulam (Aramugham, Kesavan, Bubesh, Joss, Lourdes). They also did a planning exercise in resource mapping for the village, to see how the future of the nursery fits in with the village’s economic and social development.

After the training, they requested a follow up visit by Pitchandikulam Forest to assess their progress and help them carry out and fine tune their plan.

We were pleased to see that the women’s cooperative have successfully germinated 40,000 seedlings there – it is well-maintained and managed. Afterwards, we visited the village, including the lakes and ponds, sacred groves, poramboke lands with the local elected leader, village elder, and local officials. Each panchayat falls within a block, and local government assigns a block development officer (BDO) to each block and panchayat engineers (PE) to give technical support. The BDO and PE came to the site to meet and discuss how to develop the nursery further. They promised to assist with funding for a proper toilet/bathroom and sheltered restroom for the nursery.

The Big idea

Tamil Nadu currently has  a scheme to develop nurseries at every Panchayat in the State (details here).

Together with local government leaders, we will work to make the nursery in Chinnarampatti into a model that can be extended and replicated across the 400+ blocks in Tamil Nadu. In exchange for local government supporting the salaries and capital costs of the nursery, all the villages throughout the block receives seedlings and training for free.

Within this programme, a nursery will:

  • provide a real sustainable livelihood for the women’s groups who runs it, beyond the 100 Days programme
  • upskill the women by enabling them not only to run a nursery, but also to train other women’s groups as to how to run nurseries across the State
  • lie at the heart of local policy, bringing together economic development, water management, agriculture, environment, health, education, livelihood as part of a local masterplan
  • show local government officials how ecology can play a key role in effective, joined-up policy making
  • supply plants and seedlings to the group of panchayats that it represents for their Greening Villages scheme
  • ensure that the villages in the panchayat get the right plants for the bio-region, and are educated by the nursery staff in their planting and maintenance


Next Steps

The panchayat president has requested our help in creating a coherent masterplan for the panchayat’s development. He has already cleared out all the encroachments on local tanks and ponds, and there is a real opportunity to green this area. Their immediate need is that their groundwater is 900 ft down, so bore wells are very expensive. Most of their water goes directly into rivers and flows away: their long term strategy is that they would like bunds or dams, to strengthen lakes and ponds in order to hold more water to support development.

Pitchandikulam Forest team will conduct a survey to establish detailed information about this area for the watershed masterplan. Together with the Sustainable Livelihoods Institute, and other experts from Auroville, we will help local government to create a masterplan that includes economic development, water management, agriculture, environment, health, education.

Sacred Groves & Wetland Possibilities: Notes from a Field Trip

A team from Pitchandikulam (Joss, Bubesh, Sneh, Daniel and Jonathan) spent a day visiting sacred groves and wetlands in the Auroville bio-region.

1) Puthupet Sacred Grove

Puthupet was our first stop to see best and worst practices in looking after sacred groves, the areas of indigenous forest cared for by temple administration and the people who worship there.

Sacred grove outside Puthupet temple, Tamil Nadu
Sacred grove outside Puthupet temple, Tamil Nadu

Joss and the Pitchandikulam team have been working at Puthupet on and off for over forty years. For years in the early days, Auroville botanists did phenological studies here, coming each week to take measurements of patterns of plant flowering, fruiting and growth of the many indigenous species. This gave us our first database of detailed botanical life cycles, which was invaluable for our early coastal forest replanting initiatives.

The study of that grove led to our documenting another 200 groves from Sriharikota to Point Calimere.

In the early 2000s Pitchandikulam initiated programmes of conservation and protection with the communities adjacent to the sacred grove, with watchmen in the forest for several years helping to protect it, clean it and help local people understand how and why to look after it. It was a beautiful example of a thriving sacred grove.

After a few years, government interventions all over Tamil Nadu saw them take control of many forests, including this one. This resulted in what we see today: the severing of the link between the community and the forest, and the resulting garbage catastrophe. The temples were leased out to private organisations who proceeded to develop them commercially, and thousands of pilgrims from outside were encouraged to come in; the community was removed from its stewardship, roads were built to facilitate mass tourism and rubbish started to pile up in the sacred grove. Today the grove is a beautiful, mature forest filled with a heartbreaking amount of plastic trash.

2) Seaside plantation in Kunimedu Kuppam

Our next stop, the seaside plantation, down by the sea at Kunimedu Kuppam (Tamil: kuppam fishing community) is extraordinary. The forest runs right down to the tideline on the beach in soil that is extremely inhospitable – almost 100% sand.

Forest in the sand, Kunimedu, Tamil Nadu

The facts of badly-planned planting in this soil are self-evident, with black corpses of dead trees planted by local government lying on the ground on the opposite side of the road.

Pitchandikulam Forest have planted two areas there – a project collaboration with the Forest Department to plant four acres in two stages, where, with the participation of the local fishing village, we protected and then cared for the seedlings for four years, working with local women’s cooperatives to grow and water the plants from a hand pump. Now, with no fencing at all, the growth is outstanding – 80% of the species planted have survived and thrived in the years since, with no watering, cultivation or intervention of any sort.

Our plans for this area are to plant ten more acres, involve four local women’s groups in growing the seedlings, planting and caring for them – establishing a locally-run nursery in the process.

3) Sacred grove in Urani

Sacred grove, Urani, Tamil Nadu
Sacred grove, Urani, Tamil Nadu

This is an example of a beautiful village-managed sacred grove: Pitchandikulam started working with the village twenty five years ago to document the forest. It is a wonderful counter-example to the horror at Puthupet of how a forest can be managed and protected by a local community who take pride in its upkeep.

The old stone temple has now been supplemented by a new, much bigger temple, paid for by a neighbouring private landowner, but the sacred grove is still protected by the local community, and as such, it is free of rubbish.

It is one of the best examples of climax coastal forest, also in relatively sandy soil, similar to Puthupet, and both Puthupet and Urani are used by Pondichery University School of Environmental Studies for fieldwork and research.

4) Medicinal Plants Forest in Kurumburam

An in-situ conservation medicinal plants forest.

The only reserve forest in the area – approximately 500 acres of diverse, regenerating forest. Half of it was recently declared again as having reserved status, and it is currently protected and regenerating well.

In-site medicinal conservation forest, Kurumburam, Tamil Nadu
In-site medicinal conservation forest, Kurumburam, Tamil Nadu

Possible interventions are working with the Forest Department to introduce well thought-out species. We suggest to conduct a supplementary botanical survey of both places, in order to complement the detailed botanical survey of this site that exists. Previously we have done transects in the forest, and we would hope that these markers can be used again for a comparative survey.

This site has huge potential, perhaps for an interpretation centre, but it would need to be looked after well.

5) Kurumburam Yeri

A local man-made traditional water management system: a traditional tank (yeri) that was constructed to increase the productivity of Tamil Nadu, modelling knowledge from Chola times as to how to conserve and distribute water.

The site itself is three hundred acres at least, flat and relatively empty at this point of the dry season, attracting cormorants, egrets, sandpipers, lapwings and many other wetland birds, as well as being as a watering hole for local cattle and other wildlife. There is also the occasional barringtonia acutangula tree and cane.

There is an exciting idea to create a protected bird sanctuary here: planting at least 150 species in and around the tank, especially species that live in water, like Barringtonia and acacia nilotica, that provide superb habitats for birds.

Many migratory birds come from abroad, to nurture themselves from the Kazhuveli wetlands and to restore this nearby Yeri is a superb opportunity to create another migratory habitat for wetland birds.

Already 50,000 birds visit each year during migration, but with the proliferation of prawn farms in the wetlands, roosting areas are under threat.

6) Munnur tank and pottery

One of the best examples of tank bund plantation with palmyras. A lot of big trees have been removed, and it is a wonderful example of a palmyra-studded bund (the earthen dam built to hold and control water distributuion over 500 years ago, with sluice gate and manually operated gates to supply surrounding rice fields).

Historically this was a complex and efficient way for farmers to work together and bring about community consciousness and cooperation – sadly a rare phenomenon today.

Bund tank, Munnur, Tamil Nadu
Bund tank, Munnur, Tamil Nadu

Munnur has three hundred temples, as the name indicates – (Munnur – three hundred in Tamil), but our next destination was to visit a potter. His workshop was an Aladdin’s cave of water jugs, cooking pots, lamps, chattis (flower pots) and dishtis (statues you put in front of your house). Having helped to set up his workshop under SEDAB, we went to help him fix his broken potting wheel.

7) The palm leaf medicine man at Olagapuram

Jonathan holding an antique Tamil medical manuscript
Jonathan holding an antique Tamil medical manuscript

Sri Nagaraj Mudliya and his wife, the parents of Dr. Logonathan, an 11th generation healer who helped Joss create the Pitchandikulam ethnomedicial forest, under the FRLHT programme (Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions) in 2000. Sri Nagaraj is a traditional eye-doctor. In his back room is a treasure trove archive of palm leaf manuscripts, written in Telugu and Tamil, detailing Siddha knowledge passed down over the generations. Some of his medicines are also over a hundred years old, as in Siddha tradition, medicines improve over time, like fine wine. It was a real pleasure to see this invaluable archive, and hold these priceless manuscripts in our hands.