How these Facebook friends from TN’s Sivakasi wired for a watershed

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Express News Service

VIRUDHUNAGAR: An idea that was sown in the minds of three persons on a popular social networking site has now found its roots reaching so deep that the society has reaped benefits. A sense of belonging, and the thought of giving something back to the nature are a rarity these days, some say.
The story of how three friends swayed tens of thousands and gave Sivakasi a facelift, has humble beginnings.

In 2014, Facebook friends Saravanakanth, Shankar and Shanmuga Rathnam realised that they hailed from the same town. The newfound sense of belonging soon gave way to an urge to partake in something substantial.

The trio arranged an in-person meeting, and started the Sivakasi Facebook Friends (SFF) group. Likeminded people joined, and their first venture was to restore a roundabout at Sivakasi as it was then covered with thickets and garbage. “It took three months for the reconstruction, but now it stands as a symbol of Sivakasi,” the members say. Years and ventures later, today SFF has 80,000 members. The admin focus group has 54 members who coordinate and involve in several projects. But none of that gives them more gratification than the ‘Paneer Theppam’ mission.

“While we did and still do all kind of social activities, including tree plantation, Covid-19 relief distribution, educational help and such, we wanted to do something that has eluded the notice of others. So, we decided to focus on water management,” says Shanmuga Rathnam (42). 

Thus, the group began cleaning waterbodies, and in 2019, they decided to clean the town’s largest waterbody. The Paneer Theppam also known as Manikatti Oorani was once surrounded by paneer flower trees, and the fallen flowers would enrich the tank surface, elders fondly recall. But, the tank had been in an extremely sorry state for the past two decades.

“We removed the water hyacinth in the tank and cleaned it. However, within just three months, the hyacinth grew back and covered the tank again. So, we decided to chalk out an elaborate plan to restore the tank permanently, and use it for rainwater harvesting,” Rathnam said. 

Speaking about the plan, SFF president Veera Ashok (45) said the restoration was planned in three stages.

“Firstly, removal of water hyacinth and complete desiltation were taken up. Then we built an inner wall (retention wall) to prevent mud from falling inside the tank, and lastly, we constructed an outer wall (compound wall) to prevent any kind of contamination. We are also building a walking track around it, and a miyawaki forest nearby,” he said. While the total cost is estimated around Rs 35 lakh, Rs 10.5 lakh has been spent so far. 

Why this particular tank? There are 21 streets around the waterbody, explained Shenbagaraman (52). “As Sivakasi completely depends on borewells for its water needs, restoring a tank and harvesting water in it would replenish groundwater levels, benefitting the entire town. Several small and large tanks have been completely encroached upon or closed due to improper maintenance. We will soon take up restoration works of these tanks, too,” he added. 

The Paneer Theppam, spread across 1.2 square acres, had a storage capacity of 75 lakh litres before the SFF took up the upkeep works. Now, it can store up to 1.6 crore litres. For executing the works, the SFF receives donations from businesspersons and the public, starting from Rs 100. They also receive support in the form of manpower and construction materials. “The work is expected to be completed before the onset of monsoon this year, so that we can harvest rainwater. We are also mulling to construct a Sewage Treatment Plant here to treat sewage water and let it into the tank during summer months. However, this plan is in the initial stages,” said Shanmuga Rathnam. 

While cleaning the Paneer Theppam, the members removed garbage that were dumped there in the last 20 years. “We even spotted a plastic bag that was dated 2002, and we cleaned till the rocks at the bottom were visible,” another SFF member said. 

The group members said the social media has brought complete strangers together for a common cause. “SFF has now become an identity. Even people who do not know us are aware of the group. The reach is far and wide, and our videos and photos become viral frequently. We also upload the group’s financial statement regularly to maintain transparency,” said Karthik, another member.

Far and wide reach among netizens
For executing the works, the Sivakasi Facebook Friends group receives donations, starting from `100, from businesspersons and the public. They also receive support in the form of manpower and construction materials. A group member says SFF has now become an identity. The reach is far and wide, and videos and photos of their activities often go viral. In a sense, social networking has brought complete strangers together for a common cause



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