Solaikuruvi at Lower Shola
Members of Solaikuruvi work daily to keep Kodai’s sholas clear of garbage (Photo: Naveen Payas P)

It Began With the Birds

For the past year and a half, Joshua Edward and A Jeya Pringly Ilancharalathan have been setting out to the forest in the morning, one hand gloved and the other holding a garbage bag. It’s not such a strange sight until you learn that they are neither ragpickers nor workers employed by the municipality to collect waste.

Born and raised in Kodaikanal, the duo manages a group with more than 45 members, called Solaikuruvi (a species of bird found in the sholas), to mobilise like-minded individuals from Kodaikanal to collect and segregate waste from the hills, especially the sholas.

It is no secret that parts of the sholas have been treated like a garbage bin by locals and tourists over the past few decades. There are tonnes of empty plastic and glass bottles, and construction waste scattered all over the hills. These bottles pose a choking hazard to the soil as they prevent rainwater from percolating into the ground. Additionally, bottles with inserted needles, suggesting drug use, are regularly encountered, as well as Tetra Paks of drinks such as Frooti. The waste, both degradable and non-degradable, also attracts predators—crows, dogs and monkeys—into the sholas. This is a threat to the unique birds and animals that call the sholas their home. While the crows eat small birds and destroy nests with eggs, the dogs attack Malabar squirrels.

So just like a bird that gathers seeds, members of Solaikuruvi gather waste from the sholas every single day. The result? More than 9,000 kilos of garbage being cleared from the woods. Of this, more than 3,000 kilos have been recycled.

A Solaikuruvi member wears an inventive outfit made of waste at a clean-up drive organized by The Kodai Chronicle and the Centre for Environment and Humanity, this Earth Day (Photo: R Serapandi)

How Solaikuruvi came to be

It all started when Joshua, who runs a handicraft store near the Kurinji Andavar temple in Kodaikanal town, noticed that his two employees spent most of their time seemingly hypnotised by their phones. Disturbed by their addiction, he decided to divert their attention by speaking to them about his passion for nature. Encouraged by their positive response, he decided to cast the net further afield and invited his friends and about 30 school and college students to his house for lunch and a talk in late December 2020.

At this gathering was Pringly, a childhood friend of Joshua’s who had hiked extensively across the hills and who also spoke to the group about his experiences spending time in the wilderness. ‘They really enjoyed listening to us,’ says Joshua. ‘And they wanted to contribute in some way to Kodaikanal, their hometown.’

So before their interest could wane, Joshua and Pringly planned a trip for the group to visit Nellivarai, a small area near Prakasapuram, a few days later. ‘When we went into the forest, we found heaps of garbage,’ says Joshua. ‘There were glass liquor bottles, plastic water bottles and Tetra Paks of cold drinks all over the place.’ The group spent a few hours painstakingly collecting it all and putting it away in a garbage can. ‘There was a sense of satisfaction among the group members that they could contribute in some way towards cleaning the environment,’ recalls Joshua.

After that, there was no stopping him. Joshua started to pick up garbage every day during his morning walk at City View, a viewpoint close to Shenbaganur that is used by both locals and tourists as a picnic spot. During one such walk, he bumped into Pringly, who informed him that he too had been gathering garbage during his walks near the lake. They both decided to combine their efforts and invite others to help. And so, Solaikuruvi was born.

Founding members of the group – Joshua (left) and Pringly (Photo: B Nagaraj)

The members of the group (all known to either Joshua or Pringly) range in age from 12 to 45. Five of the group are women, including Joshua’s wife. While Joshua and Pringly gather garbage for an hour every day, other members join in as per their convenience. Everyone meets once a month to collect waste and segregate it into plastic, glass and wet waste. After responsibly disposing of the waste, there’s usually a tree-planting session, followed by lunch.

The founders of Solaikuruvi do not collect a fixed membership fee from members. ‘Several of them are school and college students and may not be able to contribute much financially,’ says Joshua, who is glad to receive whatever members can contribute towards the monthly event. This ranges from Rs 100–500 on average. The money collected from selling recyclables is donated to a family who is engaged in collecting plastic and glass waste for their livelihood.

The name of the group was chosen when Joshua and Pringly realised that they had separately come across the word and that it had resonated with them; Joshua had used it in an article that he had written about Father KM Matthew, an environmentalist who passed away in 2004, while Pringly had posted a tribute after the passing of Robert, an environmentalist passionate about grasslands, on Facebook titled ‘Oru Solaikuruvi Sorgam Serndadhu’, which roughly translates to ‘A solaikuruvi has reached heaven’. ‘We realised that “solaikuruvi” was something we had both written, and though it is a species of bird in the sholas, we used it to mean birds in general. Then, when we proposed naming our group Solaikuruvi, the members also liked it,’ says Joshua.

A bison looks on as a Solaikuruvi member goes about their work (Photo: B Nagaraj)

Cleaning up City View

After the group was formed, Joshua and Pringly continued their task of collecting waste from City View—seemingly Sisyphean, as this shola is continually filled with rubbish discarded by tourists as well as construction waste dumped by locals. But as the shola is also the origin of Kumbakkarai Falls, it’s important to ensure that the waste does not contaminate the water bodies in the forest.

With this in mind, the group collected 167 kilos of unbroken glass bottles and 12 kilos of plastic bottles from the area, and handed it all over to a recycler in Moonjikal. They received Rs 360 after selling the bottles. This was handed over to one of the members as fuel expenses as he had transported the garbage in his vehicle from the collection point to the sales yard. ‘We dumped the other types of waste into the municipality bin as we did not know how to dispose of it properly,’ says Joshua. Mark Antrobus, the president of the Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC), saw Joshua’s post, commended the group’s efforts and suggested that they learn more about waste management.

The group cleaning up Lower Shola (Photo: Naveen Payas P)

A few months later, Mark and a few members of PHCC were invited to go along with Dr Rajamanikam, Centre for Environment and Humanity (CEH), to witness the amount of garbage collected over two months. Shockingly, more than 260 kilos of glass bottles, 28 kilos of plastic, 3.5 kilos of aluminum cans and 250 kilos of non-recyclable trash had been collected.

Krishna Bauer, a resident of Pambarpuram, says, ‘I wanted to join in such cleaning campaigns. Alone, I could not do much. We have to think about the next generation.’ Krishna has participated in three events so far, including a clean-up drive organised by CEH and the TKC Trust on Earth Day, which collected 724 kilos of trash (out of which 291 kilos were recyclable) in and around the lake and Bombay Shola, and two others by Solaikuruvi.

Mission Bombay Shola

Next, Joshua and Pringly set their sights on cleaning up the Lower Shola, or Bombay Shola. Located in the centre of Kodai town, this shola has ancient trees, including one that is 500 years old, and shelters several unique species of birds. And, there was a high volume of garbage; it had accumulated over several decades.

Lower Shola appears equal parts garbage dump and forest (B.Nagaraj)

Not only was there an enormous amount to clean, there were other challenges in this shola. Plants in the area caused severe itching on contact with its leaves, making it difficult to pick up small items near them. There were shards of broken glass strewn about, which could injure the members. And leeches were aplenty.

One morning, Pringly found that visitors had used the garbage bags to cover their heads when it had rained the previous night. The garbage had been emptied out; everything had to be picked up all over again.

Wings of change

However, in the short span of the group’s existence, there have been several changes at City View and Bombay Shola. People living close to City View have reported that the amount of plastic and glass litter has reduced over time. One day, Joshua and Pringly discovered that a group of picnickers had neatly gathered and left their picnic waste close to the bags collected by Joshua and Pringly over the weeks, instead of throwing it around. So, the two left a few bags at the same spot for future visitors to use.

Solaikuruvi at City View (Photo: Naveen Payas P)

Joshua began seeing positive signs in the forest whenever the group assembled to segregate, such as the return of wildlife to the area. ‘In June, I saw a deer. That was encouraging,’ he says. It took an entire year and six meetings for Solaikuruvi to clear up City View. Then, on 8 June 2022, Solaikuruvi installed a metal bin at City View for public use. A member takes the responsibility for emptying the bin every Wednesday. The group continues to clean the sholas, slowly and steadily, and have decided to clean Tiger Shola next year.

With the participation of more members in their own locality, Joshua and Pringly hope that the work continues long-term. After all, every one of us is responsible for a clean environment.

Reena Raghavamoorthy

Reena Raghavamoorthy completed her post-graduate degree in media and communication. She has worked for B2B publications in Dubai, and currently works for The Potter's Shed in Kodaikanal. She lives in Attuvampatti.

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