Sailing on muddied waters 

Tarun Nanda

Tarun Nanda has shown the world an ecological way of cleaning urban lakes. Red tape is coming in the way, but he’s not going to knuckle under

Tarun Nanda, 38, is an engineer and a unique individual inhabiting Delhi’s landscape. Many, particularly government officials, don’t know how to deal with him. For he’s methodical, scientific in his approach, refuses to be bullied, and is persistent enough not to get bogged down by the unending red-tapism. Dealing with the government gets to his nerves and he returns the compliment in full measure, getting on the nerves of bureaucrats he’s dealing with—without the slightest consideration for where they are placed in the hierarchy.

Nanda fails to understand why agencies end up creating problems rather than working towards a solution. He’s not the only one who feels this way and the answer is not difficult to fathom: It’s not the call of duty that guides their actions but some extraneous considerations.

Half Dutch, half Indian, Nanda grew up in London and has been living in India, mostly in Delhi, for the last 10 years. He’s taken it upon himself to clean Delhi’s water bodies. This piece of information may amaze many, there are 159 lakes in Delhi and last year the government allocated a sum of Rs 376 crore to rejuvenate them.

Nanda took the responsibility for the Hauz Khas Lake and evolved a novel, eco-friendly method which leaves no carbon footprints—doesn’t involve the use of electricity, machinery, chemicals—to do the job. Within a year or so the thick, toxic layer of algae that had spread like a blanket on the surface of the lake stifling oxygen turning it into a dead pool is now a thing of the past.

To make that happen, he and his band of committed volunteers released hundreds of small wetland islands held together by mesh in the lake. These islands absorbed organic waste and, in the process, clean the lake.

A few years ago he co-founded an NGO—Evolutionary—with Debayani Panja and signed an MoU with the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) for the upkeep of the lake. And it’s not just a job for him, but a passion! So much so that his life revolves around the lake, he lives in a one-room apartment on the fourth floor that overlooks the lake and is often seen walking around the lake armed with a lathi, discouraging, to put it mildly, tourists from treating the ruins as a venue to urinate and defecate.

Tarun with his team of volunteers

He recently found a new roommate, Prince—a white street dog, who retains his feral characteristic, hangs out with his cronies in the street, only to return to the warm room and rest on a bed placed in a corner next to Nanda’s. Despite still being a quintessential street dog, and to start with fairly famished, he is picky about the food he eats and the company he keeps.

Nanda makes sure there’s something savoury for Prince as he shares his meals with him. Prince is being trained to deal with humans humanely but his new best friend admires his undiluted personality and the fact that he can be unpredictable at times. This ensures that people take him seriously.

That’s what DDA officials feel about Tarun Nanda—a matter of fact person who is never shy to speak his mind and call a spade a spade. And he wouldn’t be discouraged enough to give up. 

The bureaucrats are not used to being questioned and challenged, let alone being corrected. And for his outspokenness in the public interest, he was unceremoniously shown the door at the office of a senior DDA official. This has only cemented his resolve to work with the government, in spite of the government, to clean the lakes of Delhi and NCR.

This ecological model has great potential for cleaning and restoring hundreds of water bodies in urban spaces, and, therefore, must be given due credence.   

His present struggle with DDA is about their intervention of introducing certain chemicals into the lake, which will undo the good work. And DDA officials don’t like to be told what not to do.

There has been a slew of tenders, like the one for feeding the birds, where a certain amount of money is allotted to employ a person who’d have the sole responsibility of feeding the birds in and around the lake. No one was employed, the present staff was given an additional task and, in all likelihood, the money is up for grabs. This is just one example of many such futile tenders. They need to be investigated so that public money is put to better use.

Also, such dealings by the government and its agencies are indicative of the larger problem that has severe implications: We take the government’s efforts in preserving the environment for granted. It’s not, therefore, a surprise that Delhi’s air is unfit to breathe, the Yamuna River is toxic, and groundwater contaminated. Pollution is an all-pervasive reality and there’s no escape. Further, it goes without saying that we need people like Tarun Nanda to make the right noises, and not be apologetic about it.

In his personal space—his room— he has acquired useful clutter in the last few years, some of it collecting dust. So when he’s not penning a letter to DDA detailing his list of objections, he’s experimenting with varied forms using his self-assembled three-dimensional printer, playing video games, listening to music, dealing with the landlord, or advising his aunt on technical matters like buying a mobile phone.

He’s been living alone for a long time, and all his acquisitions lately have been a testimony of how he’s evolved with time and his varied interests. He never does a shoddy job or settles for a shoddy job, which the plumber summoned that evening to restore water pressure in the taps learned the hard way. Keep up the good work!


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