The long, soft stretch of reddish sand leading to the sea from the well-paved seafront and road at Eliot’s Beach, Chennai, is surprisingly clean — much cleaner than the shorter stretches of sands going down to the sea off Goa where these days thanks to rowdy Indian male tourists hunting in packs and drinking, one can find one’s foot stabbed by shards of broken bottles.
I am with Maya and John, both in their late twenties. She’s an architect who was inspired by Laurie Baker’s obsession with mud until she discovered the reality of the job and the difficulty of staying true to the earth. Now she’s training to be a primary school teacher, shunning the use of her dad’s car and taking to the cycle. He’s an engineer by profession and worked in a software firm before he discovered the pessimistic but real endgame observations of Derrick Jansen and rapidly got bored with his job. He scaled down his needs, volunteered in a village school cum farm where they housed and fed him. Both felt they genuinely wanted to know if there was a different way to doing things and living life.
On the bright side, the total inadequacy of our schooling systems to challenge our young and goad them to be critical appears to have made many young persons in their 20s and 30s who — regardless of the smartphones they may use — have actually ‘dropped out’ of the system.
In these heady days, when the Ministry of Environment and Forests can actually be feted and cheered by industry for hastening ‘development’ and ‘growth’ via FDI, it bears consideration that the government may be consciously destroying the national heritage of an environment that has already been battered the last decade and some, to play catch-up with China.
We could do with more young people like Maya and John who have failed by conventional post-consumerist standards in not succumbing to the dream of newer cars, better plasma TVs, sexier fridges, home loans for Rs1 crore apartments and the dispiriting but tantalising prospects of comfortably paying back loans.
John sleeps in the daytime, Maya pedals on idealism, but every night, readily, both volunteer on the ‘Turtle Walks’ regularly conducted by the Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network. This is an organization of noble pedigree that came into being in 1988, inspired by S Valliapan and Romulus Whitaker — founders of the famed and much valued Madras Snake Park and the Madras Crocodile Bank. They began looking at the problem of turtles on India’s beaches as far back as 1971.
It doesn’t help to know that the seashore at Eliot’s Beach is used liberally as an open toilet by Chennai’s poor who don’t have other facilities. This isn’t a deterrent. “The shit is there,” John says, “nothing you can do about it. You just look for the turtles and the eggs”. Maya wrinkles her nose.
When the mother turtle hits shore, she performs an elaborate ritual in the softer, dryer sand, to lay down her load — some 60 to 100 eggs each time — and does this at least twice over a few days while she hugs the sea close enough to shore. She first ambulates the sand in a circle that grows smaller as she pushes out the sand to create a conical pit into which she will settle and bide her time.
Mother turtles are wise when they lay many more eggs than they know, almost presciently, will hatch. People from the slums poach them to eat. When the turtles hatch, they head on tottering legs towards the luminescence available in the night. Once this was the glittering of white frothy waves breaking on sand, today, it’s the harsh glare of neon lights on shore that sends them the wrong way to be attacked by stray dogs — or just to die, lost, confused and starved of their home. Marine scientists estimate that only one in a 1,000 hatchlings survives to adulthood.
The steadfastness of Maya and John to correct the trim of so-called human civilization may not be destined to bear fruit. As a news item in Chennai’s press noted on February 4, 2014 — quoting extensively in fact from a study conducted by TREE, another organization in Chennai working to protect endangered marine species — “at least 1,122 carcasses of Olive Ridley turtles were washed ashore on the beaches of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in January alone”.
The problem is fishing boats trawling too close to the shore, using inappropriate nets, trapping the mother turtles and literally, drowning them. Trawlers throw the carcasses overboard and bring in the same catch you can later buy at the southern end of Eliot’s Beach. Not a single day passed in January 2014 without the carcasses of turtles washed up on the beaches.
Not that the New Year brought hope.
Given the percentage of Goa’s population that uses the seashore as an open toilet — it is still infinitesimally low compared to Eliot’s Beach, Chennai — one would think that both turtles and those who track them ought to have an easier time not encountering human excreta. But ironically, also on February 4, 2014, the Herald, Goa reported that a deputy collector in cahoots with the police cleared a giant ‘party’ at Ashwem Beach in north Goa replete with a bank of giant loudspeakers and over 3,000 people in attendance dancing like morons. Both sides were well aware this was the height of the turtle nesting season. But this is Goa of transcending party affiliations, where much will be said on the matter and zilch will happen.
In any case, in the larger picture, Maya and John should know that our seafronts on both sides are just hot property, whether these are barricaded and barbed to create manicured beaches, amusement parks, docks, fertilizer factories, steel-smelting plants, resorts, condominiums, casinos or marinas to park one’s fancy yacht. Nobody, least of all our Ministry of Environment and Forests, seems to give a damn for creatures as ancient and slow-moving as turtles.
The author is a writer and theatre director currently working with Koothu-P-Pattarai, a Chennai-based theatre group