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He Traded In His Career At Google To Rescue India's Polluted Lakes

Kilkattalai Lake clean up
Kilkattalai Lake clean up
Stephany Gardier

GENEVA - He quotes Mahatma Gandhi and wears the traditional Indian dress, but Arun Krishnamurthy is not living in the past. On the contrary, it is his desire to build a better future that led him to give up a promising career at Google and create an organization to help fight environmental degradation in his native India.

For three years, the young Indian man has been launching projects to clean and rehabilitate urban lakes, which are suffering from the exponential growth of Indian cities. Krishnamurthy was in Geneva two weeks ago to receive the Rolex Award for Enterprise, which will finance the revitalization of the Kilkattalai Lake, on the outskirts of Chennai – formerly known as Madras.

“I grew up in a very green environment,” remembers Krishnamurthy, who was born twenty-six years ago in the suburbs of the Indian megalopolis. “I used to spend half of my days watching birds, snakes and frogs around the lake near my house.” Fauna and flora were one of his passions from a very early age, and he quickly realized how the unbridled growth of Indian cities could have a devastating impact on nature.

He was shocked by how little time it took for his childhood lake to become polluted and then completely dry out, which prompted him to look for solutions to a problem affecting most bodies of water around Indian cities. In a country with no waste management system, people often end up dumping their household garbage into lakes -- the same goes for construction and industrial waste.

As a teenager, Krishnamurthy was involved in local actions to safeguard the environment. But it is only after completing his studies at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) in Delhi and finding a first job at Google that he decided to make his lake rehabilitation project come true.

Asked how he made the decision to give up a promising career at 25 and create the Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI), Krishnamurthy answers promptly: “Finally, I had found my goal in life,” he says. Still, he insists that his experience with the search engine company was important for him, and that he felt inspired by the firm’s philosophy. “I stepped down from my job at Google, but the emotional ties will always remain.”

“The lack of money can never become an excuse”

Krishnamurthy’s first project to regenerate a lake near New Delhi was self-financed. Soon, he was joined by other young people who were also worried about the future of urban landscapes in their country. Today, EFI employs seven people and has more than 300 active volunteers, mostly teenagers, dispatched in nine major Indian cities. With shovels, rakes and buckets, they clear the lakes that are overflowing with waste.

When people congratulate him on winning the Rolex Prize -- for which 3,000 candidates had applied -- Krishnamurthy is almost embarrassed to answer: “This is not a personal success; everyone in the foundation is very involved, and the actions of each volunteer are as important as mine.” The young man explains that EFI has a communication committee and a scientific committee, but that there is no hierarchy in the organization. Each volunteer signs a document certifying their involvement in projects, and then it all relies on each person being aware of their responsibilities.

But EFI projects are not only about regenerating the lakes, which is only the visible part of the organization’s actions. Its founder explains that the greatest challenge is to change the way Indian people think and behave. “What I want is not just to inform people,” Krishnamurthy explains. “What I want is for people who helped clean a lake or received training in eco-system conservation to go and spread the word.”

In order to reach as many people as possible, Krishnamurthy is using songs and choreographies. “Indian people love dancing and singing,” he says, smiling, “so we rewrite the lyrics from famous film songs, so that we can explain our actions to people in the villages.” The organization also uses social networks to communicate, and Facebook in particular, as it is very popular among young Indians.

The 50,000 Swiss francs ($54,000) prize that Rolex gave the foundation is the only financial support Krishnamurthy has received so far. But even if he is very happy to have been awarded this prize, he insists that “the lack of money can never become an excuse to give up on a project.” After India, Krishnamurthy would like to make his skills useful in other countries. He is thinking about Sri Lanka and Nepal, two neighboring countries that are facing the same pollution challenges as India, and that he considers “brother and sister countries.”

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