From Big Apple with a big goal to cleanse a small town
Text and images by Kurian Pampadi
Kottayam in Kerala is a pint sized town when compared to the Big Apple New York but a petit frail woman visited the small town with an intent to help it save itself from the ignominy of one of the most polluted towns. She is Leela Maret, an environmental scientist in New York City.
Leela was in town early this year at 3E Golden Enclave. Her Ninan O Maret’s namesake father Ninan O Maret, 84, told his daughter- in-law how the town was suffering from a perennial problem of the refuse of the town dwellers which is dumped at an open yard at Vadavathoor, just outside of the town where he had a small farm. After returning from New York after three decades, he had started growing vegetables, coconut, papaya, fish, etc. “I cannot stand that stench. It is impossible,” the elder Maret told her.
Leela happened to meet the new Municipal chairman M P Santhosh Kumar, a dynamic young man with a lot of ideas and concern about the town’s pollution and waste management. While presiding over a meeting which also honored Leela with a civic recognition for her services, Santosh recalled visiting her father-in-law’s apartment when he was vice chairman of the municipality to sort out some problems. He could solve it. The building was occupied by a large number of retired civil servants and former NRIs like Ninan O Maret.
Santosh said since taking over as civic leader, he has seen several proposals to solve the waste disposal problem in Kottayam by many overseas experts including Indian Americans. He hoped that persons like Leela Maret who are very much involved in solving environmental problems in New York could extend thier help to a small place like Kottayam. Leela assured him full support to his endeavors.
New York has a whopping 8.5million population in an area of 800 sq km but Kottayam municipal town is just a miniscule of 1/16th the size (54.40 sq km) and a population of only 1.45 lakh. Yet it has a burgeoning waste disposal problem. “This is astounding and speaks ill of the unscientific planning and WW II methods of waste disposal” says Leela who moved to NY in 1987 after marriage while teaching Chemistry at St Joseph’s College, Alappuzha. She passed a competitive examination for entry to government service and joined the NY city administration.
Leela is proud that she is part of a team which keeps one of world’s greatest cities clean. Department of Environmental Protection’s main goal is to provide a clean and healthy environment to New Yorkers. Air quality and water quality is continuously monitored for its quality and safety. The department is comprised of different sections—Bureau of Wastewater Treatment, Drinking Water and Harbor Survey. BWT is responsible for the operation and maintenance of all facilities related to the treatment of sewage.
This includes 14 wastewater treatment plants, 12 harbor vessels and 8 sludge dewatering facilities. 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater is discharged daily by its multi-million residents. First water pollution control facility in the city was opened in 1886. In 1931 a massive plant construction began to build a system of water pollution control plants to treat and control all wastewater produced within the city. All public beaches have been open since 1992. The waste water is aerated and collected in big settling tanks and the sediment sludge is treated and dehydrated to form cake which is converted to fertilizer. The decanted liquid is treated with bleach and the effluent is tested for bacteria, suspended solids and nutrients.
In terms of drinking water, NYC has 1,14000 hydrants, 3 reservoirs, 68 groundwater wells stretched out for 7000 miles of water mains. The mission of the bureau of water supply is to reliably deliver sufficient quantity of high quality drinking water and to ensure the long term sustainability of the delivery of this most valuable resource in order to promote public health, economic development and quality of life of the city of New York.
Leela currently works in Harbor Survey section. Water surrounds New York city and the story of the harbor water quality in many ways reflects the history of the city. The section monitors and protects the ecology and vitality of the city’s local waterways.
Between 1892 and 1954 roughly 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island, near the Statue of Liberty. Many settled here and city’s population grew from 1.5 million to 7.8 million. The stories Of New York Harbor and New York City are inextricably intertwined. As the city grew the harbor’s ports served as an economic engine and a gateway for successive generations of immigrants who are the foundation of New York City’s strength and diversity.
“I was sorry to leave my home village of Kannadi in Kuttanad and my father N.K Thomas, a double MA who had a well established tutorial college in Alappuzha. He was a Congress leader and our home was where future leaders like AK Antony and Vayalar Ravi were groomed. My father rose to become the DCC president. Karunakaran was Home Minister when my marriage was held in Alappuzha and I remember him attending the feast.”
Leela had something in her as a born leader but modest and playing only from behind the scenes. But she soon rose in estimation and became a leader of New York community especially Kerala Samajam, Fokana, etc. She was elected secretary of DC 37, the largest city union encompassing all professions. She worked closely in association with community leaders across the US like Dr. AKB Pillai, Dr. MV PiIlai, GK Pillai, Mariamma Pillai and Paul Karukapallil and served as vice president of India National Overseas Congress.
Leela could go back to New York carrying some facts and fiction about her own Kottayam which is better known as Akshara Nagari as a land of letters and literature. The town is an important trading center of spices and commercial crops, especially rubber. Major Kerala print media such as Malayala Manorama and Deepika, both centenarian newspapers are headquartered in Kottayam. It is also a pioneering center of modern education in Kerala. Kottayamn became India's first city to achieve 100% literacy in 1989 and the district became the first tobacco-free district in India on September 28, 2008. The educational heritage of Kottayam is synchronized with the services of C.M.S. Missionaries. CMS College in the heart of the town is about to celebrate its bi-centenary.
To cap it all, Kottayam has a public Library older than the New York Public Library one of the largest of its kind in the world. The 130-year old KPL founded on a 7 cent plot acquired by T. Rama Rao who later became the Dewan of Travancore is the oldest public institution of its kind in Kerala. When its president Abraham Ittycheria visited New York Public Library in Manhattan, he was astounded by its majestic splendour with two large lion figures guarding its entry. It had 55, 69,953 volumes and 700,000 pictures in its digital library. Its president Antony Marx held a press conference recently to criticize the US government’s budgetary cut of $ 43 m from its annual grant for 2013.
Except for the name Public Library, the comparison ends then and there. Kottayam Public Library has only 1.5 lac volumes and 6,000 members. Its digitalization process is only half way. Yet it is seven years older than New York Public Library. And it is soon getting Kerala’s greatest cultural icon, a Kanai-made sculpture dedicated to Kottayam’s claim as the country’s first fully literate town. While the Library has just added a museum to it, Kottayam might also get a 5-cr Digital Art City proposed by Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, according to its chairman KA Francis.
Leela at Windsor Casrle Kottayam
'My Pa's old chum'-With-AK Antony
With Ommen Chandy-a family friend
Being introduced to Sonia Gandhi
Receiving leadership award from Thomas Jacob Ktm Mun Chairman Santosh Kumar on left
With son Raj N. Maret and father in law Ninan O. Maret
With Hillary Clinton-a resident of New York
Kurian Pampadi, former president of Kottayam Press Club and founder president of the Foreign Press Association of Kerala. He reported the 23rd Olympics in Montreal, Republican Party presidential campaign in Kansas City and International Eucharistic Congress at Philadelphia for Malayala Manorama. . Served as Kerala Correspondent of The Peninsula, an English daily from the Gulf. Currently Consultant to The Hindu in Chennai).