One bright morning, in summer of 1990, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, a banker from Indian Overseas Bank, M.B.Nirmal, and some of his close friends began cleaning the Marina, the world’s second longest beach. Every evening for the rest of the week, the clean up continued. By the end of the sixth day, there was a five fold increase in the number of the people involved. There were no announcements, advertisements or invitations for people to participate. By the end of that sweaty humid summer of 1990, was born one of the fastest growing communities in the world, Exnora.(The name Exnora is derived from excellent, novel, radical ideas in solving environmental problems by involving those who caused the problem).
Overwhelmed, by the support he received, M.B.Nirmal quit his regular job to build Exnora and thus a banker turned into a social activist. Community building is the philosophy that Exnora is based on. The core ideal is to tackle social and environmental issues concerning our immediate neighborhood by bringing together like-minded groups / people to work for the upkeep of the commons within the community. The trickle down effect of that summer cleanup - many clean up programs organized at different locations across the city, attracting local communities to participate. The success of this movement was so huge that the Chennai Corporation (the local Government body) soon took notice of this movement of the people and began lending its supportive hand. The then commissioner of Chennai Corporation, Abul Hassan, IAS and M.B.Nirmal, regularly began inspecting critical areas in Chennai that needed immediate attention from the local community.
Today, twenty two years later, Exnora International, the parent body has more than fifty divisions. ‘Home Exnora’ promotes greener ideas for a better home, ‘NeerExnora’ reactivates and recharges the water bodies in and around the city, ‘Green Exnora’ spreads the message of a cleaner and better environment, and quirkily enough for Chennai, there is even an ‘Auto Exnora’, that helps in issuing licenses to thousands of new autos every year. In all these divisions, the focus is to bring people with common ideas and goals under one roof – Exnora.
The biggest and the widest success amongst all the divisions so far has been with the Youth Exnora and it saw its success not in the conference rooms but in the slums of Chennai .In 1993, Nirmal began attracting hundreds of college students to enroll in the Exnora movement. A glorious example of ‘creating the change’ is the Venkatapuram Slums in Saidapet .The Youth Exnora workers and volunteers managed to transform the filthy slums into a clean locality by living in the slum for many days, understanding the problems of the slum dwellers and charting out a blue print for solution.
Youth Exnora is the largest wing of Exnora with over ten thousand members and has offices in London and Washington D.C apart from other major cities and towns all over India. Exnora International sponsors many members from Youth Exnora to go abroad and take up short courses/internships to empower themselves with the freedom to learn and acquire the techniques of social management, for it’s not just sufficient to promote community consciousness, the challenge being in sustaining and empowering them.
At present, the so far biggest project of Youth Exnora is the Green Kalam initiative, that centers on plantation of one crore saplings across the country in the next one year, appropriately named after the famous scientist and Ex- President of India, Dr.A.P.J.Kalam, himself a huge supporter for the initiative.
With the world looking hawk-eyed at India as the world’s biggest human resource bank, Dr.Kalam repeatedly says, “It is the youth of our nation that is our biggest strength, and it is essential to tap people at the right age, at an age when passion levels run high.”
Civic Exnora, another exciting wing of the Organization, helps develop communities amongst neighborhoods for cleaner, garbage free localities across Chennai. Civic Exnora is an ideal case study for many social scientists. It began with great momentum but in time the energy waned off for some time. The initiative started with fifty Civic Exnora bodies across different locations in Chennai, where the neighborhood took responsibility for the cleanliness of their area by appointing a garbage collector for their street. Weekly assessment meetings were held for regular updates. The community grew and remained active for many years, until the mid 2000s when automated and more convenient garbage collecting machines were introduced by the Government.
While the machines where meant to ease and facilitate the cleaning process, the energy of the community became lax and the people involved felt less responsible for their commons. The coming of the automated machine meant, things will take care of themselves. As a result, today most of the garbage lies strewn around on the streets with large stinking overflowing bins. Seeing the sorry state of affairs, a few neighborhoods like the Besant Nagar area have decided to own up responsibility and approached the Civic Exnora body to help facilitate bringing back the community based maintenance system. One wishes more Civic Exnoras emerge across the country. We do need to open our gates and realize that the definition of ‘my home’ includes the street, the town centre, the city, country and finally something that converges to ‘my Earth, my home’.
Exnora has also been a life-shaping experience for people like me who are part of the Exnora team. I’ve been to Exnora’s office hundreds of times now, and every single time I come back with new insights into various subjects ranging from the economics of sustainable development to the philosophy of recycling for social change. A pioneering organisation like Exnora can be the inspiration for many other such initiatives when it can attract and hold the interest of people who join to spread its message.
As M.B.Nirmal says, I’d like Exnora to be known not as an organization but a movement and every time I walk out of Exnora’s office, I feel proud, proud to be part of a new community , a movement.”