Many moons ago on a lazy summer afternoon, while spending time on the verandah of my childhood home, I saw an elderly lady roaming in the by lanes of our sleepy neighbourhood. I vividly remember that incident even though it’s been years since then. She was holding a sack with one hand near her shoulder while balancing it comfortably on her back. The piece of cloth which was wrapped around her fragile frame looked dirty and torn from several places. She walked barefoot, while her eyes fixed on the ground as if in search of something precious. While observing her I noticed that she was picking plastic bags, packets and other trash from every possible nook and corner. My curiosity multiplied several folds as I failed to understand her reason or need to collect those items from filth. Therefore, a volley of questions forced open the floodgate of my innocent mind.
”Is she alone, with no one to take care in her twilight years?”
”How could she walk barefoot on the streets? Is the ground not hot enough?”
“Is she not feeling dirty to touch the garbage?”
I called her once she was done with collecting trash from that area and asked her why was she doing this and that too at her age. She said she had none who could take care of her and she does this for a living. As I was moved by her plight I asked my mother if we could do something for her. My mother said maybe we could collect recyclable plastics and hand it over to her when she comes. I felt good as I thought in this manner we could do our bit to help the poor lady. Initially I exhibited great enthusiasm in collecting milk packets, plastic bags and other plastic recyclables for the old lady, but the zeal gradually dipped down and therefore after sometime it became my mother’s sole responsibility to collect the trash. But I always made sure to personally hand those over to the lady. This ritual continued for a couple of years until she stopped coming. Back then I had no idea what waste management was all about. I just tried to help her out of empathy. Surprisingly, after so many years while I retrospect, I am unable to recollect studying about waste management or for that matter plastic pollution at the school. It was only while pursuing my higher studies that I got a chance to learn about hazardous nature of different types of wastes and their management. Even though I was not ignorant about the issue by then, but still I didn’t have the knowledge of what exactly needs to be done at an individual level. In our country, issues like household waste management don’t enjoy the same status as issues like pollution or deforestation, may be due to lack of awareness. It is due to this lack of awareness we are not able to comprehend a larger picture.
Last year, when the schools reopened after summer vacation, gradually the euphoria surrounding green movement mellowed out but a handful of people still continued their tryst with the garden. During those days I realised, giving shape to the garden was difficult no doubt. But maintaining it was all the more difficult as weeding continuously was quite taxing. All this time while contributing assiduously to the cause of green movement, Ratna – one of the active volunteers, had researched about the issue which is closer to her heart… Waste Management. During those weeding sessions at the garden, she discussed about it extensively and she had plans of taking that up with the society’s maintenance committee. This is an issue which has created waves in western countries, but if we say in our part of the world it has started creating ripples that would be an over statement. But still I thought it to be another great cause that was creeping into our life having a potential to mobilise the society and turn it into a great movement. Amid talks with the maintenance committee at different levels, she brought home a stack composter/khamba for her wet kitchen wastes and started collecting other recyclables; especially plastics as they take thousands of years to degrade, thus creating a menace to our environment. As per the information she gathered, it seems first of all waste needs to be segregated into kitchen and dry wastes. Secondly, almost everything under the sun could be recycled thus increasing sustainability. From a piece of paper, to shampoo bottle, to masala packet etc everything could be recycled. Interestingly, if our wastes are managed efficiently, a lot of energy could be saved. Kitchen wastes when decompose in landfills generates methane, a greenhouse gas which is 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide (another greenhouse gas). Thus, by composting her kitchen wastes at home she intended to minimise methane gas generation. And also by collecting solid wastes and sending them to recycling plants, she was able to do her bit to reduce carbon footprint.
I am sure she must have been the only one from our society to start composting kitchen wastes and that too showing dedication in collecting recyclables to the extent of rinsing plastic pouches (from food takeaways) and keeping them aside. In spite of this, my prior experience with the green movement (as by this time I had understood what power within one person can do) did not allow me to doubt her potential to bring about change. Even a small step taken by an individual is important as it could bring about a significant change in the mindset of the society. As by seeing one individual taking the unusual path, many like minded people could get inspired to walk the same path. She had already taken the first step, thus paving way for others. According to the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: ”A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
As Ganesh Chaturthi was round the corner and lot of residents were expected to participate in the celebration, Ratna thought of promoting waste management awareness by staging a skit with the help of resident children. For days children rehearsed at Ratna’s home. She along with a few others suggested the Ganesha committee to go for eco-friendly idol instead of plaster of paris idol as the latter produces a menace to water bodies after they get immersed. Meanwhile she had prepared and laminated a few pictorial charts related to the segregation of wastes, so as to circulate the pictures in various whatsapp groups within the society. On her request, the committee agreed to put a stack composter/khamba near the Ganesh pandal so as to make manure by composting flowers which were offered to Ganesha. And later the manure could be spread in our gardens. She volunteered to bring the composters. As we too wanted to bring home a composter, we accompanied her in order to bring the composters together. As per one’s family size one can choose the size of the composter, but we went for a big one. One set of stack composter comprises of three terracotta vessels. Which should be placed one above the other.
We were coming home with two sets, so there were six vessels in all to load in the car. A couple of them were placed in the dicky and rest others had to be adjusted on the rear seat of the car. I vividly remember our journey back home. The earthen vessels took the side seats near the windows while Ratna sat in the middle of the rear seat, right on the edge with her son on her lap. I quickly clicked couple of pictures, and she sportingly obliged me with a smile. I don’t have an idea how she managed to sit like that for so long. While coming back home, I wondered if they were feeling claustrophobic, being packed from all around with no space to breath. We asked them repeatedly, if they were alright, and to my surprise, the smile on Ratna’s lips was able to belie the discomfort she was in. I was awed by her humbleness. After some time I sat silently as we drove back home… watching the branches of the trees crossing by, the clouds wandering in the sky, while watching them… slowly my thoughts too drifted to a situation which involved Ratna and her sons. During the green movement days by any chance if her kids missed out the morning session at the garden, she made sure that they made up for it later in the day. Very quietly, three of them tilled the soil, weeding a patch of land under the scorching sun. They just went about with their duty without being noticed by most of us. Honestly, it would be incorrect if I say I didn’t take a leaf out of her book in parenting. I wonder if these virtues of discipline, dutifulness, punctuality and humility were due to her upbringing or due to her association with armed forces. The age in which we live, we are habituated to see the world around us preoccupied with the notion of self projections. If one meets a person who is not shouting from the rooftop and going about the task in a low profile manner, this certainly comes as a sweet surprise.
The skit on waste management was conducted on eighth day of Ganesh Chaturthi. While Ratna anchored the act, the children nailed it in conveying a strong message regarding eco-friendly idols, and the need for waste management, landfill menace, plastic pollution and health hazards due to plastics through their short but informative act. After the skit, Ratna took to the center stage and delivered a thought provoking speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen hope you enjoyed the skit. Could we please have a round of applause for this splendid performance.” The atmosphere got filled with loud clapping and cheering. After a pause, Ratna resumed again. “I think the kids were able to create an awareness about the hazardous nature of plastics and the need for recycling them. So I need not go deep into that but all I would like to tell is that please keep this in mind – Earth is the only planet which is presently habitable for human race and other living beings. Colonising somewhere in outer space still seems like a distant dream. And even if that becomes a possibility, is there a guarantee that our children’s future family members would be able to make it to a safe place? So for most of our children and their future families this planet is the only place where they can live. It would be quite unfortunate if our future generations have to face the consequences of our irresponsible behavior. Obviously, we don’t want them to suffer due to our ignorance and recklessness. Besides we could save our resources by adopting sustainability principle, i.e., by reducing, reusing and recycling our wastes. So dear residents, please start segregating your wet/ kitchen wastes and dry wastes. This is the first and the most important step. If it is feasible for you, you could use a composter at home just as I am doing. I had a word with one of the organizations which collects trash and send those to various recycling units. Every alternate Sundays, they are expected to send their representative to our society. We can give away the recyclables, especially plastics to them. Let us all join hands in the mission to hand over a better earth to our future generations. I request you to spread this information to others in the society. So two weeks from now we will all meet near the central park with our trash. Thank you.”
Ratna left the stage amid roars and cheers. As we were getting late for dinner, holding my little one’s hand I quickly left for home. Somehow, Ratna’s words were hovering in my mind, striking me where it hurts or matters the most… my child, her future family. I pledged to do whatever I could, even if that meant walking an extra mile, so as to leave my child comparatively a safer and healthier place to live in. After that Ratna did not sit quietly. Instead, she mediated a few meetings between the residents and the organization which was suppose to collect our recyclables. Apart from this, she along with a few others campaigned and conducted meetings with the women folks at their residence, so as to spread awareness for the cause. Besides, she repeatedly showed her stack composter/khamba to the interested residents at her home and discussed and demonstrated how to do composting so as to spread maximum awareness.
After two weeks the recycling guys came at the appointed time, to collect our trash. While walking with the recyclables towards the central park, a strange nostalgia overpowered me. After so many years I could feel the same enthusiasm and a sense of accomplishment that I felt during my childhood days, while handing over plastic bags to the old lady. While glancing at the bags I realized that over the years our plastic usage had increased manifolds. I could see so many packets in the sack which were used to pack different items. The packaging of food items have changed over the years. When we were kids, the local grocer would use old papers and jute strings to pack things. I remember my mother and grandmother stitching cloth bags out of old and used clothes, to be carried by my father and grandfather to the market. Those days we did not have online grocery stores sending us vegetables in separate plastic bags. Instead, vegetables of all kinds would come in a single cloth bag to be segregated and kept in the refrigerator later. Years ago, neither the spices came in plastic packets nor juices came in tetra packs. I remember the grocer used to pack pulses and other items in paper pouches which were handmade out of used papers. But slowly, the polythene bags replaced the paper pouches. Interestingly, our previous generation reused every ounce of resources that were available instead of throwing away things instantly. And recyclables were kept aside to be given to the scrap collector. Ironically, the world has come up with the concept of sustainability or waste hierarchy, i.e., reduce, reuse and recycle. But our progenitors without knowing much about the three ‘R’ had adopted a lifestyle which implemented the same.
Once I reached the stall, I figured out that around only 20 odd families had come down to give away their trash so far. Strangely, after all the effort that Ratna had put in, the turnover was very low. May be their mind was still bogged down in the narrow by lanes of present. Thus, they couldn’t fathom an obvious catastrophe in future. As a result, they thought this activity of segregating and bring wastes to the recycling van to be an unnecessary affair. But Ratna, as much as I could study her, is certainly not one of those who would give up easily. The biggest challenge that posed in front of her was to convince people to segregate their kitchen wastes from the dry wastes and come down to the recycling stall. For the next couple of months, she came up with one innovative idea after another to lure as many people as possible into this. Every time, she would surprise me with her courage to proceed alone with minimal support. She brimmed with resolve and optimism which helped her to bounce back with one innovative idea after another. She excelled in understanding the situation and was able to read the resident’s mind and accordingly chalk out her next plan of action. For instance, she understood that if children were made the target audience, they could be moulded easily as their young impressionable minds would be more receptive. After all, it was their future that we were talking about. In Spite of her busy schedule, she managed to take out time to plan and make arrangements for for events that she wanted to conduct. Of course, a few people helped her. But honestly, their support was just like a few drops of water in the ocean. But I never found her complaining. Instead, she acknowledged whatever help she received and moved on. On some days, she would arrange for an open air film show for the kids. The film depicting the ill effects of plastic in our lives, water bodies aquatic life etc. Then post film session, she would again tell the children what to collect for recycling and also asked the children to inform their parents about the same. There were occasions when she would conduct painting competition having waste management as a topic or conducted cleanliness drives on weekends for interested grown ups and children. Which was then followed by breakfast for the children, sponsored by the green movement fund.
To me, involving children in this mission proved to be master stroke for her as the children were able to understand the need to dispose plastic in a better manner and inculcate the habit of sending them to the right place. I have heard about instances where children acted like her, holding a pen in a similar way as she would hold a microphone while talking, talking like her while playing pretend games. She became an inspiration, a role model for many children in the society. A few children without feeling awkward, at the drop of a hat, would pick up plastics from common areas and throw them in trash cans. Interestingly they were the same people who had a habit of throwing chocolate wrapper on the floor, at their home. Ratna was able to influence and mould them positively. Hopefully, these children would be able to resist feeling awkward or inhibited in doing the same thing when they grow up.
The numbers definitely increased after all the efforts that Ratna had put in. But it was still a long way to go. The state government in the meantime had started taking segregation of wastes more seriously. As a result, we were given instructions to strictly adhere to segregation and disposals of wet and dry wastes. Actually, it becomes practically difficult for the garbage pickers to manually separate these wastes if given together. It is such a shame for us as a society if we are insensitive to the plight of the garbage pickers. Moreover, we don’t even realize that we are sitting on a time bomb which would explode anytime. Already scientists are confirming that we are heading into a mass extinction comparable to the ones which made Dinosaurs extinct. The difference this time is – this event is man made. Meanwhile Ratna had met the municipal commissioner at his office to ensure the authenticity of the claim of correct waste disposal/ management by the government. On her request, the commissioner had send the medical officer to engage in informative discussions with us about the health hazards and other issues. After all these efforts that she had taken, now we need not come up to the recycling van. Instead, we could give away the segregated wastes at our own door steps as the garbage collector would bring separate baskets for our wet and dry wastes.
In these few months, she was able to accomplish substantially. Ratna has no intention to sit on her laurels. Instead, her trials and tribulations with the cause still continues. Her contributions are priceless. Even though she struggled to hold her ground, she never gave up. She took up an issue which did not have much takers but still fought hard to uphold it. She never waited for a whole lot of people to support her (even though she would have loved it that way), but she did not hesitate to embark on a journey less preferred; with her conviction and strength of character to give her company. In other words, her initiative was able to create ripples locally, and maybe someday these ripples would become bigger waves thrusting their way to virgin shores. Many of us would say that Ratna is an exception. But honestly, each one of us have the same inner strength and indomitable spirit which could help us to rise to the occasion and achieve what the soul strives for. We just have to tell ourselves “to arise, awake and stop not till we reach our goal”.
– Aradhana Basu Das