A couple of months ago, we were surprised to find a welcome arch framing the turn into the potholed road that leads to our corner of Akathethara panchayat. Then we heard that the honourable chief minister was to inaugurate the panchayat’s compost centre on the coming Sunday. The centre has been talked about for a while, and we were looking forward to a time when the vegetable shop and butcher at the level crossing would stop dumping rotten vegetables and more unthinkable rubbish across the road, where it all formed a putrid mess that was picked over by goats and dogs.
On the Sunday afternoon, Saar and I set out fashionably late to walk down the hill to the compost centre. It was empty, and the workers were winding up. The inauguration had been cancelled because of the death of a former prime minister, so we got a chance to nose around without having to listen to speeches.
The compost centre is run by six local women who belong to Kudumbashree, a women’s self-help organization. The panchayat pays them a salary. The stout Thangamani, flashing button-like gold ornaments on either side of her nose, showed us two tarpaulin-covered mounds, each with a dog arranged on top. That was their inaugural pile of organic rubbish, she said, which would be put into concrete vats with earthworms and then broken down into compost.
On the day we saw the centre, the premises were tidy and there was no rubbish, except for those two mounds. That, said Thangamani, was because of the chief minister’s visit. Operations were suspended for the duration.
That also explained the sudden appearance of three cement sacks full of trash on the road between the compost centre and our house, a stretch that was not on the chief minister’s route.
Since that Sunday two months ago, the main roads of Akathethara, from which the rubbish is collected, are just marginally neater, to our eyes. Shopkeepers and householders have been asked to put their organic and inorganic rubbish into two separate bins, but small heaps of garbage still lie in front of some shops. And the level crossing is by no means clean.
In our neighbourhood, many of the houses belong to farmers, for whom organic waste is an oxymoron. They compost everything. When we first came, we saw a fight break out over ownership of dead leaves on the road, so we now sweep up the leaves outside our front fence before someone else can get them.
Vegetable peels and stalks are fodder to those who own goats and cows. Just about anything might serve as chicken feed. Flammable rubbish becomes fuel, and the ash is sold or turned into the soil to improve its potash content. The termites devour the rest.
Our neighbours do not buy many packaged goods. Milk goes directly from the seller’s can to the buyer’s. People pound their own spices, boil their own jam and fry their own jackfruit chips. They make their own brooms out of coconut fronds, they patch and reuse every cooking pot until it is fit to be melted down, they plant flowers in old tins and cracked mugs. Ambika and Srini press their own coconut oil and use that for cooking and bathing. Shanti mixes her own detergent. The artistic Mr Paulose sheathes old tubelights in coir rope for philodendron to climb on and mounts his potted plants on sections of pipe. Saar and I try to buy from grocers who wrap our provisions in newspaper and measure rice into cloth bags stitched from old shirts. We dump our new sneakers into the back of the car and say no to shoe boxes. But between the oats packets and the magazine sleeves, we end up with quantities of inorganic packaging that we must burn on our own land.
The road near the small quarry is changing gradually from rural to suburban, and many of the families in the new houses leave a record of every consumable and durable they buy on the granite slopes and the once-lovely pond below.
Carrybags are always being banned, but local officials have not addressed the problem of biscuit wrappers and thermocol. When the cleaners pick up plastic waste, the panchayat can only incinerate it. Still, the very existence of the compost centre puts our panchayat ahead of those towns that are looking to dump their garbage in someone else’s backyard.
And from our neighbours we are learning to tread lightly on the earth.
This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala.
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