Garbage Free India: The unclean cleaners colony

Want to deal with the problem of garbage? Educate the young ones about why cleanliness is important


Garbage Free India’s campaign with schoolchildren at Nabadisha School, Kolkata. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Garbage Free India’s campaign with schoolchildren at Nabadisha School, Kolkata. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Garbage Free India

At the Ambedkar Colony in south Kolkata’s Alipore area, the sweepers have just returned from their job of cleaning the city. The colony is home to around 500 sweepers employed with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.

For people who keep the city clean, the living conditions in the colony are appalling. Garbage lies dumped along its lanes, the drains are clogged with plastic, the courtyard and sides of buildings hold waste water and garbage hangs down the sunshades of windows. “People keep their rooms clean but don’t care about the dirt outside,” says Mithun Rajbanshi, a second-generation sweeper and resident of the colony.

Ambedkar Colony, though, is one of the constituencies of the awareness campaign run by Garbage Free India (GFI), a Kolkata-based citizen’s collective that seeks to raise awareness about garbage dumping. Knowing how intractable adults can be, GFI has got the colony’s children to act as messengers of a cleaner, healthier living.

At the Alipore centre of Nabadisha—an informal school system run by the Kolkata Police for the city’s underprivileged children—GFI activists hold sessions on cleanliness and hygiene; and volunteers help the children paint cleanliness-related diagrams and graffiti on walls.

Shruti Ghose, co-founder of GFI, says, “There is little in school curriculums on littering or garbage management. If we can raise awareness among children, they will carry the message home.” An alumnus of Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Ghose stresses on the collective approach at GFI, formed in 2012. The organization has a core team of volunteers hailing from professions as diverse as fund management, management consultancy, social work and infrastructure. “We are not a waste management company but focusing on something basic—getting the average citizen and children involved in cleanliness,” says Sanjiv Kapoor, co-founder of GFI and chief operating officer at SpiceJet airline.

GFI, which runs primarily on donations by members and well-wishers, has conducted community partnership programmes in creating awareness about, and in cleaning up, areas like Orient Row, Park Circus, etc. Considering schoolchildren as “change agents”, partnerships have been forged with schools like Chowringhee High School and Sri Sri Academy, etc. The children clean up their school, the surrounding areas, draw graffiti on walls, help in creating awareness and have cleaned up a corporation-run school.

“Trash mob”, spot clean-up, “Adopt A Bin” campaigns among corporate entities, canvassing for cleanliness at the Kolkata Book Fair and placing dustbins at some Durga Puja pandals have been part of the GFI’s activities this year.

GFI is also trying to change people’s attitude. If GFI’s awareness campaign has targeted the lower economic end of society, it has also focused on the car owner rolling down his powered window to throw waste on the road.

The GFI’s campaign material quotes World Health Organization figures—1,086,093 diarrhoeal deaths in India in 2013—which can be directly attributed to garbage and sanitation issues. GFI also highlights a 2006 World Bank report which states that poor garbage management and sanitation cause India a loss equivalent to 6.4% of India’s GDP, amounting to Rs.5.1 trillion.

“We are talking about behavioural and cultural changes that have continued over centuries. It will take decades for us to effect change but a beginning has to be made,” says Ghose.

GFI has made a few early breakthroughs. At the sprawling campus of Kolkata’s Sri Sri Academy, the school’s principal, Suvina Shunglu, says students are now ready for the next level of garbage management after GFI had previously run a campaign in the school in 2013. “We are now making them aware of garbage segregation where every classroom will have two boxes for paper and plastic waste. Each landing will have a bin for biodegradable waste. A composting bin will also come up,” says Shunglu.

Nine-year-old Neeraj Ravidas returns home from the Nabadisha centre. It has only been a week since he met the GFI volunteers, but Ravidas knows that he can no longer nonchalantly throw the toffee wrapper or potato chips packet on the street. “I will put them in a dustbin or keep them in my pocket till I find one,” he says. Ravidas is the son of a sweeper. He has a message for his parents and neighbours. “I will tell them that we will catch some disease from all the garbage.” He doesn’t know what disease can affect them, but a beginning has been made.

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