In a city that generates 7,700 tonnes of waste in one month, according to Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation figures, a garbage collection drive featuring 40 people and a 1km stretch of road seems like a drop in the ocean. Yet, initiatives like the Carter Road clean-up, spearheaded by 28-year-old graphic designer Anya Rangaswami, are having a ripple effect across India. “People are frustrated with the absence of accountability," she says. “And some of us feel that we can fix it."

Living off Carter Road in Bandra, Mumbai, for the last four years, Rangaswami’s daily run takes her past the heavily littered stretch. On closer inspection, she realized the piles of plastic debris and food waste had even concealed a small sandy beach between the promenade and rocks. “I was fed up. I just wanted to go there and clean it up," she recalls. A friend recommended recruiting volunteers, as “more hands would mean more trash would get cleared", so Rangaswami posted her thoughts on Facebook. What followed were 10 weekly, two-hour clean-ups where volunteers collected more than 25 industrial-size bags of trash per session.

On Day 1 of the first clean-up drive (4 June, a day before World Environment Day), Rangaswami was prepared for a small turnout. The number of volunteers who showed up came as a complete surprise. “On Facebook, people tagged others to spread the word. Of the 40 volunteers who participated in week one, all but three were strangers to me," she says. The youngest volunteer was six years old; the oldest was in her 60s. Surprisingly, several of the participants were from outside Bandra. “One guy came every single weekend from Andheri while others came from Vile Parle and other distant suburbs," she recalls.

For environmentally aware citizens, this was a passion project for them. It was the camaraderie that Rangaswami, who is originally from Pune, cherished the most. “It felt less like activism and more like a community coming together," she explains.

Once the project took off, Rangaswami set up a dedicated Facebook page and WhatsApp group. She also invested in around 50 pairs of reusable gloves. “Using surgical gloves would have been counterproductive, because we’d only be adding to the plastic waste," she says.

The initiative has led to the re-emergence of a small sandy beach between the promenade and rocks.
The initiative has led to the re-emergence of a small sandy beach between the promenade and rocks.

After the first few weeks, a core team of regular volunteers was set up to plan ahead. “Questions like who will collect the trash and how will it be disposed had come up ahead of the clean-up," she recalls. That’s where the Bandra West Residents Association and H-West ward office were of great help. “Everyone knows there is a problem with garbage, but a clean-up puts you face-to-face with the sheer volume of it," says Rangaswami.

Volunteers collected empty chips packets, straws, bottles, puja material, and “heaps and heaps of plastic".

“While I agree that clearing trash may be the civic body’s problem, we share a big part of the responsibility with how much we consume. The easiest thing to do is to use less," says Rangaswami, who believes that while citizen clean-up drives don’t provide a long-term solution, they do bring the littering problem into focus.

As time went by, Rangaswami admits that participants appeared discouraged by the mounds of garbage that continued to appear. The only real solution is to get people to acknowledge that the dirt outside is not someone else’s problem. “At the end of the day, change has to come at an individual level before it can translate to a community at large," she says.

Lessons to make giving more engaging

Firstly, don’t be afraid to venture out alone because you will always find support. “The best thing about a population of our size is that there will always be some people who think like you," says Rangaswami. Also, team-building activities are essential when you are trying to band together a group of strangers. From sharing photos on social media to nariyal paani after the clean-up, keeping morale high will encourage continued participation. Lastly, if you want to inspire others to give, you need to be public about it. “One of the reasons we organized the clean-up in the evening was so bystanders would see us clean. Sometimes they asked to join in, which was nice," she recalls.