The broom is mightier than the camera

If you eat a packet of chips, what will you do with the empty packet?” asks Pawan, a coordinator of the Waste Warriors programme, during a workshop at the Sunderkhal Government Junior High School in Corbett area of Nainital district.

A gaggle of around 50 students pipe up and answers in Hindi in unison. “We’ll put the packet into our bag and put it in the right trash bag at home for collection”. A couple of kids look confused but, for the most part, they all have the same, clear reply.

Pawan then opens a massive bag and starts to pull out items. He holds each item up, asking the children to identify if the item constitutes wet, dry, medical or electronic waste and segregates them into four piles. He asks them how long each item takes to biodegrade and be one with Mother Earth. Nine hundred and sixty years, 350 years, 200 years and so on, the children pipe up again. The 11-14 year olds are able to answer almost everything most adults, including me, cannot. Three benevolent looking, rotund gentleman seated on chairs —presumably the heads of school — look upon the students proudly from a corner, encouraging them to participate and offering them a “shabaash” as a reward as and when due.

After around 45 minutes of a well delivered, engaging and, at times, humorous lesson on waste, the children are divided into three groups. The youngest group plays a board game focused on solid waste management. The other two groups are lined up, made to wear gloves and handed litter pickers. The children scamper away giggling and excited. Within a few minutes, they reappear, thrilled with their pickings. They deliver before Pawan and his team, kilograms of PET bottles, plastic, banana peels and other icky looking items with oohs and yucks, each claiming to have done better than his or her peers. If only some of their sincerity and enthusiasm could rub off on the safai karamcharis of the municipalities or even the political leaders and bureaucrats who routinely have their photographs printed in newspapers, broom in hand, hoping their boss will notice the next morning, I think to myself.

I learn from the Waste Warriors team that what I witnessed was the regular “Children’s Day” programme that they conduct in 78 schools in the area and reach around 8,500 children annually. Workshops are usually conducted two or even three times a year in the schools by teams trained by them. Children in and around the Corbett landscape are better informed than those in most cities. In fact, they are better informed than most educated adults in many cities.

This incidentally is only one part of the clean-up exercise Waste Warriors has undertaken in the Corbett region of Uttarakhand, the area that attracts among the highest number of annual tourists in the state after Haridwar, Rishikesh and Nainital.

Before I reach the school, I accompany two ladies from the Ringora self-help group who undertake door-to-door collection of segregated waste in the Gebua Khempur village. We visit and collect waste (no wet waste is usually collected in these areas as it is fed to their livestock) in over 25 houses. These are members who have agreed to segregate and pay between Rs 30 and Rs 50 as a monthly user fee for the service. Twenty ladies in the community have been trained in the self-help groups and they rotate and take turns to do the job. They are paid a daily rate for their efforts. The collected waste is transported to larger warehouses rented by the NGO and is later disposed off in the best possible manner. The exercise is, however, currently miniscule in scope since only 15 villages in the area are covered. In many villages, the collection is financed through funds raised by the NGO from donors who support them.

The job of NGOs such as Waste Warriors and a few others operating in the area is usually made not easier but harder by park officials, municipal bodies and the powers-that-be whenever possible. A few years ago, a well-intentioned director of the reserve had roped in a few NGOs to help clean up within the park but the effort, funds and intention is often limited to the tenure of the official concerned.

I happen to visit at the worst possible time. It’s the off-season (the park is closed), the sun is unrelenting and the temperature and humidity are at their peak. I find the outside periphery of the Corbett reserve reasonably litter-free. When I mention this to those who accompany me, they advise that I visit again once the park is open. Seeing, they say, is actually believing.

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