The fear of Rs 50

When we were young and came to Santiniketan, we never realised the lack of it. Maybe because most of our garbage then was biodegradable and just went into a compost pit somewhere in the large garden. But once I permanently shifted in 2003 to Santiniketan, I realised this place had no conservancy services. Jurisdictionally, Santiniketan is divided into two parts. One part comes under the Visva Bharati University and the other under the Ruppur gram panchayat. Since none of them are capable of providing conservancy services, residents just chuck their garbage wherever they fancy.

Add to this, the hordes of tourists who arrive every weekend, and you can imagine the state of the streets of Santiniketan and the amount of plastic piling up.

So many years ago, my husband and I decided to start a door-to-door plastic cleaning service for our neighbourhood of over 150 households. Initially, this was funded by us and then residents started making purely voluntary contributions to see us through almost a decade of cleaning.

Emboldened by this, we decided to extend this to the rest of Santiniketan. While a hand pulled rickshaw van had sufficed to cover our area, we needed something bigger and faster if we were to do the whole of Santiniketan. We decided to buy an electronic three-wheeler (popularly known as the Toto) fitted with a hydraulic dumper. A few of us, like-minded in our fight against pollution, raised enough money from friends and family to buy the vehicle and pay for the battery recharge cost and driver’s salary for a year.

We then printed leaflets explaining how the Toto would visit each area once a week and collect only the plastic that the household had accumulated. For this, we sought a voluntary monthly donation of Rs 50. We were hitting 1,000 households and thought even if half these people opted to pay, our monthly expenses would be taken care of. 

But for Santiniketan people, Rs 50 is a big sum. Even though reality has changed and both academic and non-academic staff earn handsome salaries. A friend who had studied at the arts department at the university and is now a renowned sculptor had donated generously towards the initial toto buying fund. When we told him about our Rs 50 donation plan he said “Oh! they will say ‘zero’ means nothing and what will you do with Rs 5” in order to avoid paying. We all laughed.

But we realised how well he knew Santiniketan because the reticence to come out with Rs 50 was for real. Maybe for most of them it was a case of ensuring they were paying for a service that would be regular and consistent. So that we thought was fair. 

They would pay if we were able to demonstrate consistency.

But for many other households that was not the case. They simply didn’t want the service because they said they don’t accumulate any plastic. “We take our own bag to shop”, they said by way of explanation. “But what about biscuit packets, shampoo bottles and a million other plastic packaging which has become part of our lifestyle?” The answer: A gentle shutting of doors. 

Of course, they don’t have any. They are quietly being burnt. All to save Rs 50.

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