Yesterday, the first Holi balloon of the season splattered my back with a gash of bright green. Stifled giggling from a nearby terrace told me it was the neighbours’ kids, probably on a break from studying for their imminent exams. I quite enjoy getting splashed, but something in the virulence of the green made me wonder why we all haven’t yet made the move from toxic chemical colours to safer organic options. Soon after, I had a chat with Dr Madhumita Puri, executive director of the Society for Child Development. The organisation collects waste flowers from over 60 temples and nine five-star hotels in the capital and dries them to make completely natural Holi colours. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that all this work is done by people with a range of mental disabilities.
It all began with waste marigolds outside their gate, thrown by a nearby temple. “The priest said the common practice was to throw temple flowers into the Yamuna, but he didn’t have the means to do it. Fed up with the putrefying flowers, we decided to take them to the river ourselves,” recounts Puri. However, when she saw the sorry state of the river, she couldn’t bear to pollute it further. “Instead, we started thinking of how we could reuse them...” she says. When they dried the petals, they found that the resultant powder retained the original golden colour of the marigolds. “Two years of experimentation and refining later, we launched our Holi and rangoli colours,” she says.
It took a fair bit of effort, though. They needed temples and hotels to keep them in ample supply of roses and marigolds.
And they needed to train the special workforce to do this work. “We found that that even people with few fine motor skills could be taught to pluck rose petals. Then we trained the slightly more functional workers to snip off marigold petals with scissors,” she says. Eventually, the entire process of manufacture — sorting flowers, separating the petals, sun drying and eventually powdering them, was managed by the mentally challenged. The remaining plant matter was vermi-composted, giving them an added income.
“When I saw how suitable this work was for people with mental disabilities, we decided to share the skills we’d learnt through time and error with several other institutions, undertaking to market their produce as well,” she recounts. As a result, today, the project reaches out to over 500 across the city. Everyday, they are able to work with around 600 kg of flowers. “Together, we produce about six tonnes of gulaal in a year,” says Puri, “and what’s greater is the fact that customers now ask for our gulaal — we don’t really have to work very hard to sell it anymore!”
Sold under their label Trash 2 Cash, these 100 gram packets of colour are flying off the shelves of their iconic rickshaw stand in Dilli Haat. Puri told me that the label helps the mentally challenged earn between Rs 2,500 and Rs 15,000 a month. In many ways, their colourful rickshaw manned by two extremely competent deaf and dumb salespeople doesn’t just represent how trash can generate cash. It shows how people who are ordinarily able to contribute little to society, can also bring brightness into the lives of people like us.