It is only in retrospect that I realise how many things I took for granted when I lived in Mumbai. Roads, street lights, water, sanitation, garbage disposal, etc. were not issues which were top of the mind as I rushed to catch my 8.20 train to Churchgate Station. Or in later years (as I prospered) when I got into my car to read the entire bunch of morning papers on my way to work every morning.
When I moved to Santiniketan, I was so taken up with the silence and the green that I never thought about mundane things like sewage and garbage for a long time. It was only when I had settled down and the honeymoon period got over that some things began to dawn on me.
Santiniketan, to a visitor, looks and feels like a semi-urban small town with, of course, a Tagore halo around it.
Most people would assume there would be a sewage system, a garbage disposal system, a road repair mechanism, and a street light plan which keeps the place going.
What they would not know is that this unique university town has no municipal authority. Administratively, it is divided between the Visva Bharati University and the Ruppur Gram Panchayat. The university understandably does not have the wherewithal to run the usual municipality services. Since Tagore never ate ‘Kurkure’, no traditional solution either. Central funding for ‘municipal’ activities is (by VB’s admission) down to a trickle as the focus is more on ‘educational’ projects. For the Ruppur Gram Panchyat, the residents of Santiniketan are a different breed from the usual panchayat constituents.
Just as the residents do not know how to approach a panchayat for their civic services, the panchayat is hesitant about aggressive planning for the gentry.
So even if it pricks their conscience, the educated and intellectual bhadraloks of Santiniketan have little choice but to chuck their garbage on the road when nobody is looking or burn it, oblivious of the environmental damage. Initially our response to this was personal: we just cut down on use of plastic (friends laughed as we moved to ayurvedic tooth powder in order to avoid plastic entering the house), but we soon realised we had to go beyond.
Since in our area (Purbapalli) most of the houses are on largish plots of land, dealing with organic garbage is not an issue. Plastic was the villain. So we went from door to door to convince neighbours to keep their plastic clean which we would collect once a week. In the meanwhile we approached the Bolpur Municipality (Bolpur is the adjoining town of Santiniketan) to allow us to use their dumping ground. Although a little taken aback at first at this strange request by individuals, the Bolpur Municipality graciously agreed.
So every Monday morning as my partner sets out on a bicycle accompanied by Bhubanbabu (our general Man Friday who was initially aghast at our idea of deputing him for garbage collection) with a cycle van trying to look ‘professional’ in their blue rubber gloves, they look rather comic! One of the local malis actually asked our cook whether my partner was a visiting surgeon! With all his surgical equipment behind him on the cycle van!
But the encouraging part is that most of the residents and the caretakers of houses of non-residents (the Santiniketan home is a weekend getaway for many) learnt pretty much quickly what this initiative was about. Not only did the plastic collection graduate from having to rummage through dirty waste bins to neat packets being hung on the gate, more and more enquiries have started to come from other areas on whether we would extend our services.
I am sure if we can keep at it long enough the word will spread and we will get volunteers from other areas. More importantly, our hope is to actually get people to reduce their use of plastic rather than be happy in the knowledge that they now can dispose it off without having to dump it surreptitiously. But till the house owners get the full picture, the weekly plastic pickers are often greeted with an apology for ‘aajke beshi nei’ (there is not too much this week)!