Lyn replied with an anecdote about a moment when she had been on holiday in Greece. Strolling in a city marketplace, she witnessed a group of tourists throwing their paper cups and greasy sandwich boxes towards one of the modern, elegantly designed bins, and then walking on. Lyn instantly realised what the market cleaner would feel when he or she came on duty and saw the mess. She unhesitatingly scooped up the litter and quietly slid it into the bin. (Sreejata ‘My diary’ 06)
During my student years in England, I supplemented my stipend by doing manual work in various places. One of these was the Heinz food factory. I also worked in the laundry and cleaning department. The job involved cleaning and putting it into bins, and then cleaning out these massive bins.
My elderly English colleague Lyn worked alongside me frequently. One day I asked her why the workers in the factory’s production unit were so callously unconcerned for their fellow workers in the cleaning unit – they would throw rubbish towards the bin they were passing, but never bothered to check if the items went into the bin or littered the floor; in the latter case, they would usually leave the item for the cleaning crews to dispose of. So she narrated her experience being a cleaner herself.
When I started visiting Dakshinpuri resettlement colony two years ago, the park at the corner of J Block had been abandoned and ignored by the neighbourhood for a long time.
The park is situated on MCD land. None of the local residents bother to clean up the space; nor does the MCD have any sort of regular presence. The municipality does not try to stop people from misusing the park as a convenient site for inappropriate behaviour. Despite an MCD bin and a men’s latrine along the main road opposite the park, locals have gradually but efficiently turned the open space into a public toilet and garbage dump.
However, people still utilise the filthy site, treating it as a shortcut to the main road. The park is in fact the only open space for the residents of J Block. The shopkeepers from the weekly Friday market continually throw garbage into the park; over the weekend, it becomes even filthier. There is no authority, collectively assigned or self-proclaimed, to place any curbs on the varieties of nuisance.
When Ankur Bal Club, for which I am a facilitator, decided to create strategies of intervention with regard to the park, we wondered how to sensitively push the issue of ‘reform’. Rather than take an oppositional stance, we decided to invest the space itself with meaning, to make the site relevant to the local community; we visualised re-shaping the park as a gift to the locality. We have been involved in this practice since July 2008, focusing on first cleaning the site, and then slowly making it beautiful.
Seeing that there was no single person willing to take the responsibility of overseeing the clean-up, initially we started sweeping the park with small brooms. These were inadequate for that large area, so we hired the rag pickers who came to the MCD dumpster outside the park to drop off the domestic garbage they collected. They swept the park on alternate days for Rs 50-60. But this did not really prevent people from throwing rubbish into the park from long habit, or keep a few obdurate families from using the space as a latrine.
So it turned out that during the day, Bal Club members and facilitator would sit on charpais in the park and try to convince people to not throw garbage there. Oddly enough, when residents became defensive they would each blame the other, and there was no solution to the problem of accumulated filth. As the anchor of the park project, I was continually thinking about the problem, even relentlessly concluding at one point that the only solution was to fence the park off with barbed wire. Some of the older residents actually seemed to find this viable.
The people found us trying to police locals who were in fact keenly interested in our efforts to revive and beautify the park, but who could not change their habits of littering.