Newly arrived to India we had just gotten adjusted to the hot weather, the special toilets and the bugs and spiders invading our rooms at night when our teachers and coordinators told us that we would spend a day at the garbage dump. We were told to bring a scarf to wrap around nose and mouth to avoid the smell, and to bring comfortable shoes. The rest of the preparation, the mental part, we had to do on our own.
In India, garbage handling does not work the same way as it does in Sweden, France or the US. In fact, it seems not to be working at all. One of the first things I noticed during the three hour ride from the airport to Auroville was all the large heaps of garbage lying around. On the streets, on the side of the street, in front of people’s houses. Waste bins are nowhere to be seen, and people don’t seem to be searching for them either. Many just throw their waste on the street outside their house, which of course results in the heaps of muddy, stinking waste. The smell that occurs when it rains or when the heaps are burnt might be one of the most obvious signs of the massive amount of waste lying around, but it is not the only one. There are other, more long lasting and serious problems created by the enormous amount of waste produced in India every year.
The day for the dump visit came with burning hot sun and not much wind to make the heat easier to stand. We were all prepared with sunglasses and scarves, but still the smell was a shock. The dump was burning. Not heavily burning with flames and people running in panic, but with grey smoke that floated like fog above the gigantic mountains of paper, plastic, computer parts, human excrements and banana leaves. The burning sun did not make it easier to stand. In the middle of this hell we could see shadows of cows, dogs and people walking around on the mountains. We met one of the women working there. Her name is Shanti, and even though she is only 37 years old she has three children and has been working at the dump for over 20 years. Her job is to collect metal and sell it to collectors in the city.
There is quite a well developed chain of people handling the metal that Shanti collects. When she has sold it to a collector, she gets paid a certain price. The collector himself then sells it on and in his turn receives money, a little more than Shanti gets. The first and the second collector take on large amounts of any kind of waste, but the third one specializes in one area. Shanti’s metal findings will eventually end up at this third collector who will pay the second one a little higher amount of money than the first gets. Finally, the third collector sells his waste to a factory that pays him he largest sum of money in the chain and then uses the waste to produce new items. This way everyone in the chain makes a small profit.
Shanti and the other people at the dump are in their own way working for sustainability. The fact that a lot of the waste in India does not get separated is a huge problem. If compostable waste and non-compostable waste were separated they could both be used again. Compostable waste can be used in farming and growing new food, and non-compostable can be recycled into other products. But when mixed, the waste is useless. Shanti and her colleagues are working with this sorting. Some specialize on computer parts, some on metals and some on plastic, and slowly they are cleaning the dump from non-compostable waste. But the progress is too slow and the working conditions at the dump are horrible. I could not wait to get away from there and my tears started falling when the first glimpse of life in Shantis eyes emerged while talking about her children who have all gotten education. She does this for them. She does not care about sustainable development or that the waste is creating enormous problems for her country and for fellow indians’ and her health. And she should not have to. Shanti should not have to work at the dump to enable her children to get educated. She should not have to sort the waste with her bare hands. Shanti should live in a country where people sort their own waste, where the streets are clean and there is no huge burning garbage dump. Talking about, reading about and studying sustainability is great, but it is people like Shanti who do the work, make the changes, who are the real heroes.
By Ronja Ekström, Linnaeus University