Washington, DC – About 35 years ago, impressed by the good work of an organization called Child Relief and You (CRY), I decided to visit their main offices near Bapu Park in Delhi. I was even more impressed by the huge piles of rotting trash strewn all around. I realized that good things do exist and flourish in the midst of filth and depravity- but as a compulsion, not a precondition.
Having visited about 50 countries around the world, I learned something about how different populations cherish their treasures or discard their waste. The Indian method is unique in some ways. It also helps to have the lotus as the national flower and Vedanta as a philosophical pastime. The mystic might say that (inner) purity can flourish amidst the (outer) filth. And modern science would say that the inner and the outer are interrelated. Perhaps the two can merge at the material level, whereby a healthy body and the environment help to sustain a healthy mind and behavior.
The Indian condition, where diversities are known to exist, encompasses both approaches (science and mysticism) and their apparent contradiction as well. Examples abound in pristine villages and harried cities: piles of trash in front, or around the corner, of spot-clean homes with flower gardens; with dogs, rats, and scavengers digging in to salvage any remnants of discarded value; plastic bags, glass bottles and aluminum cans appearing to gift-wrap the junk; colorful wrapping and packaging material flying out of home- and car windows; insects and flies swarming the open-pit sewerage around homes, shops, restaurants, and even hospitals; people practicing tip-toe walking in lanes and streets to avoid spitting and dropping; clouds of dust rising from early morning brooms and mid-day winds. Sounds like a trash trap?
Many countries around the world cherish their constitutions containing a long or shortlist of individual rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, they seldom cover personal duties and responsibilities. And as the human species, we still enjoy the comfort of safety while treading the path of extinction. But that is another matter- a topic for another write-up. For now, it may help just to add a few more rights and freedoms- freedom to breathe fresh air, freedom from collective waste, and freedom from man-made disasters and planetary destruction. But we must own what we create. After all, the dirt all around did not fall from the sky. How long can one wait for the local authorities to own up to the task and clean up the mess? There is no dearth of ideas or techniques to transcend the trash trap and live in a cleaner and healthier environment. Perhaps some of these ideas can also be globalized, apart from everything else that is being globalized.
About three centuries ago, Philadelphia was almost like a village with a population of 4000. Fifty years later, when Benjamin Franklin became a prominent businessman in town, its population had grown to about 20,000. By all accounts, Franklin lived an extraordinary life that was intense, inspiring, and well-planned. He excelled in all his attempts as a businessman, scientist, and statesman. It was in Philadelphia 250 years ago that he came across dirty and dusty streets before he became famous for discovering the positive and negative charges of electricity in his lab and in the skies. He did not wait to rise up to the need of the time, which was to plant simple new ideas and propagate a new culture. These were his own words:
“I propose for the city I love an effective way of cleaning its streets. Some may think this is a matter of small importance, that it is not worthwhile to consider the dust blown in the eyes of a single person in a single shop on a windy morning. But in a popular city (Philadelphia), it happens all the time. Human happiness comes not from infrequent pieces of good fortune, but from these small improvements to daily life- to make life more comfortable for common people. The doorway to heaven is not what we believe in, but what good we do for our fellow creatures.”
According to archeological findings, the inhabitants of the Indus Valley civilization thousands of years ago had already devised elegant systems of drainage and sewerage disposal. The point here is that the genius of Indus or the brilliance of Franklin is not even required for any technological breakthrough; it is only a matter of shedding the inertia, changing a few habits, and taking the initiative to make the neighborhoods more pleasant and healthy.
There are basically three types of actions to be considered: (a) Initiation – inhabitants of a locality or neighborhood to form an association to encourage: separation of recyclable trash at origin, general awareness within the association, cooperation with local municipal authorities, or to arrange private or voluntary services; (b) Local Authority – if there is a municipal entity applying tax revenue for waste disposal, drainage and sewerage, then inhabitants of that area could monitor the services and deal with missed or irregular services; (c) Initiative – if the area is not served by any public sector agency, then the private association could agree upon a membership fee to pay for the services by a private contractor.
“Ability determines what you are capable of doing, motivation determines what you do, and attitude determines how well you do it.” This is an unforgettable message from an unknown wise man.
Dhananjaya Kumar is the Co-Founder and Trustee of India International School and Cultural Center (IIS).
IIS is a non-profit and equal-opportunity educational institution, serving the community since 1982. The main objective of IIS is to: provide quality education in the arts, culture, and languages of India; impart knowledge and skills to younger generations seeking personal growth and harmony with others; and sensitize the youth to basic human values and preservation of the environment. About 100 classes per week are taught by 35 teachers in core subjects including: vocal and instrumental music, classical and modern dances, fine arts, Yoga, and languages. IIS students frequently perform at national and local community festivals, theater, radio, and television.