Anandam had not thought of waste management till Madhu Roy joined the community.
Madhu and Surajit Roy are one of the younger couples who joined the retirement community from Gurgaon. Madhu, a digital artist, is the most altruistic person I have ever met in my life. The amygdala of her brain, if mapped , would be larger, more active and weigh much more than that of mere mortals, who would not know how to spell the word .
To the Manor born, Madhu came from a comfortable lifestyle with house-help serving every need of the families they worked for. Cooked food appeared on the table and waste was cleared automatically when a van arrived every morning to collect garbage from their High End apartment in a fashionable part of Gurgaon. Waste disappeared from sight and site miraculously.
When she joined the Anandam Retirement Community , Madhu actually saw what happened to the waste collected from the individual houses and the cafeteria. The waste, strewn and littered on the pavements, was often visited by hungry stray dogs who roamed the colony scavenging for left overs. They rummaged and fought fiercely over scraps of food they could salvage. What remained was often drenched in the rain. as it lay about in putrid disarray. It was gross.
Initially, waste was collected erratically from random dustbins in various states of disuse and repair that dotted across the retirement community. The waste was collected, pooled and dumped in the Odais , their final resting place.
The Odais are natural pathways for water from the hills to flow down to in the plains. The Odais never filled with water, as no water reached the plains. Madhu saw the Odais fill with dumped waste and decided that it must stop. One day the Odais were going to overflow and spew out putrid waste in an uncontrolled manner. The waste dumped in the Odais had to be addressed.
Madhu spoke to the management . When they listened without hearing a word she said, she spoke to the residents individually and in groups. She wrote to the Head office in Delhi and she got the Management to remove the culprit dustbins and bullied them into arranging a daily pick up of waste from the houses at a particular time in the morning. She urged residents to separate waste before trashing it.
Food waste in one bin. Paper, plastic and glass in one bin and medical waste ie, soiled tampons and soiled diapers in another. This was an alien practice to many of the residents , who were used to putting all their waste indiscriminately into a single bin, if and when they ever handled waste . Most residents , like Madhu, had depended on their house-help coordinating with the Garbage Van in the Metros they had lived in.
Madhu, tall and graceful even when scorched by the sun, armed with a broad hat and duffel bag, walked around in her Afghan cross over tops and Alladin salwaars , taking long strides, trying to muster support for Operation Cleanup , working towards a Green Anandam. A Retirement Community, possibly the first of its kind, to go Green. A few who liked the idea joined the ECO group and kept in touch through a WhatsApp group. Some ECO members joined her in walking around educating the Senior Citizens about the need to segregate waste.
Some residents joined Madhu in refilling the truncated Bisleri bottles buried alongside newly planted saplings. Bottle irrigation dispenses controlled amounts of water as drip irrigation to water the low maintenance indigenous saplings . Others posted “Feel Good” posts and scenic pictures on the group. That was as far as they were willing to go for the ECO Green Anandam Project.
Only one faithful resident from the ECO group stuck with her to walk the talk, till the bitter end. Her friend and neighbour Bhanu Gopalkrishnan.
Bhanu was an enlightened educationist, a highly evolved human being, a fellow altruistic spirit, who was no stranger to J Krishnamurthi’s principles of holistic education, having worked with her husband Gopal, a retired professor from the IIT Madras, in many schools that insisted that their students grow responsibly with Nature and the Environ , looking after Mother Earth. Eventually Bhanu was the only ally that Madhu had left in her ECO group of 21.
Madhu realised that the only way to keep the ECO project alive was to do “Hands On ” waste segregation with the labour. When she started working alongside the labour , everyone moved away. Some said that they had not come to a retirement community to fiddle with random waste. Fair enough. They claimed that it was the responsibility of the Management to do waste management.
Was it really ? Is our environment not our responsibility ?
Madhu never gave up. Her persistence found her elegant self, squatting on the ground with the labour, who had to be supervised , sorting out waste when the waste came mixed and jumbled up. Despite repeated requests to sort out waste at source, soiled diapers, soiled sanitary pads and cotton pads with indistinguishable human waste, arrived buried with the kitchen waste. She did something many of us would never do. We could not , would not and did not handle diapers soiled with stool and urine. We could not, would not and did not handle soiled sanitary napkins stained with stale blood. We did not handle random waste, leave alone medical waste.
Yuck, Yew , Yuck
I was a trained doctor, with more than 55 years of experience in resource poor settings and in elite Corporate Hospitals the world over. I have worked, hands on, cleaning patients, dressing ulcers and resuscitating patients with CPR , when needed. Patients who suffered from diseases that were steeped in fear, stigma and ostracism. However, the thought of handling random soiled waste from the retirement community that I lived in, as a resident, was so repulsive, I baulked at it.
Like an ostrich , I buried my head selfishly in the sand and tended meticulously to my own garden. I planted , I watered and I manured my personal space converting a bare patch without a hint of green, to a lush green cover in 2 years. I posted pictures of our garden on FB in a series of “then” and “now“, “before ” and “after” . A garden, people admired and oohed and aahed over. I basked in their appreciation. I lapped up all the likes I got on FB within the hour of posting. I never spared a thought for a Madhu or the Green Anandam Community though I loved Green, I practised Green , I understood Green, I did Green.
I am ashamed to admit that I never went near Madhu, when she needed the support of the community most. I looked the other way and pretended that my waste disappeared into thin air, never to haunt me again.
The Waste Labour Task Force changed faster than lightening speed. Labour came, Labour saw and Labour left. Madhu, a fellow resident, stayed on unpaid and continued sorting out waste silently and steadfastly, hanging on to her dream of a Green Retirement Community , a Green Anandam. Eventually she built up a team of labour who stayed on to do what she was doing , because she was doing it and because she lead by example, handling “stuff”.
The rest of us who would not do what Madhu did even for one day, did nothing to help. We mumbled and grumbled and sorted out our waste at source. We grudgingly sorted out our waste in our homes to fill the three colour coded bins we were given and left them outside, as if it did not belong to us, to be collected by the truck that came around in the morning. We soothed our conscience and thanked the waste collectors, the labour who collected the waste. We tipped them surreptitiously and gave them snacks and sweets for handling our waste.
We never thought to thank Madhu who was sitting in the waste dump waiting for the dishevelled waste to arrive, to fine tune the sorting of the waste. The Retirement Community rewarded her efforts with ridicule, with cruel nicknames and some even served her brick-bats to her face and behind her back.
Undaunted, Madhu persisted with the Waste Management Program, the first Phase of the ECO project, a Green Anandam. Some residents, who never ever lifted a finger to help, or who would not have survived a day in Madhu’s life, suspected her motives. They were convinced that she was doing everything with some vested interest. They claimed that she had a secret agenda. She was working towards some personal gain.
They spread scurrilous rumours. Why would someone in their correct senses do anything as foul as waste management for a common good, unless one stood to gain ? Sadly, they judged her by their own standards, but could not support their claims or insinuations, Nor could they list the foibles they hinted at, when cornered. They had never learned to spell the word “ALTRUISTIC “.
Madhu sorted out the waste into food waste , paper and glass that could be sold and recycled and medical waste that needed incineration. FINALLY, after many months of bleating and begging , she got through to the Management, who till then had watched as indifferent spectators, to understand and support the ECO project. They finally understood Green with a USP, a unique selling proposition.
Anandam now has a regular pick up of garbage in colour coded bins. We now have clean sidewalks. We do not have rubbish strewn and rummaged by stray dogs who do not visit as often as they did before, as there is there is nothing to visit for. Eventually, the retirement community was shamed into being disciplined about segregating waste at source. Segregated waste trotted unasked into colour coded bins. Medical waste, never reared its ugly head in kitchen waste.
Madhu Roy had single handedly introduced and implemented Waste Management in Anandam.