C. Srinivasan's mission is to bring people out of their homes and have them involve themselves in cleanliness drives

“When you collect any discarded material from a household within 12 hours of its disposal, it isn't logical to term it garbage.” I thought C. Srinivasan, a renowned environmentalist from Vellore, was stating the obvious. But what he told me next made me rethink my conclusion about his preceding statement: “There is a lot of social stigma associated with collection of waste. Thanks to our age old caste hierarchies, collection of waste is usually attributed to one particular community. The moment we made people realise that all unwanted material can actually be used to make a dignified livelihood by ceasing to classify them as garbage, a lot of people joined us to make a difference: environmentally and socially.”

Visible change

Srinivasan has thrown his weight behind a few of the most noteworthy projects all over the country. The results are significantly visible in his hometown Vellore, where one consistently gets to witness demonstrations and awareness campaigns attempting to drive home the importance of sanitation and its social relevance.

Srinivasan's pet project, which has been consistently re-christened over the years, is now called the Solid and Liquid Resource Management project (SLRM). It involves door-to-door collection of waste and recycling them for use in diverse fields. It has accounted for 750 jobs in Vellore alone. “For every 250 families from whom we collect resources (he deliberately avoids using the word garbage), four BPL women get jobs. We also employ differently abled people, men and women who have been jailed for indulging in illegal activities, and family members of blind individuals. They earn Rs. 3,600 to Rs. 4,500 on an average,” said Srinivasan.

When questioned about the primary environmental benefits of the project, he said, “It eliminates mosquito breeding, makes dumping yards irrelevant and hence reduces the overall ground water and air pollution in a particular locality. Most importantly, it initiates a disciplinary mechanism in a society.”

What were the various challenges that propped up when he went about implementing this project? “Educating people about the importance of the project was a challenge. Next, we had to teach them how to segregate organic and inorganic waste. We encountered a lot of problems there, as a lot of people were simply not ready to contribute constructively in whatever small way possible. We took classes for them every weekend for 12 weeks after which they started involving themselves in the project seriously. Then there were people who used the brand new dust bins provided to them for waste collection for other purposes like storing water or flour. So we purposely made holes in the bottom of the bins.”

Srinivasan praised the government and private organisations for their contributions towards the project but says that the administrative bodies still have a long way to go as far as certain critical aspects are concerned. “The government just wants to keep the city clean and ensure that there is nothing overtly disturbing which might worry the general public. They generally don't worry about dumping yards and the health hazards that are tagged to it. It's good that people have woken up to the hazards of dumping yards in various cities now, I expect some constructive change. Lack of scientific know-how among key administrators is another issue of concern.”

The path ahead

So what is the scope of this project? “It is on the verge of being implemented in 10 states across the country including Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka and a few other north-eastern states. It is being aggressively advocated in 16 districts in TN and is already in operation in a few.” The project also brought people out of their homes in a bid to create a better society. “They were proud of the fact that they were instrumental in keeping the neighbourhood clean. The project also indirectly saved 200 cattle from being slaughtered. More than anything else, the government generates employment and income just for keeping a village/city clean. It has to invest Rs.46,000 on sanitation per month on an average without any return in a typical scenario,” he said. “The best thing about SLRM is that it supports a plethora of activities. It is a complex integration of seemingly unrelated activities. It makes use of what I refer to as India's third greatest resource after solar power and human potential: garbage.”

Said Srinivasan, “The time has come for us to maximise this misplaced resource and thus tap the unorganised wealth therein.”