Children open the innings for their gated community in Chennai

Some of the SWM volunteers. Photo: Special Arrangement  

When children act precociously, they compel jaw-dropping attention. Now, specifically, can a child’s lisping lecture be ignored when it is directed at a parent and a neighbour and is about why waste should not be mixed, and that every bin has its own trash?

Last year, at Casagrand Cherry Pick, a gated community with around 380 units, in Perumbakkam, grown-ups were subjected to such a pleasantly humbling experience.

By getting children to learn and talk about solid waste management (SWM), their parents were indirectly being prepared for a community-based SWM mission. The soil of resistance was being turned over and broken up.

This is how it all began. Srividya Giridharan, who now spearheads SWM initiatives at the community, and a few other resident-volunteers did not want Cherry Pick to be a laggard in waste management. But being in Perumbakkam had put the community at a clear disadvantage, as it had to look beyond the locality to watch best practices at close range.

Srividya got in touch with Sumitha Iyer, Swacch Bharat lead with the Federation of OMR Residents’ Associations and whose community — The Central Park South (TCPS) — has won awards, including a green award from Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board for the year 2018-19, for its waste management initiatives.

Watching the waste-management processes at TCPS was the best lesson Cherry Pick volunteers could have hoped for.

“We knew we could introduce the processes, and prepare the house-keeping and facility management teams adequately for the various aspects of the work, but the idea of talking to residents about it was daunting. By February 2019, we were ready, having done all the groundwork, but that one hurdle remained to be surmounted,” recalls Srividhya. “Residents could agree with anything you tell them, at an intellectual level, but when they have to start segregating waste at the individual level, they may cite reasons for why it is not workable.”

So, they decided to go to the children first. The children were put through primers about waste management concepts every weekend for nearly two-and-a-half months.

“The youngest child was three years old, and there were teenagers. The average age group was seven to 12 years” says Srividya.

So obviously, the volunteers would not drone on about waste management. Engaging the children took effort — in fact, great effort, as complex concepts had to be telescoped into the thirty-minute weekend sessions.

“The children were taught the concepts largely through two-minute videos in a mini hall. They would also be given activities, making paper bags being one of them. In one activity, we got the children to prepare their own charts and walk around the community, which made it interesting for parents, and helped us engage with the community indirectly. The younger children would talk about what should be discarded and what should be recycled. There were also skits and narration by children on what should change,” elaborates Srividya, adding that such activities spread the word further around the community.

The exercise worked at two levels — educating children about all that they needed to know about garbage, and partly educating and largely motivating the grown-ups subliminally to be ready for the challenge that lay ahead.

The next stage

And when the time arrived for the volunteers to deal with the grown-ups directly, Namma Ooru Foundation, a voluntary organisation engaged in environment conservation work, was invited to conduct a two-hour programme.

“The team from Namma Ooru Foundation organised a hands-on session, and actually brought along a lot of trash to make the explanations lucid for the residents. Natarajan, founder of NOF presented a lot of statistics and made his arguments for source segregation compelling. He made the two-bin and one-bag concept clear to the participants,” says Srividya.

Following this, the process of procuring the bins and bags was initiated. And then, focussed sessions with the residents — that is, the grown-ups — began.

The power of volunteering

Srividya points out that from the beginning they wanted to have at least one volunteer in every block. There are 14 blocks, and altogether, around 20 volunteers were on board, and a few of the executive committee members also added to that number.

“We were clear the people should not duck out of attending the block-level sessions giving work or anything else as an excuse. So, we encouraged the block-level volunteers to take it floor by floor. So, they would say ‘Let residents of this floor meet at 3 p.m., on a Saturday.’ That way, we ensured that all residents heard the message.”

Srividya says that the series of interventions had been effective, and only “10 percent to 15 percent of the residents needed hand-holding.”

From her account, the volunteers’ commitment made a difference.

“In every block, we needed to have a volunteer who would identify themselves absolutely with the cause. We wanted them to have a positive can-do attitude, understand that there would be challenges along the way, and that when they cropped up, they would cooperate and coordinate and do their work.”

The volunteers did not have to wait long for their commitment to be tested.

Srividya says that source-segregation went on stream towards the end of April, and in the early days, the difficulty in finding vendors to deal with the different types of waste led residents to question the effectiveness of the initiative.

“The residents were willing to segregate waste, and were also doing it, but as the panchayat did not have a mechanism to process the wet waste, residents wanted to know what objective their source segregation was achieving. We had to tell them that they should make source segregation a habit, and when the vendors were identified, they would already be doing the right thing. Besides, we told them by choosing to segregate waste despite the challenges at the panchayat level, they were making sure that at least 60 percent of the wet waste went to the dumping ground without any plastics in it.”

How they managed to find the vendors, especially those who would compost the segregated wet waste is another story. Cherry Pick has been a source of inspiration to other communities and neighbourhoods in Perumbakkam.

However, they are now forced to retell their story to their own community, as the pandemic put a halt to its SWM initiative, and the volunteers may have to prepare many of the residents all over again.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 5:11:37 AM |

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