On a recent train journey just outside of Calcultta, a family sitting in my compartment was having a mid-journey snack on paper plates. ‘Happy New Year’ was printed on them in silver and gold lettering. The man finished his meal and then carefully folded his plate, leaned over towards the open window and slid the plate through the metal bars. One by one, as each person finished their meal, each of their plates met the same fate. My attention was then diverted by a loud argument that had broke out in the gangway. I asked our Bengali friend what the fuss was about. A tea vendor had spit out his ‘paan-juice’ in the aisle of the train and was being told off strongly by a man wearing glasses and clutching a briefcase. If only littering provoked the same reaction from fellow passengers.
A few weeks later in Lalbagh gardens in Bangalore, I observed a couple sitting with a small child on a park bench. The man emptied his fruit juice and then nonchalantly threw the cardboard box over his shoulder onto the grass. His wife followed his example once their son had finished with his. I guess they didn’t notice the signs asking them to keep the gardens beautiful by not littering.
Indians are very proud of their country but they don’t hesitate to pollute its roads, railways and waterways by throwing litter wherever and whenever they please. On a more positive note, very little seems to go to waste and whatever can be salvaged is recycled. I’ve always sorted our household waste for recycling, so I didn’t know what to do with our glass bottles and plastic containers. I felt bad throwing them out with the rest of the garbage. But I soon learned that there’s no need for me to sort our garbage before throwing it out, because everything is sorted by other people once it’s already on the roadside.
In the mornings when I go to pick up the morning newspaper from the doorstep, I put out the garbage by the road. I can only do this in the mornings because if I put the garbage out overnight the plastic bag will be ripped to shreds during the night by the neighbourhood rats, cats and dogs. So out it goes first thing. When I step out of the house again later, I notice the bag is still there but it’s been opened and some of its contents are scattered around. I’ve realized that someone opens the bag, rummages through it, and takes anything that can be recycled, like glass or plastic. Any food waste then becomes a free-for-all for the roaming dogs and cows.
A boy rides around the neighbourhood on a bicycle every morning yelling: “Pay-paaaaar….” He collects unneeded newspaper and sells it to used paper merchants. Cardboard fetches a higher price. 'Rag pickers' walk the streets with white canvas bags collecting plastic or glass bottles, or anything else that could be reused. These people are obviously very poor: their clothes are often stained and tattered. They don’t wear gloves and they’re often barefoot. Doing such a job, they can only be from the lowest castes. Very often they’re children. After filling their bags, what was someone’s waste becomes someone else’s treasure. They’ll exchange what they’ve salvaged for a few rupees which may cover the cost of a meal.
Long after what’s worth rescuing from the neighbourhood’s abandoned garbage has been salvaged, contracted workers (who make a minimum wage of 2075 rupees (37EUR/56CAD/50USD) per month) collect what’s left in a cart and haul their loads to one of the garbage sorting sites located on street corners around the neighbourhood. A truck will then come by and the waste is loaded on and taken away.