“Beautiful India”

Shuddham Cleaning Crew

THE SOLUTION lies in rediscovering harmony; reconnecting with our environment and the people around us. All urban environmental problems are caused by us. They will cease to exist once we unite in our concern and each one of us act responsibly. Shuddham

“Beautiful India” is the urban environmental and recycling movement fostered by Shuddham, the NGO above whose offices Mark and I live in Pondicherry. After three years of painstaking effort, going door-to-door in their neighborhood to educate people about the benefits of segregating garbage, continuing to work despite political corruption, and reaching out to the broader community, they now have the municipal contract to keep about a quarter of “French” Pondicherry clean.

Beautiful India Logo Shuddham Zone Crates

And clean it is! Twenty four women, wearing green vests with the “Beautiful India – together we can achieve wonders” logo on the back, patrol the streets twice a day. Once in the morning to pick up the garbage, segregated into compostable and recyclable, and again in the afternoon to do a “sweep” – picking up plastic and other garbage that has been discarded on the streets.

The women who work with Shuddham are extremely proud of the work that they do. They patrol the streets in twos and threes, placing compostable material in green crates that are then transported to the vermi-composting center, and recyclables in the red plastic bags. (Each household is given a green bucket with a lid, as well as smaller red bags labeled to show the types of materials that can be recycled.) The women whose photograph I took this morning had flowers draped on the handle bar of their tricycle and a temple bell hung off one handle which they rang to notify the households that they were there to pick up the garbage.

Three days ago, all the women were taken on a field trip to see the segregation center, where the paper, plastic, and other recyclables are further segregated (into light plastic, heavy plastic, newspaper, white paper, hazardous wastes such as batteries, etc.), the vermi-composting center, and the town dump, so that they could see the effects of their work on the one hand, and the results of unsegregated dumping, on the other.

Pondicherry Dump
Pondicherry Dump, which is near capacity.

Shuddham has perservered against all efforts to shut them down. At one point, through the interventions of a Member of Parliament (MP – the equivalent to a U.S. Representative), they were given the contract to pick up garbage in all of French Pondicherry. The local municipal politicians, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs – the equivalent of U.S. city council members) tried to freeze Shuddham out by withholding payment for ten months. Most other contractors would have withheld payment to their employees until they were paid by the State. However, Shuddham begged and borrowed money to pay their employees every month. At the suggestion of some friends, they fielded their own MLA candidate, who won despite the fact that she did not spend any money on her campaign, unlike her opponents, who handed out the usual monetary “incentives” to voters. Two days before the new MLAs were to take office, the outgoing MLA revoked the Shuddham contract and gave it to another company. Again, despite the fact that they no longer had a contract and would not get paid, Shuddham continued their work because the other company was not segregating and recycling.

The new MLA was able to reinstate Shuddham, but Shuddham decided to take only a portion of French Pondicherry, and let the other company retain a larger part of the territory. Shuddham also trained representatives of the other company on their methodology. The other company now has women wearing the same green vests (but without the “Beautiful India” logo), has taken a variant on the Shuddham name, and has self-help groups going door-to-door to try and educate the households (with no monitoring so not all households segregate). And, because they don’t receive regular payment from the government, their workers are not paid for months at a time. So, despite the fact that they pay their workers more than Shuddham does, more and more of their workers approach Shuddham for jobs.

Beautiful India Teaching Aid
Training Aid

Shuddham now has a program to educate children in one school, and is working to expand their reach to more schools. They also have a number of supporters who do not live in their service area, but have taken the red bags and bring their recyclables by the office twice a month.

Mark and I are able to recycle more of our garbage in Pondicherry than we do in San Francisco!


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