The Plastic man of Nelloor – Story of Social Reform
In the heartland of Tamil Nadu there lies a village named, Nelloor. The name means, ‘paddy town’, for the village sits snugly like a lone island around acres and acres of emerald- green paddy fields, swaying like green sea waves, in the soft breeze.
The tether end of the village was sliced off by a swiftly flowing tributary of the river Vaigai called Thenaar or ‘river of honey’. In the days gone by, the water was sweet to drink and the village ladies and girls carried away pots of water for cooking without worrying about pollution and germs. Further downstream where the river weaved away from the village, the villagers and dobhies, with no wells in their homes, washed clothes and bathed. Thenaar was never known to run dry and the village youngsters frolicked in its knee deep waters on hot dry summer days.
There lived in Nelloor, a man whom everyone called ‘the Plastic man’. The reason he was name thus is a long story. Plastic man is seventy years old, and in his days of youth he had seen the village enjoy plenty and flourish well.
He remembered the crystal clear water in Thenaar which turned brown only during the monsoons when the waters tumbled by swiftly in flood, carrying silt from nearby hills. The bank of the river was fringed by reed mace (or cattail as it is also called), and lengthy patches of elephant grass standing long and tall.
The young men and women carried the cut grass upon their heads and wandered happily chatting and laughing on summer evenings, to feed the cattle. Plastic man whose real name is Yakov ( the Tamil version of Jacob) thought about the times when he had peered into the thick clumps of reeds and grass to watch birds nestling there. He loved to hear the baby birds twitter and sat quietly upon the lower branch of a nearby neem tree waiting for the mother bird to bring in worms and insects to feed the hungry babies. He had, then, in those days, had all the time in the world for such observations, after school.
His elementary school consisted of a long thatched shed partitioned by woven palm mats. A rusty bell hung dolefully upon a tree branch. The village cripple Kumar struck the bell dutifully when the school began and when it was time for lunch and eventually when the school was over.
His masters were simple B.A. or B.Sc. graduates wearing dothies and black rimmed glasses. They always carried a black umbrella. The children took one or two note books in all. The teachers had the text books and everyone was content with the knowledge imparted.
They jotted down arithmetic onto their slates which had wooden frames and black flat slate stone to write upon. There was a black board propped on a stand painted in dark green. Sometimes they had their classes under the large leafy banyan tree, when it was too stifling to sit in the classroom.
The farmers of Nelloor waking early walked with ploughs on their shoulders and bulls by their side towards the rising sun. A sweet aroma of rice gruel drifted from the humble huts and houses of the villagers. Outside each house there were cows to be milked and it was a pleasant sight watching women walking home with brass vessels overflowing with white frothy milk. Yakov being a farmer had gone about his work for nearly forty years now. His wife Kalyani stayed at home attending to chores about the house. His one son, Inban, aged twenty four helped him at the farm. Inban, now married and settled down with his wife Meena, had two children, a boy and a girl.
Yacov had seen Nelloor pass through various phases as the village slowly grew into a town. It was not a pleasant sight to see. The village seemed to come alive as it spread its tentacles of streets and lanes like an octopus, expanding and expanding, swallowing the mango, coconut groves and fields which fringed the village. In its place stood streets of multi coloured houses and commercial buildings.
New shops had sprung up. More homes were built. However cottage industries flourished and the women found means for a good living. They returned from work as did the men from the fields and construction sites. These days most of the villagers sought work in nearby cities where their wages were high. Cars honked around and the town had become well connected with other villages and towns by buses. Most of the farmers had tractors and bikes, and it was now a common sight to see school children cycling to school or hop onto the school van.
Soon the popular coffee and tea stalls found small hotels dwarfing them. A hospital had already existed in Nelloor, which was a far cry compared to the ones now. Doctors from other towns found their way to Nelloor and set up dispensaries and small clinics.
Yakov owned a cell phone as did almost every family in Nelloor. In his youth they cycled to a nearby town if anybody needed to talk on a phone.
In his days, thought Yakov, “we either walked or cycled.”
Now there were bikes and cars parked outside the houses. Auto stands had replaced horse drawn carts, known as jatkas. Yakov knew times had changed. And so did the entire landscape of his town.
His school too had expanded considerably. It was now a high school, with class rooms built by government aid. The children fed hungrily on the midday meals provided and were quite healthy. Yakov thought of the times when he and his friends would, after the food served at school, nibble on a fat gooseberry, or raw mango with chilli and salt sprinkled on it. Or it was the succulent yellow roasted maize or ground nuts from the nearby fields. His grandchildren, these days bought themselves bright pink cotton candy that left their tongues, lips and teeth pink. Or it was chewing gum or an array of chips, Lays, Bingo, Fryums and what not!
As he saw his grand children off each morning to school, with enormous school bags on their backs, he was happy he had studied decades ago when he carried his few books in a yellow cloth bag with big red letters on it. He had used the bag for almost two years, washing it regularly, until it faded. Then his mother had used it for groceries until it grew to tatters when it served the remaining days of its humble life as a cloth for dusting. Yakov sighed at the thought.
More roads and streets now wound through the town. More litter lay strewed upon those streets, too. Even in his days of youth Nelloor hadn’t exactly been a clean village. There would always be paper bags, waste material from the tailors shop strewn on the streets or by the river side. Food wastes thrown over the walls lay contaminating the streets, where dogs and birds happily fed. They also fed upon the leftovers around wells where women washed their cooking utensils.
The grocers and sweet shopkeepers used pages from books and periodicals and turned them to paper cones for packing, securing them with gunny strings. These papers fluttered everywhere, yet in a few weeks time they disappeared. And when the rains fell they disappeared all the faster, being paper, cloth or cardboard, they degraded quickly. Broken glass bottles had been removed by the municipality to be recycled.
Not so now. Nelloor was now invaded by a terrible flux of plastic bags. Anywhere and everywhere there fluttered plastic bags colourful and bright like balloons when the wind filled them. They merrily flew all over the town until they reached the river bank. Alas, the river was no more the sparkling clean sweet watered river of the yester years. It ran sluggish and slow, now a stream of foreboding slush. Upon this sailed plastic bottles and bags. They seemed to choke the very life of Thenaar.
The litter also reduced the percolating of rainwater which resulted in the lowering of already low water levels in Nelloor. Vast stretches of fields now housed colonies and the fertility of the soil deteriorated with plastic bags remaining in the soil for years. As the water level reduced, wells ran dry. People resorted to bore wells which were now the sole means of acquiring water for orchards or houses. The people of Nelloor succumbed very often to water borne diseases and frequent attacks of viral fevers transmitted by mosquitoes and flies.
As Yakov sat fanning himself under the neem tree outside his house, he chased away the mosquitoes. How he missed the loud chirping of birds which had awoken him each morning. Where were the birds, he wondered. He did hear the crowing of cocks and the cawing of crows along with the twitter of other birds, but the birds had decreased drastically since fields had been sold as housing plots to strangers. Trees and orchards had been shaven off to accommodate the mushrooming textile, utensil, medical, TV, mobile phone shops, banks and hotels. Coconut, mango and banana orchards still flourished for the farmers had not thought to migrate into cities but with the soil fertility on the decline and water becoming a hard commodity they faced a constant struggle.
He remembered the dawns turning the waters of Thenaar into a fabulous inferno, where stood the elegant storks, purple heron and egrets amidst the tall water grass and reeds. The gulmohar, tamarind, neem, banyan, peepal, papaya, jackfruit and mango trees of Nelloor had resonated with the music of bird songs. Bulbuls, crows, doves, parrots, weaver birds, sparrows and Green Bee eaters flocked to Nelloor and resided in its thickly foliaged trees.
Yakov had watched the slender blue green peacocks feeding by the winnowers or by the threshing floors of farm houses. At times they sauntered into the old tar roads where most farmers dried their grains. Parrots flew above in green streaks, screeching. They pecked and fed freely on the chickoo, mango, papaya and guava trees of Nelloor. Kites and hawks swooped down to snatch fishes from Thenaar. They also fed on fish discarded by the fishermen.
None of these sights remained now. Most of the birds had disappeared except for the crows, mynas and an occasional flock of parrots and doves. They had deserted the trees of Nelloor and Yakov heard, many of the bird species, even in towns and cities outside Nelloor were disappearing at a fast pace. The cause boiled down to the pollution problem and left everybody feeling helpless.
Yesterday, Arulamma, the old widow had lamented all day for she had found one of her cows lying dead near the reed maces by the river. It had choked on a thick plastic bag as it hungrily nibbled away at the grass and weeds sprouting by the river amidst a deluge of plastic waste.
Gone were the nestlings in the tall elephant grass which Yakov had enjoyed spying on. The bank of Thenaar was a mosaic of coloured plastics, and even the survival of vegetation like the reed mace and elephant grass seemed a feat in itself. For tangled and woven through the reeds were the numerous plastic bags, throw away cups and plates, mineral water bottles and plastic wraps of all shapes sizes and colours.
In the slightly less murky waters further down where women still bathed, a litter of small plastics covers from shampoo sachets, used flattened tooth paste tubes, blue and green plastic oil bottles embedded in layers of larger plastic bags lay in the stagnant waters by the river side. Yakov frowned as he thought,
“All this filth and pollution is our own doing.”
The tea stalls now used throw away cups and plates of plastic and every conceivable eatable and grocery items and food stuff came neatly wrapped and stapled in plastic bags. Though plastic bins stood near the tea shops, its contents were eventually emptied along the riverside, since the garbage pit outside town was already overflowing, adding to the stench of the dump.
A deep sadness crept over Yakov. He walked at dusk down the oft trodden streets of Nelloor. He stopped by Thenaar and viewed more garbage than water. Where had the water birds gone? And the buzzing of insects and bees, fluttering of butterflies had disappeared. He sat by on a grass mound and wondered if there was anything he could do.
Of late many TV programmes advocated the disuse of plastics. There were warnings about the hazards of plastics irresponsibly disposed. He had listened intently and had decided to do something about it.
He listened to the bleating of a herd of goats returning home at dusk. At a house at the end of the lane chickens and cocks pecked away at the grains and rice from drains. He watched them peck at a plastic bottle cover, toss it about with their beak and then move on. He shook his head in sadness and sighed. He removed the plastic lest the birds choke on it.
As he walked with a will toward the banyan tree, his mind was made up. The banyan tree was the hub of the town. Here middle aged men congregated at even to exchange banter about the day’s goings on. The younger men gathered a little away from them and gambled for petty sums amidst much joking and laughter. When Yakov reached the banyan tree his friends greeted him amicably. The sunset had set the sky on fire. The coconut palms swayed, silhouetted against a furnace as a whiff of evening breeze stirred the gloom.
The men discussed the price of oil, grains, seeds and manure. They were sore at the decline in the paddy price. They discussed politics and religion and Yakov hovered, listening to the topics in discussion waiting to have his say. When the chatter let up he sat there saying nothing. He was glum indeed. His companions noticing this wondered aloud,
“‘What’s the matter with you, Yakov?
“Are you ill? Did you fight with your wife?”
“ You do seem pale.”
We all know the reason for Yakov’s glumness though, don’t we?
“No, no, all is well with my folks. But I am worried about Nelloor and Thenaar.”
The men fell silent. They all stared at Yakov, wondering what his worry was.
“I am sad to see the state of things here. Our town is getting extremely dirty. Do you remember our days of youth when we hardly saw plastic garbage? It was all paper and leaves, broken bottles, cloth…… which degraded quickly. Thenaar and our drains were never so badly clogged. The slush and stench now! Ugh!”
He looked around him to see the reaction of the men. They all nodded in unison for they had all noticed the appalling conditions and had felt quite helpless themselves. Some of them had even complained to the municipal officers telling them to do something about disposing the heaps of accumulating garbage. One of the men had even sounded off the officers about removing the slush and dreg that was chocking the water flow in Thenaar. But nothing had been done.
So Yakov was happy he had brought the matter for discussion among his friends and happier still that they had all been trying individually to solve the mounting problem. By now some of the younger men who had stood at the fringes of the group listening, were full of suggestions and ideas. As night fell upon the town like a soft black sequinned blanket, Yakov slept in peace having found fellowmen showing similar interest in the persistent problem. He had not expected such a good response.
In the morning however everyone went about their work, for all the folks were busy. Housewives cooking the meals and caring for the children at home soon found time to discuss among themselves the latest topic that had evoked a sense of disquiet among the folks of Nelloor. The news spread like wild fire about town. Women shopping or washing at the river or gathered around the tap of drinking water, talked about it.
Some said things would never change. Some were happy someone is at least trying to clean the town at last! A few wondered if their efforts would pay off. As they stood talking thus, an auto slowly came by and a speaker was blasting,
“Meet at the Municipal School, at the grounds behind the school, folks of Nelloor! Meeting to be held at 4.30 in the evening! Come one and come all, meeting to be held!” After the message was blasted hundreds of times all over town, some of the popular, catchy film songs were played.
This caused a considerable amount of excitement among the people of Nelloor. Quite a few just couldn’t be bothered since they had pressing business and work of their own. Many women went back home to get their children fed, bathed and sat them down to finish their homework. However the many of the men who might have lazed in front of the TV made a bee line to the venue of the meeting out of curiosity since they had the time to spare.
Yakov had been busying himself with matters at hand. He had sought the help of his son Inban and other young graduates of Nelloor, who readily accessed the web and found a social welfare community known as the Cleaner and Greener Rural Society. Upon contacting them by phone a few men and women, from the Society had visited Nelloor and stared in disbelief at the fate of Thenaar. It was now almost a river of sewage. Mosquitoes and flies buzzed over the river like a low grey fog. The water plant along the edge of the river had all but gone and in occasional places grew bravely amidst the coloured plastic bags and pet bottles. It was an appalling sight.
After assessing the area, they walked down the streets and lanes of Nelloor. They observed the extent of the environmental deterioration which had depleted the fertility of the soil. The landfills around Nelloor could be tackled, since they were smaller than the ones they had seen in bigger towns and cities. They discussed matters among themselves as they jotted on flip pads.
Yakov who was taking them around town along with the graduates was filled with anxiety at their sombre countenance. He felt they were a group of doctors examining a patient in a critical stage.
“How will we save our river, sir?” queried Yakov feeling very worried.
“And look at the state of our town……oh, it was green and fertile once, and Thenaar’s water was the sweetest!”
Yakov had turned quite emotional. He was agitated and tensed up as he accompanied the group of men and women from the Cleaner and Greener Rural Society. They paused to look at Yakov and said kindly,
“ Yes, yes, Neloor will be as clean as clean can be, in a few months! Just watch! But you all have to cooperate, grandfather, from the smallest to the oldest; if you want to save your town!”
“What should we do?! Tell us!” Yakov was very hope filled now and happy that Nelloor could be redeemed from its present deplorable state and excited at the prospect of having to play a part in the transformation of Nelloor.
“We will hold a meeting soon, and tell you all, what each of you can do.”
With that they moved on talking among themselves and quite often including the younger men of Nelloor in their discussions.
The next day, having funded the use of the six autos making the vital announcement about the oncoming meeting all over town and an extra amount for the movie songs to attract people, Yakov had at last started the Clean and Green revolution in the little town of Nelloor.
The whole population of Nelloor got to hear about the forth coming meeting to be conducted by at the open grounds behind the school buildings. It was badly littered and the school children were allowed home early to help with picking up the garbage along with volunteers from all over town. Everyone was curious and eager to welcome a change and prevent further deterioration in the prevailing situation.
An Educationalist, Mr. Muthu, took the stage (which was actually a temporary one, made up of ten class room benches, with their legs tied together for stability and covered with a large jamkalam (which is an exceptionally thick carpet like bed cover of many brightly coloured stripes.) Mr. Muthu was well versed in environmental issues and he stood before the people of Neloor and expounded the importance of saving the earth for the future generation. He spoke in simple terms, addressing the young and old, educated and uneducated.
Except for some toddlers and babies, everyone gathered at the open grounds lent attentive ears to the knowledge imparted by the speaker.
“Segregate the wastes! This is the basic step, folks!’ said the speaker, addressing the women at large. “This begins at home!” Mr. Muthu turned towards the women.
“And how do we do that?” asked Selvi, a fat middle aged woman, sitting on the second row upon the floor.
And the rest of the women said, “Yes, how are we supposed to segregate everything?”
“Don’t interrupt!” said Mr. Muthu , “ I’m coming to it”.
“Shoo, shoo” said Yakov and some of the youngsters.
When silence prevailed, Mr. Muthu continued,
“Gather the degradable wastes like food peels, leftovers, paper, cloth, dung, leaves …….., anything but plastics, in a separate container or bins and all plastics into another! That’s half the problem solved, already! But don’t go dumping what you have collected, on the streets or pathways! We will allot a place for your garbage.
The plastic bags, bottles, containers have a ready market where recyclers buy it from you and recycle it to produce other objects. If Nelloor doesn’t have a plastic wastes buyer I will send some here, and make sure you sell them your plastic wastes and junk!”
The housewives were quite happy with the idea of making a little money from their wastes.
“And use only cloth bags when you go shopping! Do not accept plastic bags which the shopkeeper gives you with your products! And you shopkeepers! Change to paper bags!”
This request was not readily accepted. In fact the shopkeepers present protested that plastic bags were stronger, and more durable. Mr. Muthu reconsidered the matter and said,
“Well, you shoppers must pay for the plastic bags, then! Or bring your own cloth bags or jute bags! This will slow down the use of polythene bags in time.”
Many of the shopkeepers however complied with Mr. Muthu’s wishes by agreeing to reduce the number of plastic bags they order at the wholesale shops. In fact, they resolved to use plastic bags only for the heavier object and at a price. Later when the biodegradable plastic bags were available, the more hazardous counterparts were never purchased. Thus the shopkeepers of Nelloor contributed to some of the responsible choices made, by the town at large.
At this the women were a little sceptical. The shier women murmured something to Selvi, who had now made herself their spokeswoman. She simply said,
“Not possible! How can we remember to take a cloth bag each time we go to a store! It’s so convenient, these plastic bags! Especially when we buy non vegetarian foods like chicken, mutton or fish, the blood doesn’t go dripping!”
“Use the plastic bags you already have, then! Yes, save a few for such purposes, and dispose of the rest! After all, plastics really are useful, you know! It is only when you irresponsibly litter the country side, rivers and drains that it becomes hazardous. Anyway, henceforth, say no to plastic bags at the shops and carry a cloth bag! And if you forget, pay for the plastic bags! Is that clear? Yes, you all have to switch over to cloth or jute bags if you are serious about saving your town!”
“It’s the men too, who dirty the town!” protested Selvi. “Look at the tea shops! There is garbage all over the place! They throw the plastic cups and bottles on the roads, in the by lanes, in the gutters!”
“Yes, yes, all are to blame said Mr. Muthu. Do you know why you have these frequent epidemics like viral fevers, flu, diarrhoea cough, cold etc? It’s because of your clogged drains. When we inspected your town last week we couldn’t walk through some of your streets for the stench. We found the drains clogged with throw away cups and plates from your hotels and teas shops. The stagnant sewage water breeds mosquitoes and flies which spread these diseases!”
The men were at a loss for words, looked sheepish and said humbly,
“Yes, we will do something about that! We will get more dust bins! And inform the municipality to close the open drains! Somehow it always seems easier and cleaner to throw garbage into the drains instead of on the roads where it seems more unsightly and unhygienic! But we will dispose the garbage in the allotted bins hence forth.”
Mr.Muthu was happy with the response and went on,
“Let us all unite to meet the region’s environmental challenges! Let us educate our children in the class rooms on the basics and benefits of cleanliness! Let us form more cleaning campaigns to better and save our environment!
Take for an example the vast pit outside Nelloor created by the municipality for drainage. It could not with stand the recent floods because of the garbage dumped into it. The garbage consisted mostly of plastics and polythene. Look at the channels dug out for irrigation…..everything is filled with garbage! Respect our outdoors! It is God’s gift to us! We have no right to abuse it in any way! It is our duty to preserve it for our children!
The people clapped and cheered and whistled at the rhetoric…. they were more than just impressed by Mr.Muthu’s speech. The flames for a reform in Nelloor had been lit and began to burn intensely.
Selvi resolved then and there to make weekly door to door visits with a group of volunteers, to create more awareness and guide the town’s folk on the right methods of plastic disposal. With the knowledge acquired, the people of Nelloor were eager to put it to practice. Yakov was all afire to instigate the men, and decided to keep an eye on the tea shops, coffee shops and hotels.
After Mr. Muthu was ceremoniously given a farewell with much thanks, people still stood around in groups, discussing matters. Most women had left to get the night meal ready and put the children to bed. Yakov suggested they divide the town into ten sectors. He wanted a leader for each sector. They would choose a leader tomorrow, and allot the responsibilities to each leader. The leaders in turn, would acquire sub helpers to help them reach matters at the grass root level. Everyone thought this a very good idea.
When the choosing of the leaders began, Yakov scanned the crowd for volunteers. Strangely it was the women who moved to the forefront and took the lead. The men seemed to think that cleaning, be it the house, street or town was a woman’s job. And it was just as well, for the women instinctively seemed to have rolled up their sleeves, as it were, to accomplish the crucial job at hand.
The clearing of the pit outside the town was dealt with first. Yakov, Selvi and a few men with the health officers visited and viewed the one acre land allocated for the biodegradable garbage. Inban, with some of the men were appointed to clear the area for the garbage that would find its way to this pit where it would decompose into fertile manure. Their duty was to make sure nothing non degradable found its way here again. And if it did, it would be immediately removed.
First, most of the folks balked at the thought of clearing the pit of its piles of plastics wastes, mixed with slush and slime. However, the trickle of volunteers increased steadily until groups of men, women and children of all ages came in droves. Yakov divided the zealous lot into smaller groups and soon the job of removing anything that even remotely looked like plastic, was well under way.
The town folk found a really simple solution for gathering the plastics and pet bottles without messing up their hands. The men and women had, upon Inban’s command, gathered many bundles of thin but strong sticks, approximately five to five and a half feet in length, and sharpened one end, until it resembled a sharpened giant pencil. This had been done a week before they started work on the garbage pit.
Every one volunteering picked up a stick each, which lay piled on a large flat stone near the drainage pit. Then warily they pierced the stick into each plastic paper bag in the dump, trying hard not to step into the slush, until their sticks were filled with dirty plastic bags. This they drew out, to empty into large sacks, and soon numerous sacks, filled with plastics, were loaded into wagons and then stored in the warehouses.
The older men and women especially liked the ‘pencils’ (as they called the sharpened sticks) since it was easy on their backs –a vital piece of work quite easily done without much bending.
The plastic wastes stored at the empty ware house waited in stacked up piles for the buyers, who now visited Nelloor often to avail themselves of its unwanted plastics. When Mr.Muthu next visited Nelloor after a month, his surprise knew no bounds at the sight of the cleared drainage pit. The warehouse was opened almost all day with someone or the other bringing in a sack of the collected material. Even children dragged in sacks of wastes at odd hours after school! Mr. Muthu examined the warehouse and found the plastics neatly stacked, ready for its buyers.
Almost twice a week lorry loads of plastics vanished from Nelloor, and soon the waters of Thenaar flowed clear and clean. Water birds swam or stood tranquilly in the soft uninterrupted flow. The flutter of butterflies, dragon flies and bees filled the air as they wafted over the mace reeds and bulrushes. Bathing in Thennar was allowed though washing of clothes was strictly prohibited. The protesting dobhies were silenced at the sight of the deep frown which lodged itself ominously between Yakov’s greying eyebrows. They were to take their laundry downstream a few miles away from Nelloor town, where they washed the town’s laundry.
Though most citizens of Neloor were busy with their work in the mornings, Yakov would always be found with his pencil stick, picking stray plastics fluttering in the breeze. He called it his magic wand, since it had helped clean up his home town, which now, Mr. Muthu proudly claimed was indeed becoming a model town. His team from the Cleaner and Greener Rural Society came to Nelloor and jotted away on their scribbling pads the amazing transformations which had taken place in this small, but determined community.
Selvi and her team of leaders sat under the neem trees in her back yard, one summer evening, sipping the most welcome tumblers of cold butter milk which Selvi had prepared for them. They made plans regarding the general cleanliness of the hundreds of streets and by lanes which criss crossed through Nelloor town. The streets which veined Nelloor, was by far much cleaner than what it had been before the Cleaner and Greener Rural Society stepped in. Almost all house wives now strictly observed the rules of segregating and disposing of wastes. However by the day’s end there was always a few plastic bags or garbage blown by the wind flying gaily around. Left unchecked this would again constitute an accumulation of unsightly garbage.
Selvi and a few housewives again found a simple solution to this problem. They held a meeting with the housemaids who go from house to house washing clothes and dishes. They allotted ten to twelve streets for each of them who had volunteered. They were called ‘colony cleaners’, since ten to twelve streets of houses almost constituted a small colony. These maids were smart, quick, active and eager for the extra pocket money.
Armed with a pencil stick, broom and a sack for the garbage, they scouted the allotted streets for stray garbage, very early in the morning, before they set off for their usual work rounds. Selvi and her team had finalised a moderate wage to be paid by the house owners of each colony, to be paid to the maids at the week’s end. The house wives were more than just willing. The money trickling in from each house added up to a substantial amount, and the maids were quite pleased with their extra earnings and the housewives were happy with their clean streets. Soon older women who would go for construction work or field work also began volunteering and soon there was no garbage left to be picked, in the streets of Neloor!
One of the greatest challenges Yakov faced presented itself on the auspicious months of the year when weddings took place. The marriage halls were packed with guests attending weddings, and feasting went on for a day or two. This meant surplus food and the call for immediate disposal of banana leaves, paper plates, cups and tumblers. Marriage guests numbered from between three hundred in smaller weddings to a thousand or more in bigger weddings. Garbage accumulated after each meal was therefore a colossal amount, and initially Yakov was baffled and felt quite helpless as he saw the staggering heaps outside the marriage halls. Cows, dogs and flies hovered over these unsightly piles.
Yakov invited the team of his active members and leaders to gather at Yakov’s house. They discussed the situation in hand, and arrangements were made with the municipality to cart load the garbage to the pit outside the town. But it was a mixed heap of plastics and leaves and sorting it was a dilemma in itself. Nobody could come up with a solution.
Then Yakov turned to the women. He addressed Selvi with,
“Perhaps we should segregate at the source as you women already do at home. It’s the only way!”
“Then we should confront the cooks and waiters and servers!”said Selvi.
“No, no,” said one of the younger members, “we cannot meet each team of caterers for one thing, and they are often hired from different towns or cities! There’s no way we can meet them each time. Moreover all our marriage halls are located in different areas!”
“Then let’s hold the marriage hall owners responsible!” said Yakov.
Everyone agreed to that, and soon they decided on a date to have a meeting with the owners or managers of marriage halls in Nelloor. Though, still a small town, Nelloor now flaunted six community halls of various sizes where functions were held on auspicious days. The Cleaner and Greener Rural Society members were also invited.
Mr. Muthu was the main speaker and he addressed his audience grimly regarding the disposal of garbage in general, since marriage halls everywhere generated the largest quantities of garbage. He was quite specific about placing dust bins inside and outside a marriage hall, to substitute stainless steel or paper cups and plates instead of plastics for use at the halls.
The payment for the garbage contractors (who sent the disposers and cleaners of the hall,) after the marriage was over, was included in the rent of the hall, in case the crowd still tended to litter the vicinity, in spite of the bins. The cleaners separated the biodegradables and the plastics before removing them from the premises.
The kitchens and dining hall were the most waste intense areas. Yakov came up with an idea. The food caterers had to pay an advance to the owners for the disposal of all wastes. The advance would be returned after they finished and had disposed of the wastes in the proper manner-which would be, collecting the garbage in large biodegradable bags and stacking them up for the disposers and cleaners to carry away.
This suggestion at the start was met with an avalanche of protests, because it meant losing the advance, if the caterers left the dining halls and kitchen waste strewn. Mr. Muthu and the members of the Cleaner and Greener Rural Society soon silenced them. A few of the owners spoke it over between them and said they would give it a try. Soon all the owners fell in line.
“We have nothing to lose except the garbage!” said they, eventually.
Inevitably, after the marriage feast was over and they wound up, they left the kitchen spic and span. All banana leaves, and cups and the rest of the garbage were placed in large biodegradable plastic sacks, and stacked for the cleaners and disposers to carry away. The advance was then returned to the caterers. If the disposal of wastes was slipshod or not proper, they forfeited the advance – and except for one instance at the start, the caterers always left the area clean.
This resulted in Neloor flaunting the cleanest marriage halls in Tamil Nadu. Yakov, in his own simple manner had come up again with a fine solution, and soon the Neloor folks appreciated Yakov, the ‘plastic man,’ for it.
Meanwhile Mr. Muthu conducted interesting classes under the large banyan trees on weekends, where grownups and children had gathered eagerly. The Neloorians were a chirpy lot and the medley of the educated, half educated and the uneducated teemed around Mr. Muthu to hear what he had to say. There fell a hushed silence as Mr.Muthu replied to their numerous queries as to what plastics were made up of, or why we recycle plastics. The elderly, young and children plied him with questions.
“Plastics,” he explained patiently, “are made up of petrochemicals such as oil and gas.”
“And where do they find this oil and gas?”
“Oil and gas are found in source rocks contained in the earth’s crust,” replied he.
“How do they extract the oils and gases, sir?”
“There are many types of oils and gases and different means of extraction are used,” replied Mr.Muthu, generally.
“So what is plastic made up of?”
“Well, resins, fillers, pigments and plasticizers,” replied Mr.Muthu.
“Plasticizers? What is a plasticizer,sir?”
“Ah, just any of the various substances added to plastic to make them soft and pliable. The colours (or pigments) used to colour the plastic bags are toxic. I strongly discourage you to store food in plastics!”
The Nelloorians listened in silence digesting what they had heard especially the young women who stored away snacks and papads in colourful plastic containers. The shop keepers and whole salers of plastic wares sat with long, glum faces. They were already thinking of other options since their business would soon take a dive. They thought they would return to stainless steel and glass.
“And why do we recycle plastics?”
“Well, for one thing, recycling into other products saves energy, petroleum and landfill space! There are fewer green house gas emissions when recycled than when created from virgin materials. In fact, recycling helps ease the strain on natural resources.”
“Green house gas emissions? What’s that Mr. Muthu?”
“Well, greenhouse gas emissions are those that can absorb and emit infrared radiation. Now the most abundant greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere are, water vapour…..,”
And before he could continue some of the youngsters who were science students, fed in the answers with,
“And ozone!” finished Mr.Muthu, very happily as he listened to the response.
So naturally the next question was,
“What is infrared radiation, Mr.Muthu?”
And thus the questions and answers went on and on until the sun began fading to slide into the folds of night. Somehow everything he imparted was new to them. Mr. Muthu, a store house of knowledge, simplified his answers drastically and tried to convey in simple terms much information, as concisely as he could. He didn’t want to confuse or baffle his listeners. Those who had attended schools and colleges could somewhat relate to what he said though some of it went over their head.
They all listened intensively, and resolved to try all the harder to lessen the use of plastics in their day to day life. Mr.Muthu also touched on environmental topics, such as tree planting to lessen air pollution.
Selvi and her companions segregated their wastes into biodegradable and non biodegradable. Starting at the source was easy enough. The women found a good use for the vegetable peels, fruit peels, leaves swept around the house and food leftovers. Either it found its way into the cattle feeds, or they just dug a half foot hole at the base of their fruit trees and dumped it in. Here it decomposed into fertile manure. And those who did not have trees of their own to manure, they sent it to the garbage pit at the town’s edge, where it decomposed and enriched the soil in silence.
The hotels and tea shops were a little gone on their habitual practice of throwing disposable cups and plates anywhere they pleased. Selvi and her team then took matters into their hands. They loudly abused the men for their carelessness and lack of responsibility. Some men winced and quickly rectified their unhealthy habits. Some complained the dust bins were overflowing, anyway. But Selvi, boldly attacked their lack of responsibility and the men compiled with her wishes, soon enough. The municipality was alerted to dispose of garbage from over flowing bins every day.
In fact, Yakov, ‘the plastic man’ saw to it that the municipality emptied it each day including holidays. He paid them a little extra with the money he saved from the selling of plastics at the warehouse. Selvi and the group leaders of Nelloor actually strolled through the streets of Nelloor three or four days a week, inspecting the kitchen bins of other women. Those women who had mixed the biodegradable and the non biodegradable garbage were soundly reprimanded. The women were so incensed toward the improper disposal of plastics, in Nelloor, that they would screw their mouth this way and that at the wrong doers and not talk with them for days, till they set things right.
Therefore it did not take too long for them to fall in line with the flow of things in this miraculously transforming town. At the end of it all what transpired before the eyes of the Neloorians was something short of Utopia. People simply became cleanliness conscious over a short period of time as the rudiments of health and hygiene were constantly instilled into them. In so much, that when a Nelloorian went to other towns or cities and found the unhygienic conditions which prevailed everywhere, they were appalled and extremely uncomfortable and they simply longed to get back to their own clean environment!
“Well,” thought Yakov, the plastic man “at least a cleaner Nelloor has somewhat emerged from our efforts….. but now, for the greener Nelloor….I must talk to Mr. Muthu about it….must get the Cleaner and Greener Rural Society to help us make Nelloor greener…….” and Yakov drifted into a content sleep, dreaming of green fields and trees embracing Nelloor. But then, that’s another story………..