S01E06: Returning to Soil

A hand holding the compost with more compost in the pit and some green leaves on the side. It says episode 6: returning to soil.

Interview with Keshav Jaini, Savita Hiremath and Padma Patil

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Arpita: So we are in the last stretch for our four part Trash Talk series where we have been attempting to understand this massive problem of waste management in Indian cities. And we have been doing this by looking at the perspective of various individuals who, across various cities, in their own ways have been tackling this problem. And in the previous episode we looked at community level action by a few individuals who have played really pivotal roles in converting their entire apartments societies or complexes to segregation and composting.

These were 3 individuals across two cities of Gurgaon and Bangalore and the outcome is really amazing! They were able to reduce the garbage footprint of these spaces by 90%! And we felt it was really important to understand the nuts and bolts of this right? How do you go about doing something like this? And we really wanted to understand how to go from we should compost to actually getting it done at scale.

Deepika: Yeah and that’s why really our last conversation we focused on the processes and what those steps were. But I think the reason why this episode feels particularly close to me is because its about the people behind the process, their personal stories and their journeys. You know cause like you said it takes a lot to make that shift from thinking about something to taking action. And these are regular people with families and jobs and everything but they’ve done these really extraordinary things. I think for me it was also this curiosity on how they got to that place. But I think before we get into that part of the conversation, I just wanted to remind you of who it was that I had met:

Keshav: My name is Keshav Jaini, I live in Garden Estate in Gurgaon.

Deepika: Garden Estate, also the place where I spent the early part of my life, an apartment complex of 373 houses and that’s roughly about 1800 people. Keshav uncle, is also one of my father’s oldest friend.

And then in Bangalore, I first met Savita Hiremath.

Savita: I am Savita Hiremath. I live in Yelahanka Bangalore which is northern part of the city and my apartment name is Shobha Althea Azalea.

Deepika: So Savita lives in what was once a suburb of Bangalore, in Yelahanka – its community of 202 homes on an 8 acre plot. And you know, her home is..it really represents everything that she is and that she stands for. You know, she’s converted her whole community to composting but her home composter still sort of has pride of place and I was taken to it and she showed me how she does her composting everyday, and we took a few photographs there.

And then Savita introduced me to Padma Patil who also lives in Yelahanka. And both of them are fellow compost enthusiasts!

Padma: My name is Padma Patil, I live in a community which houses 1332 flats. We are the premium residential apartment complex of Yelahanka.

Deepika: So 1332 households – I mean, it’s massive what she’s been able to do. I think when I met Padma, I understood how she was able to do it because she just has so much energy. I mean, within 5 minutes of reaching her house she was scheduling phone calls with people coming to meet her to understand how they are doing composting in her community – just vibrant. And really everybody that I met they’re all really warm people who opened up their homes to me. I had a chance to meet some of their family members and I think also meeting them helped me understand how central a role they play in all the decisions that these individuals have made and why they do what they do.

Arpita: How do you mean? Because these are fundamentally community processes so how is the family involved?

Deepika: Ya, but you know how the root of everything..it comes usually from a place of caring about something or you know when you want to love or cherish or look after something, that’s what really drives you, right? And I think families inhabit a huge space in that process.

I think when Padma was explaining also to me why she chose to be a green volunteer when they started segregating and composting in her society, she spoke to how important her family was in that decision.

Padma: By that time, I had purchased my home here and then we had moved in, there was a call for green volunteers who could take this project forward and I said okay, let me see what I can do. That’s the humble beginning that I did. I said okay let me give it a try. After all, what is happening to this land is going to come back to our kids tomorrow. We may live another 20-30 years, a healthy life because we have good air, good soil to grow our food, but over time, would this not affect our children – is the single thought I had.

Deepika: You know this sense of responsibility towards the next generation, thats something that Keshav uncle also spoke to and I think its one of the reasons that he also began to volunteer and said that when he had his twin daughters he began to do garbage pickups in GE in Gurgaon and that then shifted to wanting to continue with that experience and reach out to more young people in the place that he lives.

Keshav: It’s very simple- youngsters. They are my motivation. Seeing my kids, other kids. – it works beautifully. Whenever I do a workshop, there’ll be some 16, 18, 19 or 21 year old boy or girl who will say “Keshav uncle, sir thank you so much for this talk. I am going to go home and work in my community and bring change, or I’ll go to my school and start something”. Those are the ones I push and encourage and help out. I have at least a dozen youngsters who over the time have come to me and they are starting to do things in their communities.

Arpita: But Savita’s process was slightly different right?

Deepika: Yeah you know I remember in our last conversation when I was telling you this, she was super resistant to the idea of composting because she was working mum and she had a young daughter and it just meant more work. But when she started that process a lot of the philosophy and thinking behind it is something that she then brought to bringing up her daughter. When I say that I just mean the principles behind it and so much so that Gautami who is now 11, her daughter, she has a really strong connection to the natural world because her mother has sort of imbibed that in her.

Savita: When she was 2 yrs old, she was using diapers right and I had put a corner for her to go put her diaper herself in that corner. She would go put that diaper in that particular bin herself so that was her first lesson of segregation when she was 2. You know it began back then. And then a lot of discussion used to go on no, when we came here she was 3 and a half years old and right since then she participated in all the activities that we carried out in the community. And as we’ve moved on she has conducted many demos you know and one or two minute talks on waste segregation.

Arpita: That’s a really adorable image – to think a two year old tottering trying to segregate her diapers in the right bin – just so adorable!

Deepika: Yes, I loved that visual as well. But I think just to be able to bring a child’s attention to something in that everyday way where its not rocket science. Savita was saying that if there is a conversation now in her vicinity Gautami will shush her mother and takeover that conversation because she just has so much knowledge and its so much a part of her everyday experience that she leads that journey then. You know Savita was also talking about just how important it is for children to have that connection and what it means and what it does for them really.

Savita: It’s very important, involving children in these activities and making them understand that all these little creatures – earthworms a very big one compared to all these other maggots and small flying insects that we see in the composting bin – you know when you tell them that these things are very much necessary and without them you cannot survive because composting doesn’t happen. If composting won’t happen what will happen in the world then? All the world, it will be full of dead bodies right? You have to think back. You have to think what if there was nothing called composting on this planet? There would be no life. To understand that decay is as important as growth in life – these are two faces of the same coin called life. There has to be decay if there has to be growth. For this decay all these little creatures visible and invisible, tangible and intangible ones – all these are important. That’s when we begin to respect the interconnectivity of life. This is one thing I have realised.

Arpita: So as you well know one of my favorite authors is Rachel Carson, drumrolls. And Rachel Carson is more famous for writing the The Silent Spring which actually sparked the environmentalist movement. But she also has this beautiful gem of an essay called ‘A sense of wonder’ and its basically about all the things Rachel Carson would do pottering about forests and beaches and what not.

This essay is about taking her little baby nephew Roger along in all of these journeys and basically shes speaking to the idea of how it’s important for little children to feel than to really know at that age. Her argument being that once these emotions have been aroused – those emotions of love, of awe, beauty, wonder – then the child will automatically want to know more. She puts this really well, she says: It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”

And this is the way in which Savita has raised her child, she’s speaking to this really really beautifully – the fact that you can accommodate this into the daily task of living, in the small actions and experiences which evoke this deep sense of curiosity and wonder for a child. And you know I mean composting is kind of magical and transformational right? And I suppose it stays with you all your life and begins to almost subliminally guide your future choices.

Deepika: Yeah, I love that essay too! And like you said that recognition of connectivity, it changes something inside. Savita also says how it reorganises how children then behave and engage with the world when you have that really close connection to nature. And you know I think we are now seeing the huge emergence in the amount of research that supports this view – an early interaction with nature has so many benefits, I mean how you’re talking about how it supports a child’s imaginative play, the developing positive relationships and allowing also for the environment to become a place of learning. Learning then isn’t something that gets siloed off that happens in a classroom but its very much a part of what you are experiencing day on day. And it’s great for adults! I know what it does for me when I am outdoors. There’s a bunch of research about this which we’ll put on our website.

You know continuing from the very poignant thought that Savita shared on how composting is such a fundamental part of life, she started with home composters and the shift to how it has become like a window that opened many doors as well.

Arpita: You mean that they began with segregation and composting and took multiple steps from there right? I mean I can totally relate to that cause its totally been my journey too. I mirror that in so many ways. It seems like such a small way to reconnect to the Earth’s cycle but it is also rather profound at so many levels.

Like Poonam Bir Kasturi of Daily Dump said in our earlier episode of Trash Talk, composting is a beginning.. first you get a composter and then once you have compost – you have to do something with it right? Like she said, then you go say hello to a tree and in my case I planted a garden and so on. So its like a treasure trail that just keeps giving!

Deepika: I started composting in Mumbai and I don’t have a garden but it means going to figure out a maali and a lawn I can give it to or a garden I can give it to. This idea of segregation and composting being that door that opens up new meaning of looking at the world, it was a sentiment that was echoed by everybody else that I spoke to. Padma for instance shared how it has changed her family.

Padma: It all started with the segregation at source. It really got us thinking – why are we producing so much waste? Can I do without it? Today, I am a zero waste household. Not completely – I can’t avoid a certain amounts of plastic in my life but definitely I am journeying towards it. And we people have become to sensitive. The journey has been so good that we question everything. What we think of as convenience, if it is harming someone else, then I better not go for that convenience. My kids today are more sensitive towards such things, my family as a whole, are more progressive and modern in our thinking. Not in the sense that we are dressing up well, but we are sensing our environment more suitably. We feel the gifts of nature. So the journey has been amazing. Today, we’ve reached a point where we feel happy, we smile for no reason, we greet everyone with great love, even a tiny insect makes us happy, a tiny butterfly can give us so much joy that I have not hurt it, we have tried to do the best that we can. It’s a source of happiness is what I’m saying.

The overall compassion we develop because of associating with waste is unlimited. Really. Today I feel I am a better human being than I used to be when I was earning money. I have earned compassion, I have earned love for my fellow beings, i have learnt to be mature – I’ll say about myself. I am a mature woman today because what is maturity? Where you do the right thing and don’t care for praise or for the critics that have nasty things to say. So that’s maturity. And not wavering from your goal. That is maturity for me.

Deepika: And she continued talking about how this feeling of accomplishment and achievement has now extended also to other members of the community.

Padma: Our journey which started with waste being looked upon as a problem is actually today a boon because it makes us smile that we are not doing anything that is harmful, we have done out part. And today the whole of Purva Venezia feels proud of this particular aspect that we as a community do not pollute our surroundings.

People who leave Purva Venezia to some other destination, they call me up and say ‘Padma there is no segregation here, how will I live here? I’ve already put 3 bins out and they are calling me crazy here. They mix everything and take it and I feel so bad, Padma. I really want to quit this place.’ Because it harms their emotion that you people are unable to do such a small thing in your city – please do it! That’s the cry from within. I’m not saying that the transformation will happen but the cry from within is ‘it’s such a simple thing, why don’t we do it.’

Arpita: That’s a really powerful outcome for the individuals, the family and the community!

Deepika: Yeah Keshav uncle added by saying that its not just the act of segregation that helps you develop that sense of interconnection but it then informs everything else that you do in these very practical ways because you start reassessing all your choices and decision-making accordingly and you know all those problems that seem otherwise overwhelming and you complain about, now you’ve to engage with them.

Keshav: Earlier on, what we spent on was limited to food and clothing and a few other things. Now the consumption pattern has changed a lot, now we are consuming things which are much more harmful to the planet in terms of plastic that we use, synthetic materials that we use. Those don’t have a solution so actually there are two kinds of waste that we have – one is organic, which is natural lets say, which can go back to Earth and the other is man-made synthetic stuff – which is all your plastic, and your metal and your glass that we do. Some of this can be recycled but a lot of it has no use. It’s dirty, smelly, and it goes to a landfill. Simply speaking plastic, only 9% of plastic is actually recycled in the world. These are UN statistics available. So 91% of all plastic made in the world over the years is still around in the planet. And where is it? It’s in your landfill, in your water, in your air, in your rivers and finally in the oceans. And when nature gets angry with us, it spills it back on the beaches for us to see.

Arpita: So this example obviously totally reminds me of what people like Afroz and his clean-up group have to contend with on the beach – and we spoke to this on the first episode of Trash Talk. I remember you telling me just how so many people on that cleanup came across little boring mundane things that are right of the shelves of their house like packets of milk with those snipped ends and detergent packets and what not. Each time you saw it in a beach quite like that it made you think about what you were buying.

Deepika: Absolutely, it feels like we are going full circle also with that now. India generates almost 26,000 Metric Tonnes of plastics every single day – which I read somewhere is equal to the weight of 9000 elephants – its not coming out of nowhere – it’s being generated by our use. Keshav uncle was explaining this.

Keshav: Now because of the quantity and the kind of garbage has changed, now that’s become a big question. What happens to your waste? What happens when you buy a product and stop using it? Now one of things I say in my talks is that ‘You must understand that everything you buy has a lifetime that you will use it, but after you stop using it, where does it go?’ If you buy electronic goods, when you stop using it, its a disaster electronic goods. Because they all go to slums where these guys use acids and fire to reclaim whatever metal is in that. It’s so hazardous for the air for the people working there.

Arpita: There is so much wisdom and insight to how each of them is speaking to and has thought of the process of segregation and composting – theres just so many layers to it right? I mean we’ve gone from finding that it can actually lead to better lives for our children, greater awareness of interconnectivity, deeper compassion and love for life, and even this deep awareness of your own footprint on the planet that can make us actually reassess and reconsder how we are living and what we are buying!

Deepika: Yes, and I think its this particular route that I want to point out – this personal connection that flows into personal action and then through that personal action there is that greater sense of you know where you fit into the larger scheme of things – that we are one among many species and we are a part of the larger environment and not top dog. I think Savita explains that really well.

Savita: Solid waste management is completely volunteer driven activism. It is that activism at the individual level. You know usually what happens is that they begin at home level, then they move to community level and then move on to the city level. You know at least in their area they try to make things better. They get involved with local politicians and all those people you know for instance in my case I got involved with BBMP officials here and we conducted a lot of public meetings and we would setup you know expos of all kinds of available composting systems, I wanted people to come and see what is available.

In fact the very conversation started with activism, its completely activism driven cause – waste management. So its still going in the same manner. Some people have remained committed to this activism for a very long time. And they’ve been able to bring about a great deal of change in the city at least in the way it thinks.

Deepika: There is this organic move towards action and its action that is urgently required and I really liked how Keshav uncle explains it.

Keshav: We think it’s someone else’s problem so if we just understand the fact that this problem is created by us and only then we will move in the right direction. We can talk big, see reports, but we’ve got used to a situation where everyone is shouting wolf, wolf, but we don’t believe that we’re running into these problems. But we are and there’s no solution unless we start acting.

I would simply say, ‘start’. Start with anything. Start with getting your kitchen waste segregated. Start with 5 houses. Or one house. Do it on your own, learn, experience it. Tell your friends, ‘Send me garbage, your kitchen waste, I’ll do the composting.’ Stage by stage people see that it is possible, its not difficult. You’ve got to lead by example, by actually doing it. Problem is people say, ‘No, it smells so I don’t think I’ll do it. Or they say, I tried to talk to my President but they didn’t agree, I talked to my EC – they’re not interested.’ I tell them, but listen when you had to ride a cycle, did you do it the first time? You fell off a few times. Somebody told you you have to hold the handle, look ahead pedal, balance, could you do it straight away? You couldn’t. So this is also a process you have to learn by making mistakes and then perfecting and getting it. Having said that there are enough people to hold your hand and help you, just like with a cycle there was your dad or your mom and you got to cycling.

Arpita: That cycle analogy, I think is really spot on, because if you consider any little task that you begin with, there’s a curve of learning involved and I think like each of the people in this four part series has said – you have to make a beginning, you just have to start and that begins to ignite your curiosity and then I think the path just opens.

Deepika: And in the off chance it does not, there are so many people doing things, who are out in the world and its a question then of joining those endeavours and being a part of that story and Savita shared how she is just one of the many people doing what she’s doing.

Savita: My only faith is in the human spirit. People who think that they have to leave the planet behind better than what it was when they came in. And it goes back to the traditional wisdom that we have just borrowed this space for a certain amount of time. It doesn’t belong to us, we belong to this planet. So whatever little we can do we should be doing.

And I must say that this sort of activism is not only going on in Bangalore but has spread all over India. On a daily basis I am in touch with people from 8-10 states. Somebody who is starting some activity in their area in Delhi, Gurgaon even Himachal Pradesh, Assam – everywhere people are talking composting. And it is a good thing that is going on. And it is these little success stories that give us hope that someday it gets mainstreamed. Trust me, we have studied so many methods, yet the traditional way of doing composting is the best. And that is the only sustainable cost effective way. It can be done.

Deepika: The numbers might not have hit critical mass but the number of people who are slowly reflecting on their lives and wanting to get involved and contending with their choices has gone up. I love in particular how Padma was describing her own personal dilemmas in terms of you know whether to choose that job and go out and earn money and have that second income or to actually undertake unpaid community work and how do you weigh those two against each other.

Padma: I would have gone for work and have a corporate life but then I thought how much money would I earn? Say 50 lakhs I make, keep it in a bank for my son to use over a period of his lifetime, but then I thought, what is the use of that bunch of paper, if he doesn’t have a a good earth to grow his veggies on, have a good life, a healthy life. Air is already polluted, so let me do my part. Maybe its worth 50 lakh, more than a crore. Who knows?

Deepika: You know Arpita, right from Afroz to Poonam to Keshav uncle, Savita and Padma – everybody that I have spoken to I think what the key takeaway has been is what they said about how irrespective of the odds, there is joy in the doing. Like I said in the beginning, the real story is sometimes in the things you don’t see as easily – its the personal journeys that allow for action to take place and without those personal journeys you can’t have process. They work in tandem with each other. So it was also really understanding how those small steps and the act of ‘doing’, then opens up things inside you and in the external world. And they’ve all displayed that with the fact that they’ve been able to achieve so much in their communities. And I think it also helps us understand our own footprint and what we are doing in the planet in that sense and finding other people who doing similar work and finding strength and like minded communities and engaging in those conversations. There is some unnameable magic about it, I would say even a healing, in accepting those challenges whatever the costs.

I think it’s summarised really well by what Savita says.

Savita: All we are asking is you don’t leave behind such a huge footprint that nobody can help you solve that. It can be easily done. Carrying your own water bottle, carrying your own container to a hotel – as often as possible. For carrying your own bottle or bag– there’s no excuse, because this can be easily done. Imagine the number of plastic bags that get deducted when you carry your own cloth bag. Something simple like that – we can all do. Keep some in the car, some in your bag, some in your bike or whatever transport you’re taking. All these things can be easily done.

And I see many people bringing cloth bag and many shops because of the laws and many protests have switched to genuine cloth bags and change is happening. But the rate at which destruction is happening – the pace of change is slow. We have to make sure that atleast both move at the same pace and slowly destruction levels come down. Whatever little you can, it is very much doable. If a little girl can do it, anybody can do it.

Outro: That’s the last episode of our Trash Talk series. For a comprehensive list of things you can start doing Today, places to volunteer, and details on composting, visit our website http://www.thecuriocitycollective.org.

Next time, we’re talking to architect Chitra Vishwanath of Biome Environment Solutions on how to re-imagine cities and what it means to think of the city as an eco-system.