Sashti Balasundaram: Promote Recycling at the Source

Progress Reports


Mid-Year Public Progress Report

Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu

Sashti Balasundaram came to PondyCAN! his partner organization with a Masters Degree in Public Health from Columbia University. With PondyCAN! Sashti is pulling together a solid waste management project for the local Pondycherry community.


In South India, Pondicherry (now Puducherry) exists as a Union Territory – the home of French colonial rule up until 1954 (even though India’s independence occurred nearly a decade prior).  A large expatriate community exists with numerous languages spoken including: Tamil, Bengali, Hindi, English and French.  The diversity of its people and history is easily recognizable through its architectural concepts where large colonial streetscapes merge with modern local concepts.  Intertwined with this charm is the spiritual home of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in which devotees flock from across the nation and world.  It is in this environment where the enlightenment of Aurobindo meets the bustle of modern India, the NGO Pondy CAN! (Citizens’ Action Network) exists.

Pondy CAN! is a recently established organisation with a focus on the enhancement and preservation of public values.  It seeks to condition Puducherry as a role model for Indian cities in a natural, cultural and social context through local and national dialogue.  The varieties of projects encompass an array of actions such as beach coast restoration, regional planning and advocacy for good governance; these works are being approached through education, research and government collaboration.

Fitting neatly into the above descriptions is a goal of developing community relations.  Additional projects allow for community engagement through participatory action.  These engagements offer support and interaction with a dynamic array of individuals from varied circumstances.  It allows a connection to groups of individuals usually harassed or shunned by modern society which include street working children, the gypsy community and ITCI.

At the halfway point, this adventure is marked by an intense range of emotion and struggle.  But it is an adventure the helps broaden an outlook while delivering personified growth.  If taken seriously this outlook can shift one’s perspective in life, offering a defining a path for harmonious action.  The daily experience is a constant affirmation of change, the basis for Indicorps model of “Change: You can make happen.”  This is a journey uncertain to end long after the Fellowship ceases, but for my committed time in India, it is being put to worthwhile imaginable use.

Project Background and Need

Once again looking at the description of my Indicorps project, I am reminded of what drew me here.  This project encapsulates differing tasks with regard to solid waste management (SWM), a term signifying the reduction of waste material to landfill through efforts such as recycling and source segregation.  As populations increase, expenditures on consumer goods also tend to increase with the substantial creation of end-waste.  Currently, the amount of waste generated per person per day in Australia, USA, Japan, and India include:

Australia: 1.6kg (3.5lbs) /person/day         Japan: 0.6kg (1.3lbs) /person/day
USA: 1.8kg (4.0lbs) /person/day                   India: 0.5kg (1.1lbs) /person/day

As India becomes increasingly more urban and its middle class grows, a larger demand for consumer and material goods comes as a consequence.  As the second most populous nation in the world, India produces an exorbitant amount of waste per day.  The large volume critically debilitates local municipality efforts to handle such amounts thus burdening a system already lacking sufficient funding, infrastructural facilities and manpower.  Even though nearly 80% of garbage can be recycled, reused or composted, the majority of waste is either burnt or illegally dumped.  The ramifications of these issues are clear.  The increasing demands often result in disregard or minimal concern for the environment, health and quality of life.  Common themes include polluted waterways, the release of carcinogens and the mixing of medical, hospital waste into landfills.

As larger amounts of waste are generated this quotation of, “one man’s waste garbage is another’s treasure,” perfectly summarizes the concept of income-generation in this scenario.  Many disposable items such as paper, plastic, glass and metals have an economic financial value which has created an informal economy.  The main labourers in this sector are inappropriately termed ragpickers, but I have diplomatically defined them as Individuals That Collect In-organics (ITCI).  In India nearly 20% of all garbage generated is recycled from the efforts of these individuals whose services are often unheralded regardless of the positive benefit incurred at the local and national level.

Project Progress
First Objective

As a way to promote and expand SWM efforts across the project site, four objectives are currently underway.  The first is a pilot project to investigate the interest of the business district to undertake efforts of waste management.  A survey had been created to assess business interests and their willingness for source segregation.  The results of the survey reveals that the majority of stores are currently not segregating waste material.  Further questioning reveals that of the stores currently not segregating, a large majority, over 60% are willing to participate in source segregation opportunities .  They are willing to participate on the premise that the stores are offered a source bin and if daily collection occurs.

After these results have been tabulated, further steps to pursue source segregation in the area include a workshop for the owners and employees; production of IEC (Information, Education and Communication) material and a detailed discussion among key stakeholders to solidify methods of service, process and collection.

I was initially hesitant to begin dialogue with the storeowners because I imagined them to be preoccupied with their own business concerns and nothing else.  Luckily, I was offered advice to think differently about the survey by not focusing upon data collection but as a functional tool for engagement by generating relationships and  collectively tackling problems.  The survey extended into education, awareness and eventual friendship.

Second Objective
The second of these objectives is an educational approach with school students.  The focus is the deliverance of environmental education to students in standards 8 – 11.  As government schools are wrought with narrowly defined standards lacking in creative aspects, an action plan was pushed forward developed by the Centre for Science and Environment called The Green Schools Programme.  The programme offers children to take an active approach in thinking critically and analyzing an array of environmental topics including energy conservation, rainwater harvesting, flora and fauna identification, air pollution standards and waste segregation methods.  The assembled audit is completed by students and encourages them to make improvements at school and within their homes.  Fostering student activity helps to improve confidence and learning through action increases social and communication skills such as public speaking.  Working with these children through the Fellowship offers for exciting moments to mold and strengthen the aspirations’ of the next generation.

Third Objective
During the months of February and March 2010, The Pondicherry government imposed a ban on plastic bags. The ban was in response to the associated societal and environmental harms of plastic – it is a ban on the manufacture, distribution and use of plastic bags under 50μm. The study hypothesizes that the ban should reduce the amount of waste discarded (in kgs) because it assumes that bags greater than 50μm will be significantly stronger and sturdier enabling them to be reused.  It also assumes that the monetary incentives from heavier plastic material will encourage ITCI to collect on a regular basis since ITCI receive compensation based on items by weight – thus heavier plastic would validate larger incomes.

Before the ban came into effect a specific area was identified to assess the impact of the waste discarded.  Baseline data was collected and obtained from weekly trash collection measurements.  This offered insight to understand if the ban had any real effect for waste reduction.  The data has yet to be fully analyzed but trends display a non-significant variation from pre and post-ban which may signal the ban to be ineffective.  More importantly the items being discarded include a plethora of recyclable material such as plastic bottles, light bulbs, cardboard along with toxic, hospital waste such as dialysis tubing.

The site where collection occurs vividly demonstrates the inability of the current waste management system to cope with modern day products and appliances while also interfering with the livelihoods of the local fishing community.  The survey measurements are completed in an area adjacent to a lagoon, here trash daily washes ashore in great quantity.  The waterways are muddy and murky possibly due to contamination from upstream pollution.  The amount of pollution makes me repulse in the consumption of fish but the locals involved really have no other choice to secure their incomes and daily meals.

Fourth Objective
Health outreach is an educational concept directed towards the employees within the Shuddham NGO.  The workers collect, transport and segregate municipal waste from 1,200 households on a daily basis.  The regime is extremely difficult, 10-hour workdays in 40°C weather and receiving less than US$2 per day.  The conditions are visibly brutal but what resonates are the ages of the workers, some resemble those of my grandmother; this disheartening similarity occurs across various municipalities.  Also in existence is a stark visibility of communal hierarchy.

To cut through these aspects it is certainly necessary to respect and socially recognize the accomplishments these individuals are pursuing; the benefits for society and environment need to be encouraged.  Valuing their hard work is an initial step to promote positive attitudes.  The objective is to create awareness amongst the employees for them to appreciate the importance of their labour.  The goal is to provide a comprehensive understanding of their profession as a contributing factor for the positive growth of society.  This will occur through educational formats offering substance and support to a profession usually seen as dirty and meaningless.  The format will offer guidance and recognition to encourage decency.

Personal Development

Projects of this nature can be categorized within the so-called development sector for its extension to improving quality of life for the surrounding community.  While committing change outwardly this term also adjusts internally.  This year it combines 1) an individual journey of focus with drivers of reflection and 2) action which leads to integral growth and internal fulfillment.  The Indicorps Fellowship offers a collective blend of both internal and external development allowing for a unique approach to grassroots initiatives.  Indicorps offers a broad range of social concepts each with its own possibility for alleviation and improvement.  The encompassing subjects bring forth a larger understanding of global issues at a comprehensive proximal scale.  The opportunity to develop in such an environment is rich with positive metaphors and adjectives, a situation which is only ripe at certain stages of life’s journey.

Works Cited:

The Gita of Waste. Auroville: Auroville Health Centre, 2001; Wolf, Gita and Anushka Ravishankar

Trash!: On Ragpicker Children and Recycling. Chennai: Tara Publishers, 2004.

Sashti Balasundaram, August 2009 Indicorps Fellow

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