Garbage is not a dirty word

Garbage is not a dirty word

With the help of kids, Vinod Shetty is getting the city to show some respect to rag pickers, reports Kevin Lobo

    Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, is the last place you’d associate with environmental conservation. But as the world celebrates Earth Day today, Vinod Shetty, founder of NGO Acorn India, is out to prove how the rag pickers of Dharavi are one of the main cogs in the wheel for recycling the city’s daily output of 10,000 tons of waste. With the help of about 450 kids, a sizeable amountof whom are rag pickers, Vinod plans to change the perception of this city. 
These kids will paint together, make paper bags together, and watch documentaries together. To add star value to the event, Shankar Mahadevan will lend some glitter. The highlight of the day will be the sight of kids from diametrically opposite backgrounds grooving together to music by Ankur Tewari and Something Relevant. 
 But change does not happen overnight. Vinod runs a waste management programme in 35 schools in the city. “The same kids who have been trained to think that the kachra dabba is dirty take pride in joining the waste management committee,” says Vinod. 

    The 40-something advocate has been running this programme for the past two years to educate kids about the plight of these green-collar workers. “We were trying to get the BMC to clean the waterfront at the Bandra Bandstand. One lazy evening at my house in Chimbai village, there was this group of people cleaning the place up for free. There was no media, no cameras around, just three to four rag pickers gathering up plastic,” says Vinod. 
    Facilitating a change of perception was the first thing that struck him. “When a person is living a corrupt life, you can’t tell them that they are corrupt 
and expect them to change. You have to change people before they become corrupt,” he explains. Kids were his natural target audience. 
Though his school programmes have educated kids, both about rag pickers and the benefits of recycling waste, if perceptions have to change there is nothing better than face-to-face conversations. Thus came about the Earth Day event. 
With Earth Day falling just after the school exams it has been difficult to get kids to attend the day-long programme. Vinod is also severely shortstaffed. With just one person on the pay roll Vinod depends heavily on volunteers to get things done. But over his 20-year ‘career’ in social work Vinod knows the drill. 
A change in attitude is not all he is gunning for. Vinod does feel rotten that these kids don’t have a chance to go to school but feels that even that will change with perception. If there were systems in place, where garbage could be segregated into wet and dry waste, that would be a start. Money can be generated through recycled products which in turn could be used to establish schools. 
“Since rag pickers don’t use the AC, nor drink mineral water, nor drive SUVs, the environmental problem is ours, not theirs. We are trying to create an interactive bond between the rag pickers and school students. I want to protect their livelihood. Instead of burning waste we can start taking things to recyclers, with rag pickers leading the way,” he says.

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