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Many of the pictures on this page are of poor quality due to weather and light conditions and the use of the cellphone camera. Apologies.
A Blind Spot
Hindus, Buddhists, Jains – they all had a gift for finding the most beautiful, majestic spots for building temples and monasteries. You imagine the ancient people being awed by Nature’s splendor, variety, immensity. You see them picking the locations most suitable for approaching the gods, for developing godliness. In your mind’s eye you envision the architects and masons doing Nature homage by building incredible structures in these locations – from the humblest shrines to the most elaborate and artful.
The people today still have an excellent sense for esthetics. You need no more than to look at the gorgeous female attires, jewelry, decorations and colorful celebrations.
But they have a blind spot.
Since the invention of plastic and the onset of the globalized economy, old cultures in particular went into a spin. In the past, everything you threw away decomposed or was eaten by the animals. Especially in rainy terrains, decomposition was fast and justly taken for granted. Nowadays, the waste stays put. Worse, it gets washed down with the gushing monsoon waters.
In the old days, humanity as a whole thought the ocean was an infinite repository for terrestrial trash. The waste would just disappear somehow once it reached this grand seemingly infinite reservoir. There was no need to ponder any further. And, indeed, bacteria and other marine life took care of any organic matter that drifted into the ocean. They actually thrived on it.
Now, it all backfires. The middle of the Pacific Ocean harbors huge amounts of non-decomposable and toxic materials endangering marine life, and indirectly, human and terrestrial life. A lot of the garbage comes from India.
Many in Israel have the same blind spot. We are not Switzerland by any measure. I was shocked, for instance, to see the garbage piles outside the central city of Ramla, or even behind some apartment blocks in my own Jerusalem neighborhood. Garbage collection on the municipal level is mostly well managed, yet a lot of work still needs to be done, especially outside the collection routes. We need more consciouness raising, better law enforcement, education, recycling programs, composting – to mention a few central issues.
India as a whole, though, seems to be on another scale.
That Old Law of Gravity - The Case of Bhagsu
My first encounter with the Indian garbage problem was in Bhagsu (Bhagsunag), Himachal Pradesh – a beautiful village in the lower Himalayas.
There are no garbage bins on Bhagsu’s uphill main street. Some stores might have a pail or a basket outside, but even those are rare. There are no bins at all up the steep mountain paths I was climbing every day to get to my dance class or my favorite coffee house. Under these objective circumstances, a person has to be super-aware to carry their garbage with them. Most people aren’t.
Furthermore, when you do find a trash can anywhere in India, chances are that a cow, a monkey or a roaming dog have already found it before you. More often than not, then, the contents will be spread all over the ground. Rare are animal-proof garbage bins as you might find in America’s National Parks, and even good bins do not necessarily withstand the harsh conditions. And, indeed, given Himalayan geography and climate, how can you maintain the needed infrastructure to collect the waste from these multiple mountain paths?
If a person does not understand the impact of their simple everyday actions, if there is no adequate garbage collection system, if animals mess up whatever there is – we are in for a colossal trouble.
And then come the monsoons.
The picture above shows a newly created waterfall, following an especially powerful 2-day downpour.
With the gushing water, all the wrappers, cups, packages, bottles, aluminium cans that were thrown by the sides of “Main Street Bhagsunag”, are now swept downhill, clogging the drains and canals, forming trash islands in the newly-formed street river.
From the tallest mountains in the world, water flows on down to the streams, the rivers, the larger rivers, the larger larger rivers, and eventually to the ocean. And with it – the plastic!
Bhagsu Falls and the Waste Warriors
Bhagsu Falls is the most popular tourist and pilgrimage site around Bhagsu. And, indeed, it is a very beautiful walk.
Many people make a decent, if humble, living selling fast food to the visitors. Small, makeshift stalls are strewn all along the road from Bhagsu Temple to the Falls and even up the mountain.
The following picture shows one vendor’s ingenuity:
A non-profit organization called “Waste Warriors” placed bins every 50 meters or so on the way to the Falls. They even posted signs, like the one below, to direct people to them. Unfortunately, many bottles and cans do not end up in the installed garbage bins. People simply keep throwing their wrappers, bottles and other waste right on the ground in between them, as if carrying the empty packaging for 20 meters is too much of an effort.
Many Israelis participate in the Waste Warriors projects. Volunteers from Beit Bina in Dharamkot go to the Falls once a week to collect garbage. I did not join these walks, but did my own small contribution to the issue. Using the tip of my walking stick, I would lift up the wrappers from the ground and, hoisting them up on the stick like little coats of arms, I would walk to the next bin to dump them there. I tried to make sure people would notice the actions of the strange foreign lady… Some gave me a cheer!
Despite all the efforts, huge accumulations of garbage were concentrated around the Falls themselves.
Lower Bhagsu Falls. Food stalls along the road are main sources of the garbage that ends up flowing down the stream.
The small makeshift stalls can be seen in the above picture. They supply the raw materials for the local garbage bonanza.
People enjoy themselves in Bhagsu Falls for a Shiva celebration
According to myth, Shiva under the name of Gangadhara, received the river Ganga as she fell from the heaven. The Ganga is seen as a three-headed goddess above his head. The river was flowing for thousands of years through his hairlocks… This fascinating story with a beautiful picture of the Ganga in Shiva’s hair can be read here.
Rivers in India are sacred, holy. The Ganga, the Yamuna, the Indus are some of the famous ones. Songs are written for them, gods and goddesses are dedicated to them (most Indian rivers are seen as feminine), yet now they are full of garbage, trashed, defiled.
Udaipur City in Rajasthan is by far the cleanest and most European-like city I’ve seen in India. The river flowing through the city is beautiful, as well as the bridges above it, yet… the river, even here, had garbage drifting side by side with the pretty flower offerings.
A Temple's Back Yard
Savitri’s Temple in Pushkar is a highly-regarded pilgrimage site. The view from its top is extraordinary.
The black-faced monkeys also love the scene:
Yet people have to wait many hours for the temple to open. Right behind the building they munch their snacks or lunches and then dump the waste on the ground.
A Girl Must Break Up if Her Boyfriend is Polluter!!
From this one sign posted on a tree on the path to Vashisht Falls, I learned a lot about Indian culture:
- Awareness is rising for the garbage problem. Hallelujah!!!
- Women are gaining ground in social status. They can even break up with their boyfriends…
- There is such a thing as a boyfriend, to be distinguished from a husband, and he is expected to comply with some standards…
- Perhaps more boys than girls throw trash. We have always been the world’s cleaners…
- English is the second langauge, but grammar is optional… (unfortunately, most “polluters” probably cannot read it anyway).
There is so much more to be said about India’s garbage situation. The topic is as big and as vast as the garbage mountain itself. And there is more to it than meets the eye – social issues, governing issues, traditions, even religious issues. I am too small and ignorant to analyze all this. Moreover, except for one day in Mumbai, I haven’t yet been to any of the big cities, where I know the problem in some areas is acute. I will therefore limit myself to my personal observations and impressions in the upcoming sister post – Cleaning India.