Garima Poonia, the brain behind Kachrewaale Project, went to the Andaman’s Neil Island in 2017, and noticed lack of waste management on the beaches, resorts or even on the streets. This 26-year-old then dropped her studies at a university in the UK and devoted her time in environmental conservation, to make the Andaman Islands waste-free again.
Garima talks to SheThePeople.TV about her life in and out of the Andaman Islands, and what makes her a waste picker, an unusual passion. Excerpts from the interview:
What inspired you to become a social worker? Tell us from the beginning.
Since my father was in the army I grew up all over the country in a certain privileged manner. However, my grandfather is a farmer and still lives in a village. The frequent trips we made there showed me a side of the world I would’ve been blind to, till perhaps even end of my schooling. My mother till date remains the only woman in the entire village, perhaps many more around, who doesn’t follow the system of purdah. So I grew up essentially in two worlds. One in cantonments that was less patriarchal, independent, and sports oriented, where I was encouraged to speak up and voice my opinions and one in the village where I would see child marriages, a hell lot of patriarchy and restrictions.
I took up literature during under graduation, my mother’s suggestion, since I loved reading, and it was a fantastic choice. A whole new world opened up for me, especially feminist literature. It was such a delight and felt like a homecoming, to see that so many women had thought of what I was feeling but somehow couldn’t articulate as well as them. I was a feminist long before I even knew what the word meant. And thus, I hoped to be able to take up a PhD in Gender and Philosophy or women’s rights and go on to teach more children, especially girls and women. The idea was that I could inspire them through feminist literature the way I was.
My mother till date remains the only woman in the entire village, perhaps many more around, who doesn’t follow the system of purdah. So I grew up essentially in two world.
During my time, that is 2014-15, Young India Fellowship was heavily focused on social change and the possibility of the fellows becoming change-makers. I remember thinking what good would my teaching feminist literature do, when most kids, especially girls are not even able to finish school, and some never even go. It was that course that inspired me to start looking at grassroots and ultimately take the decision of working with women at grassroots. It was a tough call, less money and I had to deal with a father who threatened to kick me out of the house if I worked with an NGO, but I just had to do it.
I began working with SEWA, who have been pioneers in working with women from the informal economy. It was a very hardcore immersion into the lives of these women who make up anything between 80-90% of our entire informal economy which in itself is up to 60% of the entire economy. They teach us wrong that women don’t work and only take care of the household. In a patriarchal society, we just tend to easily ignore a woman’s work. While I was learning the ropes in my interaction with young inspirational girls and women from tribal areas, slums and villages, I was also developing a very conscious attitude towards the environment and constantly wondering about my carbon footprint. This one day I found out that a pair of denims can take 5000+ liters to make. Soon after, I donated 70% of my clothes to homeless people and almost completely cut out on packaged food because that kind of packaging is usually not recyclable. Since that day, I mostly survive on second hand clothes, and buy clothes or pretty much anything else only when I absolutely need it. It still wasn’t enough though.
At this time I also figured out that waste pickers are also part of the informal economy and possibly in the lowest rung of society as we know it today. It seemed like the perfect junction to work in. So I moved to my first waste related project where I had to help design a new Solid Waste Management (SWM) system and integrate waste pickers into the same (Aurangabad). I would spend hours and hours, day after day talking with waste pickers, sorting waste with them, going to dump yards, landfills, slums, their houses, meeting scrap dealers, all in an effort to understand this whole informal economy. What most people think is that waste has been taken care of in whatever way by only the government through its municipals and all. But in reality, only the waste pickers have been cleaning our cities since the last so many decades. They have collected and helped recycle thousands of tons of waste where municipals have only dumped it. It is only in the last few years that government has begun taking concrete interest in not just dumping waste but effectively managing it through source segregation (which is still a distant dream in most areas) and recycling. It is also important to note that waste pickers work in absolutely hazardous conditions, can you imagine a workplace worse than inside a dustbin or a landfill?
I was a feminist long before I even knew what the word meant. And thus, I hoped to be able to take up a PhD in Gender and Philosophy or women’s rights and go on to teach more children, especially girls and women
Since that project, all my projects have revolved around waste and sanitation. I’ve worked with NGO’s, with private entities, as well as the government.
So from pursuing masters to on a mission to make Andaman Island waste-free. Was this shift driven by any personal reason? Also, tell us about your scuba diving passion.
I came here in 2017 to get my scuba diving license. It was a vacation with my parents. I fell in love. Water has always been my element, I feel more comfortable in water than on land. The scuba dives impacted me deeply. You cannot put in words what it feels like to be thirty meters under water, being surrounded by fish in all colors you can think of, corals that look like underwater cities, only drastically more democratic and equal than our cities. Baby fish swimming around their homes, some adults changing colors, some shining like silver under water, others gliding like a dream. And the islands themselves, utterly magical!
Andaman has lush green ancient jungles as old as 25 million years. Peoples living here since perhaps 60000 years; so much culture and so many stories to be heard. Birds of paradise. I mean how can you look at an Andaman Drongo with its beautiful split tail, or a While Bellied Sea Eagle circling the skies, or the Emerald Dove, or a ray shooting past you under water, and not feel overwhelmed; not just by the wonder of it all but also by the harsh fact that we are losing it all, rather brutally murdering it all. And waste generation, plastic and ineffective waste management are today one of the prime reasons of pollution, health hazards, damage to eco systems. They affect us all, human or non-human. Just that we as humans have a voice so we are not trying to change the scenario at least in some places and in some areas. I want its beauty to be shared, but it can’t be shared if it’s not preserved.
They teach us wrong that women don’t work and only take care of the household. In a patriarchal society we just tend to easily ignore a woman’s work.
How did Kachrewaale Project come into being?
So after my first visit to the islands I went back to the mainland but Andamans was always in the back of my head. I began working in the city but decided to not continue after a year since I wanted to go the Andamans and see if I could figure a way of sorting out the waste situation. What followed was a visit wherein I volunteered with Reefwatch, gave them a plan for SWM while also researching the informal recycling industry in Port Blair. I met a lot of people from the private industry to see if anyone would be interested in funding the project. No one wanted to. In the end, I met someone who helped me get two jobs through which I could sustain myself and work on my project. I met the administration to see if they would be willing to help in any way, since for the vision I had and the scale I planned, their support/collaboration would be important. The project began formally in Neil in November last year.
In December I organized a Waste Management and Conservation Workshop for children from Navy School. I look at it as a success story because for the first time waste collected during a beach clean-up at any of the islands was taken off the island to Port Blair. It was dumped on the island. Which is very significant because Neil is only about 7 km long and clearly cannot sustain a landfill. 100 kilos of waste was collected by 33 kids. We did something that was never done before and showed that it is possible.
The other success story is of the segregation pilot. When I started I expected a lot of resistance from the Hotel/resort owners towards segregation. But we got some really good support.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
One of the biggest challenges is the transportation of waste out of the Andamans.
What are the campaigns you have initiated so far?
To start source segregation in hotels/resorts and initiatives towards beach cleanups.
Why wasn’t this initiative taken by locals? What facilities do they lack?
First, they don’t really understand how badly waste effects them. Take it all and burn it, seems like a good solution. They do not know that plastic and other kinds of chemicals that our waste has, get into our food chain and impact us in numerous ways. They can’t stop tourism because it’s their major source of livelihood. And they’ve never seen a sustainable model of tourism. For them its either tourism or not tourism.
It’s also interesting to note that in terms of littering, most non-Indians don’t litter. But when it comes to Indians, many times they pick up fights with anyone who tries to tell them to not litter.
Feature Image Credit: Garima Poonia