Turned ten again (The story of my activism)

About a year back, I wrote about my older one turning ten. This was all the more special to me since it was a double celebration. My son was ten years old. And we had been parents for ten years. My mom told me that child birth used to be considered a rebirth at one time. She spoke in reference to maternal mortality. If you ask me, it is still true. You leave your younger, carefree, selfish self behind for good the day you realise you are responsible for this tiny new human being. Becoming a parent is to be born again.

But ten years ago, I had another rebirth of sorts. Around that time Bangalore began its struggles with the ‘Silicon City’ identity. All at once there were so many jobs. So then lots of office buildings came up. As opportunities grew, people flooded in. Soon living in the tiny places let out by the pensioners of Bangalore began to feel passe  to those of us getting paid little dollar (but big rupee) salaries. And so the tall apartments came up. And then we wanted the cool wheels. And the narrow, tree-lined streets just could not keep up. One of the early casualties was the stretch of the Sarjapur Road from St. John’s hospital to Madiwala Mandi.

They bit into my hunting grounds when they cut those trees. Because for me and my group, fresh out of the green IITK campus, St. John’s with it’s leafy grounds and college canteens (because it is also a medical college) felt like home. And that road was lined by the most beautiful rain trees with their perfect symmetrical canopies meeting at the top. All along the length of that road. I LOVED it! And just like that, it was gone. It was a shock but what hurt the most was that my son would never know.

People feel for the planet when they hear about the great barrier reef or drowning islands. For me, it was that road. Also the heart breakingly lovely mango tree in front of gate 4 Chinnaswamy Stadium but that’s another story. Anyway, that was my turning point.

My son would never see the Bangalore that I had fallen in love with. He would only see the travesty it has become. A place infamous for traffic and pollution and garbage and tree stumps. It was more than I could bear. Suddenly I felt like I had a stake in the future that I had not given a thought to upto that point. It became intensely personal.

I started by searching the net for environmental groups in Bangalore. My first engagement was with Hasiru Usiru and ESG. But marvellous as their work is, I realized very quickly it was not for me. I do not debate the importance of what they do. They were talking about lake conservation and waste management ten years ago when they were much smaller problems that we could reasonably be expected to solve. But their engagement with the law and political authorities was frequently frustrating and the confrontational style was not for me.

At their suggestion, I began volunteering with Trees for Free. Started by the indomitable Janet Yegneswaran by the simple process of walking up to people and asking if she could plant a tree at their door! I planted over 300 trees with them, on occasion being the only volunteer who had turned up for a drive and planting everything all by myself. It never felt frustrating. There might have been a million trees felled elsewhere but with every tree I planted, I gave myself and my child hope. Finally we reached the point where there were no more drives happening within the city. Bangalore was shutting its door on new trees and it became increasingly difficult for me to join drives farther off. So I stopped planting trees and began composting!

Because if not one thing then another, right? Daily Dump was one of the early players in the composting business in Bangalore. With the beautiful earthen Khamba, they made composting less about waste and more about aesthetics. The minute you took your composter home you knew it was about petrichor not filth. And this in the days before EM solutions and remix powder! I struggled with fruit flies and lack of dry matter and the futility of attempting to make do with shredded newspaper. Months after I had put them in the bin, I could still read the date! I had a few successful batches but then I got pregnant again and lifting the huge pots became too much for me and I stopped.

There was a break of a couple of years when I was a mother and a worker in my little self contained and happy world and had no time for anything else. But the outside world would not stay out and came knocking in a rather horrible way.

ESG has been fighting for the rights of the underprivileged people that Bangalore dumps its waste on for the longest time. And it is really as bad as it sounds! As people grow richer, we don’t care about stuff. We just throw what we don’t want away. But where’s away? Away is a place. Away has a name. For Bangalore, away was called Mavallipura. A village not that far from us. Had to be for economic reasons. A poor village. Again, had to be. Populated with people who no one really cared about. And for years we had dumped and dumped and dumped. They lived with a huge mountain of trash in their backyard. They ate their meals sitting under mosquito nets in a desperate attempt to keep the flies away. They lived in perennial stench. And suffered from skin problems, respiratory problems, dengue and depression. As ESG spearheaded their fight, it all boiled over to a day when one villager stood in front of the trucks and said ‘No more of your garbage in my village. Kill me if you must!’ The truck drivers thought to call his bluff, only he wasn’t bluffing. That man died. And then suddenly the Mavallipura story changed.

I wish I could say we mended our ways and stopped trashing our world. But we really only found a new dumping ground – Mandur. But the story became news and garbage has never since been out of Bangalore news since.

It was a wake up call for me and I started again with my khamba. This time I was not alone. A lot of ordinary Bangaloreans were feeling like I did. And they were thinking of solutions. Facebook was here and there were so many forums online. The simple but sufficient waste segregation plan 2bins1bag was born. There were many more composting solutions. I bought a Bokashi kit which took all the guesswork and indeed the work out of composting!

I had more compost than I knew what to do with and with the help of an active online community I began to grow some of my own food. And because I am before anything lazy, if what I planted would not grow, I was happy to eat whatever my compost gifted me! There are quite a few guava trees in my building that owe their existence to leftovers that made it to my Bokashi bin.

And in the process I discovered soil building and learned about natural farming and permaculture but more about that another day.

Things began to look up. Now when people visited they were eager to see my composter, smell the compost. Then they began to take home seeds. Gardening became cool. All my household took to it. My cook would compare harvests with my maid. My friends were starting kitchen gardens.

Sure there was traffic on the roads. But only because people would not stand by and let trees be cut for flyovers or wider roads!

There is garbage everywhere, yes. But only because the pourakarmikas – our waste workers – now refuse to pick up unsegregated waste in black plastic bags.

There is drought and there is too much rain. But there aren’t floods as bad as Chennai or Mumbai because our lakes are being revived.

Where other people see black clouds, I only see the silver lining. And I believe it will push through yet. You know why?

The other day, me and a couple of my friends signed up for a tree planting drive. There are more tree planting groups now in Bangalore and more drives within the city, but this one was a bit far and on a Sunday. We were a bit lazy. But it was a huge drive, over a thousand trees, and we figured it would take them time. But when we showed up, there was nothing left to plant! After a lot of searching we found one small sapling and the three of us planted that because having come so far we had to plant something! And then one green kid saw the three of us messing around with one sapling and ran up yelling ‘a sapling is being destroyed here!’ I wanted to say, ‘back off kid, I was planting trees while you were in school!’ But inside, I was so thrilled. What a long way to have come!  From being the only volunteer to watching a forest come up around me in no time. Kids, adults, older people all turning up early on Sunday morning to plant trees. People teaching their kids to mess around in the mud instead of playing in a clean mall. There’s hope for this city yet.

And there’s hope for me and my children. Because that is all it boils down to finally. That is how it began. I have a stake in the future of this world. I don’t want my child growing up in a place where winter uniform means smog masks! I want them to have all that we did and more. And if it means taking a bus instead of driving or remembering to carry a bag, that’s surely part of the whole unselfish parent gig?

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