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There are two distinct parts to Santiniketan — one that houses the Visva Bharati University and the students and teachers who live around it, and another, where those who are not connected to the university live. Unfortunately, much of the area covered by the latter – and which is growing at a rapid rate – stays empty for most of the year. The elite from Kolkata, and increasingly the not-so-elite, are building their second homes in Santiniketan and come over only on weekends.
This ensures that many house owners in Santiniketan have no real stake in the place. They come on weekends, do the rounds of shops and eateries, and get back to their busy lives before Monday morning. This, along with the fact that Santiniketan has no municipality, is a recipe for disaster. The rubbish strewn by both residents and a huge number of visitors on weekends is only dealt with by cows and dogs — as they may please. When things get really nasty, somebody in the neighbourhood just sweeps all the plastic to one spot and burns it. The university, too, deals with plastic waste in the same way.
I have had an occasion earlier to write about my partner and I taking an initiative to run a private conservancy service in our area (about 150 households) with financial contributions from residents. Over the last three years since we started the service, we have managed to convince the inmates of each household to separate the organic and non-organic wastes. While the organic waste is to be dumped in a pit in the garden, the plastic rubbish is kept by each household to be picked up every Monday morning. We also employed five labourers to clean the neighbourhood streets at least five days a month.
A few years ago, in a similar move to keep the neighbourhood clean, some like-minded people got together and placed large garbage vats in the area. With no conservancy service in place, who would clean the vats was unclear. And as expected, the vats soon overflowed with rubbish. So, in an attempt to not hurt any sensibilities, we asked around in the area, took the consent of the house owners and with a lot of difficulty upturned the vats to clear the area. It was a huge task with one vat even containing a dead dog as part of the rubbish.
As we were carrying out the “operation vat cleaning”, my partner got a call from a member of Kolkata-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), Centre for Ecological Movement. She said members of the NGO were interested in working on plastic pollution and wanted to meet him to discuss the way forward.
The members of the NGO (no less) arrived and put their plans on the table. They wanted to create anti-plastic awareness. That was to coincide the annual Poush Mela, in December, to gain more visibility. They also suggested putting garbage vats at prime locations.
Knowing that they were only Samaritans who wished to save a tourist spot, we pointed out that Santiniketan had no municipality. They were surprised but didn’t make the connection with their noble effort. They said their job was done by putting vats in prominent spots. Beyond that, they felt, the residents should do the needful. How often could they come from Kolkata to monitor things, they asked incredulously. “Long live the movement,” we thought.