Most native cultures have been known for there synergy with nature stretching back for many thousands of years. Most very rural villages, untouched by modernization, still beautifully preserve this balance – ranging from types of trees, water catchments, crop rotation, organic pesticides, organic fertilizers, and even wind-energy (remote villages are going towards cheap wind and solar energy, not withstanding the bureaucracy off getting electricity – which can take even a year to get after applying for it). But the sudden rush towards modernization the past two decades has really wreaked havoc on India (as it did in the USA before pollution laws came into being).
The Culture of Convenience: Plastics
The biggest source of civic liter you’ll see in India today are plastic bags. Plastic bags… as far as the eye can see. This is the landscape of India as it is today. All the bits of trash you see in the photos on this page are plastic bags – tens of thousands of them. The landscape is riddled with them – on the road, snagged in bushes, on trees, in sewage drains, etc. It’s as if a dump truck had dumped its load every which way. I’ve seen more trash in India in one day than in all my 15 years in the USA put together. How did this happen? Speaking for just my town, I remember it wasn’t like this just six years ago.
A decade ago this landscape was pristine. A decade ago:
– People used cloth bags for shopping. Now they bag them in plastic bags whether you’re buying a single box of sweets or just a bar of soap.
– The grocer used to wrap non-perishable produce (like rice, wheat, wheat flour, lentils, etc.) in plain old unbleached/biodegradable newspapers and tie them with a string. Now they pack and seal them in plastic bags.
– Road side coffee and tea were served in metal tumblers, now they’re served in plastic cups which are thoughtlessly thrown aside right on the road.
– In road-side “fast-food” restaurants food was served on banana leaves or steel plates, now they’re disposable.
– You used to get things like shampoo and tooth powder in large bottles, now they’re delivered in single-use disposable satchels.
– Milk used to be delivered in bottles (after emptying it, it is kept outside; the next morning it is exchanged for fresh bottles of milk). Now they’re delivered in plastic bags.
– Shaving razors (the kind you insert a steel double-edge blade in) have been replaced by disposable plastic razors.
– Kitchen scouring pads were made up of coconut husks and a particular type of gourd (now they’ve been replaced by plastic).
– Fountain pens have been replaced by disposable pens (why should pens have to be disposable?). The thoughtlessness of convenience is incredible.
Without proper civic services (trash collection, recycling) to keep up with the explosion of modernization, they get strewn as liter throughout the land or remain stranded in landfills, where they seep into the soil and run off into water ways. Plastic bags after exposure to high summer heat and monsoon rains, decompose, and the chemicals find their way into the soil, contaminating the soil. Most people burn them – which is even more dangerous, as the smoke is filled with cancer causing carcinogens. One can trace the increase in diseases with “unknown causes” (ranging from cancer, liver damage, kidney failure, blood disease, bone disease, asthma, congenital malformations, misconceptions, etc.) to pollutions from chemical contamination into food and water – from plastic waste material, air pollution, chemical waste from gray waters, hazardous pesticides and fertilizers (as opposed to traditional organic farming). You reap what you sow.
When one ends up with a serious pollution related disease, there is little use in crying “why did God do this to me”, or “what have I done to deserve this”, because now you know, you can act upon it. Please do, and the Earth will shower you with good blessings, more than any amount of prayer/puja can. At least integrate your act of worship or reverence (for God), with your environment.
Tamil Nadu state happened to bring in a law very recently that prohibits use of plastic bags — only to have the law repealed later by plastic bag companies. What can we do when we have powerful companies (and self-serving politicians) that repeal these laws? Well, we don’t have to wait for politicians. Market is driven by demand. You are the demand. Start by making a conscious choice to not use plastic bags. The next time the shop you visit reaches for a plastic bag, be just say no. Carry a re-usable cloth bag with you whenever you go for shopping. It’s that simple.
Carrying a cloth shopping bag is just one big step. Other things one can do is go back to the way you’d do things before plastic – keep your own non-disposable coffee/tea mug at work, use glass/reusable bottles, cloth diapers instead of disposable, avoid plastic utensils, use fountain pens, etc. Every plastic bag you accept or throw away adds up to tons of toxic waste seeping into the soil, water, and our food.
The USA went through a similar phase where in the 70’s-80’s it was choking with pollution. Most of its rivers were toxic waste dumps with tons of chemical waste, every major city covered with smog, unregulated use of pesticides (like DDT and Alar) causing serious health hazards and birth defects, etc. It changed only in the mid 1980’s. Back in the 70’s in the USA almost every public school featured environmental related films regularly in the classrooms. It wasn’t just a one-off thing, but a screening of one environmental film after another. It is what sowed the seeds for the next generation, by the early 90’s there were several major environmental groups/lobbies in the USA.
Something like that is needed in schools in India, not just routine classroom debates/presentations on environment. It needs to move the students, such that it lingers in their mind long afterwards. Reminds me of the simple but powerful Native American Pollution Ad from back in the late 70’s, that echoed in peoples mind long after. We’re too desensitized today, and need more powerful (and graphic) films to drive home the point in the same way that simple ad did back then.
One such organization making its way into schools is Isha Foundation.