Two weeks ago, Bangalore’s garbage crisis reared its head again. Residents of two villages on the outskirts of the city blocked garbage-laden trucks from dumping waste in the nearby quarries. At the same time, thousands of municipal sanitation workers began a protest demanding better working conditions. This meant garbage was left uncollected for days in the city, made worse by the rains.
But this crisis has not affected one man in the city who is managing not just his own waste but that of thousands of others in Bangalore’s densely populated, commercial neighbourhood of Shivajinagar.
Mohammed Sufiyan is not a new face in this neighbourhood. He’s grown up there and seen the state of the area go from bad to worse: garbage piling up in the streets for days, potholed roads and utter neglect by the municipal authorities. In 2013, Sufiyan had reached his wit’s end. Absent door-to-door garbage collection and regular sweeping of the streets, a black spot 3-feet-high had accumulated outside his apartment complex, putrefying and emitting an unbearable stench.
“One day I decided I’d had it. So I went to all the houses in my apartment building and informed people that the following Sunday, my two daughters and I would be cleaning up the black spot.”
The mocking and laughter he attracted did nothing to dissuade him. Come Sunday, Sufiyan and his children donned gloves and masks, armed themselves with brooms, and set about removing the pile of garbage. He quickly drew the attention of curious neighbours and passersby, and within the hour, 200 residents had gathered to join him in clearing the black spot. Sufiyan then painted the wall abutting the black spot a prim white. Soon others began adding pops of colour and lending the wall their own designs. In 2 hours, the place was transformed. Today, the wall stands testimony to the power of collective citizen action.
With this tiny spark, a flame of change was lit in Sufiyan. He founded the Active Residents Welfare Association (ARWA), through which he began addressing the idea of waste segregation. Within a short while, 922 households in the neighbourhood were segregating their waste following the 2Bin1Bag method.
No holds barred
Encouraged by the response he was getting, Sufiyan set his sights still further. In 2015, with news of Karnataka’s plastic ban trickling in, he began to think about doing something to reduce the huge volumes of disposable plastics generated by mosques during Ramzan. During the holy month, everybody fasts and since everyone breaks fast at a mosque, even a small masjid sees a crowd of at least 400 people every evening. Bigger mosques receive up to 1000 worshippers a day which generates a lot of plastic waste from the hundreds of plastic and Styrofoam plates and cups used. So, that seemed like a good place to begin tackling plastic waste, he tells me.
“We had to give people an alternative instead of just asking them to stop using plastic,” he says. So, he joined together with a friend and began drawing up estimates for purchasing melamine dinner sets - plates, cups and bowls. With a target in mind, Sufiyan began putting aside Rs. 10,000 from his monthly earnings. “I love wearing new clothes and shoes,” he says, “but I sacrificed buying anything new for some time.” At the end of ten months, he’d saved up some Rs. 2 lakh to which he added Rs. 50,000 borrowed from a friend. The money was spent to buy 10,000 sets of melamine dinnerware. A few weeks before Ramzan in 2016, Sufiyan and his group of 8 friends began donating the dinner sets to mosques in their neighbourhood. But, they didn’t just donate. They followed up every evening by visiting the mosques, talking to people about the ills of plastic, helping them with the washing and storing of reusables, and identifying volunteers who would help them sustain the programme. Young and old alike stepped in to offer support and keep the change going. They also urged people to avoid plastic carry bags and opt for paper instead.
At the end of 20 days, they had distributed reusables to 54 mosques in the neighbourhood, reduced plastic waste from each mosque by 45-50 percent, and eliminated plastic disposables almost completely! They also sought the support of mosque authorities and maulas who would regularly repeat the message to shun disposables through the month.
“We chose the month of Ramzan because of the number of people we can reach. Imagine if every man visiting the mosque spread the word to his family and friends. The impact is tremendous."
This Ramzan, the friends returned to remind mosques about reusing the crockery from last year. They also initiated the process of segregating waste in mosques. “Every mosque has big dustbins but no segregation takes place. So this year, I made green and blue stickers for wet and dry waste, printed lists of all the kinds of waste for each bin, and stuck them on all the bins in 54 mosques,” he informs. This year, they are six volunteers who go to 2 mosques everyday. Following iftar, they stand at the bins and direct people to dispose waste properly. The following morning, the volunteers arrange for the segregated waste to be moved to transfer points on the main road from where it is collected by the municipal vehicle. Many mosques, with Sufiyan’s intervention, now prohibit plastic on their premises. This year, his message has reached even farther - 6 mosques from another part of the city have cottoned on to the zero-waste message and sought Sufiyan’s guidance.
Every drop counts
Not one to stop so soon, Sufiyan has also taken up the issue of water conservation after noticing the careless use of water during wudhu or pre-worship ablutions. “We see people opening the taps at full pressure and taking their own time to clean up. So I suggested to one mosque to reduce the flow in the taps by controlling the discharge from the overhead tank. Once this was done, pressure in taps was reduced. Water was saved and they realised that the 2,000-litre tank that they pumped twice daily now needed to be pumped only once a day.” Sufiyan is also using relevant Quranic verses in posters to reinforce the urgent need to save water.
32 mosques in Bangalore are now using half the water they used to and saving at least 52,000 litres a day.
While Ramzan culminates in a few days, Sufiyan’s tireless efforts to spread the message of the environment will continue.
“We have undertaken similar efforts during Ganesh Chaturthi to encourage clay idols instead of non-biodegradable PoP ones."
Sufiyan has been instrumental in encouraging a few temples in his locality to shift from disposable plates to stainless steel ones for distributing prasadam and to invest in reusable crockery for use during large ceremonies. He has also invested time in working with restaurants to compost their organic waste, distributing the compost to the city’s many parks.
His commitment to the environment stems from his strong sense of place. “Keeping one's city clean is the only thing we can give back to the place where we were born, grew up, or made memories in," he says.
Sufiyan can be contacted at +91 99007 76839.