This is an experience shared by my elder brother Sagar Atre, who currently is studying journalism at Ohio University.
Every morning, at about 11 I hear a familiar sound out of my window. The jingle of the bell and the rattling tractor announces the arrival of the ghantagadi (the garbage collecting van). I see the people working in it, covered in filth and handling our refuse without any qualms and expressions of disgust. Most of us can’t even stand being near the ghantagadi for more than ten second, these people worked in it for ten hours a day!
We interact with people like these literally every day. The ghantagadi is a daily part of our life; still we attach such less importance to it. We never wonder where where the garbage we give away ends up. We never acknowledge the troubles and problems that the youths who work on these ghantagadis face. Recently I had the opportunity to meet a person named MahadevKhunde. He’s the local union leader of the ghantagadi workers.After my meeting with him, I made a resolution. I decided that I would work on the ghantagadi, for a whole day.
On the 2nd of November, 2009, at 6.30am in the morning, I reached at the decided rendezvous location, shivering in the cold. Slowly the other workers started trickling in. I was allotted the ward 27, alongwith Sunil (aged 27), Pankaj (19), Tukaram (40) and Nivrutti(42). Tukaram and Sunil had come from Pimpalgaon, a village nearly 30kms away from Nashik. They had caught the 5.30am bus to reach here on time. After introducing myself I stood there listening to their intriguing conversations while we waited for the supervisor to arrive. At 7am, we started our journey. A journey which was routine for the rest, but unforgettable for me.
We started with a high class area. In the first five minutes, I saw the efficiency and creativity with which these people worked. The skill with which they handle the garbage is amazing. They compromise the appalling lack of hand-gloves and other safety equipment by using shovels and gunny-sacks deftly. It was hard for me at first, but under Sunil’s expert guidance, I caught upeventually. We collected garbage from a lot of well-known people. The funny thing is, I had visited so many of these houses as a reporter from Nashik Times. The treatment which I got from then was drastically different from what I was receiving now. Many of them didn’t even register me. We went through houses really fast, I soon lost count how many we covered.
We soon paused for a tea break. I had a long chat with Pankaj. Topics ranged from Diwali bonuses to how a person should manage his data and his empty space in his mobile’s memory card. Some of the tips he gave me proved really effective!
After the short break, we resumed our work. This time, it was non-stop! Now, we visited some of the older and significantly filthier parts of Nashik. Here, I realized the work till now, was just the easy part. Sunil was busy chatting with people and collecting Diwali bonuses, while the rest of us were gathering dung, plastic, old clothes, vegetable peelings and other indiscernible muck from roadside mounds and overflowing garbage bins. We received a call from the supervisor; some dog had died in a street near us. We were told to go and pick it up. This kind of work officially doesn’t come under the ghantagadi’s scope, but the Municipal Corporation was understaffed owing to Diwali vacations. “They have a new excuse every time.” Sunil commented. Unlike the snooty area, people here were much friendlier. They were chatting with the workers, staring at me and asking, “Is he new?” After spending the entire afternoon there, we entered another high class area.
Most of the local political leaders lived in the area. Ironically, here the workers had the toughest time wheedling out Diwali bonuses! We picked up nearly 20kgs of garbage from a house, most of it was garlands. We later found out that that house belonged to a politician who had his birthday yesterday. We picked out the largest garland and hung it to our ghantagadi. On our way back, we stopped by a “More” supermarket. The attendant at the mall gave an apple to each of us. We hadn’t had anything to eat all morning, so we gulped down the apples hungrily. As we were eating the apples I asked Sunil how much Diwali bonus he had collected from all the houses. He counted it and his face fell. “Just 285.” He said. Divided by 4 it was a small amount. We had managed to collect only 285 Rs. from nearly 700 houses we had visited in the day. To make matters worse, I also learned that the salaries these people get are very inconsistent since they work on a contract basis.
We sold some of the garbage and started towards the garbage depot. The depot was near a beautiful mountain called Pandavlene. I craned my neck up to see the humongous pile of garbage in front of me. The height of the mound was nearly half the size of the mountain beside it! The Corporation claims that the garbage is consistently processed into compost. I asked Sunil if that was really true. He just laughed, I got my answer. Nashik alone generates 200 tonnes of garbage daily. Nashik’s tagline “Clean Nashik, green Nashik” seemed like a big joke seeing the situation. All the Corporation did was to pile up the garbage in one spot, and keep people completely oblivious to it. Fooling them into believing the “Clean and green” hoax. “The mountain just gets bigger and bigger, nothing else happens here.” Sunil said.
We weighed the garbage we had collected. It came up to 1840 kgs (1.84 tonnes). We had a little photo-session, from my cell phone’s camera. Then all of us headed to a tapriwhere we had a chai and pav-vada party. Sunil said to me, as we ate the pav-vadas, “You did a great job today. We could finish our work earlier all thanks to you. If ever in the future you feel like doing this again, call Tukya and we’ll arrange a pick up.” I didn’t know what to say. These people were thanking me, while it should’ve been the other way around. In response all I could do was grab and shake Sunil’s hand.
As we head home, we dropped Pankaj and Sunil at Bombay Naka. Then Tukaram and Nivrutti dropped me near my house. Before leaving, Tukaram again invited me to come and work with them again someday. If someone had offered me to work on a ghantagadi before this experience, I would’ve laughed at their faces. But now, everything had changed.