It is a delightfully hazy, cool morning. The only sounds outside are those of droning insects, chirping birds and barking dogs before the day gets fully underway and the honking traffic is back on the road.
First stop this morning is to meet Jitendra Kumar, the man responsible for starting off Clean Himalaya (CH). He is responsible for the day-to-day running of the project and it is him we need to check in with.
The CH workshop is up a steep, stony track, set some way back from the road snaking away below. It is basically the collection and sorting point for all the waste that the Clean Himalaya staff pick up during the day.
Under the shade of trees hanging with mangoes, lychees and jackfruit there is rubbish everywhere! When sorted it is left in piles before being sealed into sacks to await transport to the local recycling centre. The unsorted rubbish is in a large metal, monkey proof (!) shed. When we arrived, there were 3 people literally sitting amongst all the unmentionable junk, sorting it. There was a fourth worker who was having first aid on his hand, after he had cut it open on a broken bottle left unprotected in the sack he was sorting.
It does not take any time at all in Tapovan to know that Clean Himalaya faces an uphill battle. And it takes some pretty special people to take this seemingly impossible task on at all! There is junk everywhere, every single slope is covered with a cascade of multi-coloured rubbish. Littering is against the law, but is never enforced. The environment, pollution, climate change are just not on the agenda in India, seemingly for anyone, in the same way that they are in the West. The whole area around Rishikesh and the Ganges is some of the holiest in India, but this does not stop anyone, from the most well-do-do, educated tourist to the poorest tea stall holder, from just chucking their rubbish down, wherever they may be!
We also met Swami Susan, from the Divine Life Society, who is the CH secretary. Together, she and Jitendra told us how different this project is for India. First of all, the whole organisation is run with integrity and clarity. This, in practical terms, means that they do what they say they will and everyone knows it. They were first met with suspicion – after all, anyone could say they were collecting waste for recycling and then tip it down the nearest convenient hillside along with the rest of the junk. This is the regular method of waste disposal, even by the local council….Who would know? The CH answer was to ask people to come and see what they were really doing.
A completely revolutionary aspect to Clean Himalaya is the way they treat their staff, and in return, how they expect them to behave. They are the process of introducing a contract, making clear they hours they are expected to work, bonuses they could earn, fines that will have to be paid for lateness etc etc. This is a totally new concept for the workers.
After lunch, we went out on a regular daily pick up run with 2 of the Clean Himalaya collectors, Sanjay and Arun. Sanjay has been with CH for 2 years, Arun for 2 months.
By this time, it has got really hot. In the sweltering heat in downtown Laksman Jhula, we spend the afternoon following Sanjay and Arun in and out of shops and hotels, watching them cheerfully rummaging in bins, separating out food and non-food waste, tipping the results into separate sacks, hoisting the sacks on to their backs and moving on to the next place.
In the process of putting a festering, slimy dustbin back where it belonged, Arun trips up and manages to the spray the nearest person with some vile, yellow slops from the bottom of the bin. The nearest person???? It was Marc!! He received a good splattering of the disgusting substance – all down one side from chest height to his ankle. Arun was mortified (Marc was not too impressed, though took the whole thing very well!) and insisted on wiping Marc down with bottled water and the only clean paper available, some loo roll…
Back on the route - Up and down slopes and alley ways, through stinking puddles of unmentionable filth, weaving in and out of the heaving crowds (who might have been a bit quicker to move out of the way if they had any idea what was in the sacks they were pushing against…) . It is a smelly, sweaty, disgusting job and my respect for these 2 men grew with every step.
There were a few reactions to Marc and I following the Clean Himalaya trail. Some were encouraging and supportive, realising that this is a job that really needs doing. Some were incredulous that anyone, let alone foreigners, could be interested in this small project in a tiny, though not insignificant, place in India. At one hotel, they did not think we were with the Clean Himalaya boys and asked if we would like a room for the night!
At the end of the collection, the Clean Himalaya truck comes to pick up the bulging sacks and take them back to the workshop. They will join the pile of rubbish to be sorted in the shed.
Shattered and grubby, we stagger back to our room, reflecting on the monumental task ahead of Clean Himalaya and how we can play our part.