Monday, June 30, 2008

Industrial Action, Rishikesh Style....

The workers were on strike for 4 days.

They really dug their heels in.... They wanted a pay rise - no strings attached. The pay rise was agreed, but in return Jitendra and the rest of the Clean Himalaya management team want to implement the new workers package of a pay rise and bonuses, but also fines for non attendance or sloppy work. The workers would just not agree, despite their wage demands being met.

At this point, the general sense seems to me is that the importance of the work they do is not very high on the workers' agenda. Yes, it is very hard work, but high profile, for Rishikesh, at least... - the workers are familiar figures in their Clean Himalaya uniforms. But there seems to be little interest in helping make the area a better place to live in or visit or any wider pollution or environmental concerns.

On the 5th day, 2 of the workers came back. Interestingly, it was the longest serving men, Chotilal and Vikas. They have also agreed to sign up for the management package of pay, bonuses and fines. In recognition of their loyalty, (and because they have more work to do...) they have been given more money than was originally asked for and a small delay before the system of fines is started for real. Call it a trial run!

By the way, one of the workers, Sonu, has gone home to his village. He does not know about the strike, but equally, Clean Himalaya has no idea when he will be back!

The other men who we had been out collecting with, Sanjay, Arun, Aswani and Surinder will not now be taken back, should they appear at the workshop wanting to rejoin Clean Himalaya. Jitendra has some temporary staff sorting the rubbish and is looking out for permanent recruits.

So, Clean Himalaya is back on track - much to the relief of the volunteers (us!). The day after we all went collecting in the monsoon downpour, we were back out again making the same collection runs. Marc and I were on foot again, on the other side of the Laksman Jhula bridge. It was a bright, sunny and most importantly, dry day. Compared with the previous day's misery - we were sorting and carrying the junk with light hearts, though it is something that we don't really want to have to do on a daily basis. Hurrah for Chotilal and Vikas!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Clean Himalaya, The Workers & The Monsoon

There is always stacks to do at Clean Himalaya - after all, the rubbish doesn't ever go away and always needs collecting and sorting... However, there are extra items on the agenda at the moment.

A representative from the World Bank, the organisation that awarded Clean Himalaya funding last year and gave the whole project a real shot in the arm, is coming to see how their funds are being used in the first week of July. There are several projects that it would be good to get in place before the World Bank show up - new bins in the public areas, publicity banners across the main roads. The new vermicomposting shed is ready ahead of schedule and only awaiting the training from the expert from Dehli before all the organic waste can start to be turned into compost and cash. All this is all in addition to the regular daily collections. It really is 'all hands on deck' time for everyone involved with Clean Himalaya.

So what happened this week? The workers went on strike!

They want more money... That is OK, there is some funds available, but in return the Clean Himalaya management want to go ahead and implement the new workers package - that means yes to a pay rise, yes to bonuses available for good attendance etc, but also system of small penalties for non attendance, sloppy work etc. The workers just want the money and are not interested in the overall package so there is an impasse. And the rubbish is piling up. There is nothing for it but the management and volunteers to don their rubber gloves and get out there on the collection runs!!

Jitendra, the driver Sohan, and another friend to Clean Himalaya who happens to be in Rishikesh at the moment, Amit, take the van and start the collections on the Tapovan side of the river. Marc and I set off on foot for the Laksman Jhula side. Jitendra has also secured the temporary services of 2 young men from the recycling unit in Rishikesh where the Clean Himalaya junk is processed. One of these boys joins each team, meant to do the worst of the carrying, and we are ready to start.

Oh, I don't think I mentioned - it is the most filthy day. The monsoon has hit hard. The sky is dark and the heavens have opened. The downpour is continuous and torrential.

Much to my eternal regret, we have no pictures for this day. The camera's battery had just about run out and it was also far too wet to risk using it. But picture us, wearing light-weight green rain protectors (effectively like a bin liner, but with sleeves and a hood), armed with dirty, dripping sacks, picking our way through the mud and ankle-deep puddles marching out to do battle with the rubbish and the elements!

Collecting rubbish is a horrible job, even under good conditions, and it is immediately obvious that our temporary helper from the recycling centre is not very enthusiastic about it. Apart from the abhorrent nature of having to stick your hands into bins full of someonelse's rubbish, today there is double the amount to collect, as no collections were made the day before. Although we are meant to be collecting dry waste (paper, plastics etc) as soon as it is added to the ever growing junk in the sacks, the new rubbish is sodden and double the weight.

We must have been a sight! The green protective clothing was not much use against the rain, which ran in down the sleeves and neck. I gave up with the hood as it was too big and I couldn't see where I was going. The whole thing was too light-weight and would tear every time you hoisted a sack over your shoulders... We were completely and thoroughly soaked, not to mention comprehensively covered in unmentionable filth from the 30 or so collection sites....

It was too much for our temporary 'help'. Marc and I were collecting from a hotel and needed a new sack that we had left at the entrance with the boy. Marc went to get the sack and witnessed our 'help' creeping away down the road into the continuing downpour!

By the end of the round, the sacks were so heavy that Marc, let alone I, was unable to carry them back to the pick up point. The slightly lighter sack we carried back between us the other, heavier one we were forced to abandon to wait for stronger and hardier souls to come and collect between them.

Exhausted, dripping and filthy, we trudged back to our room to get clean and warm.

While we are still recovering, Jitendra phones us - he needs help, there is more stuff to be collected - but we will have better help this time. He says that Pushpa, the only female Clean Himalaya worker and who is not included in the strike action, will come with us. There are only a few places to collect from.... So off we go again - fully expecting to do the lifting and shifting ourselves.

How wrong can you be? Very wrong in this case.. Pushpa was amazing! We collected sodden mass after another sodden mass of rubbish in sacks we could barely move, let alone carry anywhere. With a bit of help, Pushpa was balancing these sacks on her head and then walking back to the workshop, carrying weight that 2 of us could not manage. What a girl!

Not suprisingly, there is always a variety of insects, mainly ants and cockroaches to be found amongst the rubbish. This was also the day Marc found our first snake, albeit a very small one! And in the same pile of sacks, he found a spider as big as his hand!!! Thankfully both animals disappeared swiftly back into the jungle - but it is a good reminder than broken glass is not the only danger lurking in the dustbins!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It's Raining Again.....

Followed by 3 consecutive nights of thunder storms and lashing rain, the temperature has dropped and the humidity risen. Now it's raining in the day too...

It's official - For the first time in 108 years, the monsoon has arrived 2 weeks early!

The tops of the surrounding Himalayan foothills are often swathed in cloud. Mist lies over the surface of the Ganges, giving the whole place a mystic and ethereal feel.

Pushpa's Son & the Tantrics

We have been in India for nearly a month. You would have thought that after a few weeks we would be pretty used everything Rishikesh has to offer? Wrong! We are still in turn delighted, shocked, angered, amazed (and any number of other emotions) with the sights and sounds of daily life here!

Truly hospitable people, Jitendra and his wife Bibeta, have asked us to join them for several meals at their new house up on the Clean Himalaya workshop site. These are always pretty boisterous events with their 3 lively sons running in and out, the family pet dog, Coco, craving attention and cows mooing and lumbering past the door. Set this against a background of the endless, piercing, chirping of insects in the surrounding woods and the tiny TV, belying its size, belting out music from whichever colourful Hindi film is playing and you have a good idea of the atmosphere.

This atmosphere was disrupted recently - one of the Clean Himalaya workers, the only female, Pushpa, arrived in the middle of dinner. She lives just down the slope from the workshop, in one of the make-shift huts in the shanty village that has sprung up there. Pushpa was clearly agitated and upset. Although we do not understand Hindi, we knew something was very wrong. Jitendra explained that one of her sons was ill. It sounded as if he was having fits. Pushpa had taken him to the doctor, who had recommended that the boy have a CT scan. Whether this was too expensive or just did not mean anything to his mother, she had then chosen to take the boy to the tantrics, the local mystic healer. Our shock at this was nothing to when Pushpa added that the tantrics had said to sacrifice 2 chickens, but this didn't work, and this time he said that they should try a goat! She did not have the money for a goat, so had come to ask Jitendra for it.

Jitendra did his best to explain that the boy should go for the CT scan and the tantrics' so-called powers are just a load of superstition. He asked how much the CT scan would cost - it was 2300 Rupees, which would be totally feasible for a few of us to have a whip-round to get the funds together. This was all explained to Pushpa and although visibly still upset, she went home again soon after.

A few nights later, Jitendra and his family were kept awake all night by a puja down in the shanty village. A puja is very broadly translated as a ritual invocation of the gods. A bit more of an informed description can be found here:

There was intense chanting, singing, shouting, drumming and music until the morning. No sleep for anyone , including the the neighbours. During the puja, a sheep was sacrificed, though whether this was in addition to or as a replacement for the goat, we don't know. Also, one woman claimed to have been possessed by the gods and declared Pushpa's son cured. Well, let's hope so, if only for the boy's sake.

It is incredible how people in the 21st century can still think the same way as our ancestors did thousands of years ago. Things are changing in India, in some fields, like communications, incredibly quickly - almost everyone's got a mobile phone now. But until the population as a whole, not only the more privileged few, develops its way of thinking, large sections of the population is destined to remain in the dark ages for years to come. This is also true of their attitude to the environment. As one man put it to us, when we questioned why people on a pilgrimage would through their junk into the holy river Ganges - we are thinking about it in reverse. The holy river will purify the rubbish!

This kind of medieval attitude makes Clean Himalaya's work all the more important. Educational programmes and raising awareness are a big part of their programme. Anything that can be done to start to inform and educate can only be a good thing!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Back on the Road...

After a few days taking it relatively easy, armed with our new spreadsheets, we are now back out on the road, starting to collect some data for Clean Himalaya.

Although each run collects from the same places each day, trying to keep track of where we have been is not made easy when there is no name on the shop or house. Also, depending on which man is doing the collection run, the places are often visited in a completely different order so keeping a numerical ordering of all the collection sites would not work every time...

There has been quite a swapping around of jobs for each man from day to day. Although this can be a good thing, combats boredom and complacency etc, this has been happening because a few members of staff have simply not turned up for work. Apart from the sheer scale of their task, staff non-attendance is Clean Himalaya’s biggest problem.

During the course of our travels here, already there have been numerous sights, sounds and smells that are alien to western eyes. Just about the strangest has been seeing a small child mugged by a monkey! It is pretty strange seeing the large amount of animals roaming loose in the streets. Avoidance of the cows and bulls on the roadside is part and parcel of daily life. They are often trying to swipe odd cucumbers or tomatoes from the stalls and then are driven away with kicks or beaten by branches by the outraged stall holder. There are also any number of dogs in the streets and wild pigs wallow in the muddy edges of the dried up river beds. Lizards and endless insects are inside every building. To this picture add small silver or brown coloured monkeys surveying the scene below from the trees.

This cheeky monkey had obviously been watching and waiting for the right opportunity. The small boy’s left hand was being securly held by his mother, but in his right hand, but was a small bag containing 2 onions. The monkey leapt out of the tree, ran across the road, snatched the bag out of the startled boy’s hand and was back up in the tree almost before anyone realised what had happened. The child was completely traumatised and wailed long and loudly. I bet the monkey was not too impressed either when he found out he had pinched onions instead of a bag of nice, juicy mangoes....

However all this looks to western eyes, there are some sights in Rishikesh that must seem very strange to Indians. While out on rubbish collection runs, proudly wearing our Clean Himalaya tops, usually extremily hot, sweaty and dishevelled, more than once, people have asked to take our photographs! Usually with their children in the picture too! Do we look so unusual?

Some more unusual or just wonderful sights........

Burn Out.... (What! This Early??)

We have overdone it…

In our enthusiasm to get involved and hands-on immediately, ignoring warnings to take it easy in the heat and acclimatize slowly, we have definitely overdone it.

We need to rest up a bit, but one thing we have discovered… Clean Himalaya really does need some help on their admin. At present, no one has had any time to collate any information on the different rubbish collections runs, how long they are taking, who is sorting their waste into organic and non-organic etc, etc. This is all data that could be useful and help paint an overall picture about what is going on. As an IT specialist (Marc) and an administrator (Corin) we undertake to get information collated.

The first job is to get some spreadsheets written so that we have some data collection forms to work on. We agree a plan with Jitendra and Susan and retire to the cool of the EnlightenNext office to make a start.

The office computer seems OK at first. Marc gets it tidied up and we get to work. After 20 minutes or so, it shuts itself down – it has overheated…. There is nothing to do but wait for it to cool down. As soon as we get up and running again, there is a powercut! This sequence of events carries on – what should have been a morning’s work, in fact, takes all day.

In order to resolve the overheating (the computer, not us..) problem, we need to travel down to the main town of Rishikesh, which is much bigger than Tapovan and has computer and tool shops. We take the equivalent of the local bus, a motorized rickshaw, that you can hop on and off for the rupee equivalent of a few pence.

Rishkesh has the same kind of feel as Tapovan, but just on a larger scale. It is more colourful, dirtier, noisier, smellier and even more packed. However, if you need to buy a particular item, it is the best place to go. The shops are all open fronted and seem to be grouped into shops selling the same kind of item or service, all the fruit stalls together, clothes shops together etc etc. Wandering through the market, it suddenly opens out on to the water front by the Ganges, where all the stalls are selling incense and orange garlands of flowers. It is a treat for the senses!

In Rishikesh, we have discovered the best eating place we have come across so far. We have no kitchen, so all meals have to be eaten out. That’s OK, as it is easy to get a cheap, tasty meal – but the Rajasthani is a cut above the others places we have been to.

It does not look much from the outside or the inside, to be frank! There are 5 or 6 rows of marble effect tables, and the walls are lined by garish and exotic pictures of Hindu gods. To keep the temperature bearable, 8 fans whirr at full speed overhead. Each table is taken, but service and eating is very speedy and it does not take long to get seated. The staff are all eager Nepalese waiters and cooks, it is very busy, but everyone seems to know exactly what they are doing and soon your selection from the menu of India and Chinese dishes arrives fresh at the table.

Marc has also had a visit to a local barber. This was quite an experience – not only a good haircut, but a full head massage too, complete with eucalyptus oil! He looked very smart, but completely spaced out after the pounding, rubbing and twisting that he was subjected to.

The weather is worth a mention – my English conditioning has finally got the better of me. It is can be a lot hotter than we were ready for. About 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Both of us have lived and worked in hot countries, but this has taken us by surprise. When the sun is high in the sky, it is a fantastic sight, but just walking a short distance feels like a big deal, let alone traipsing along for a couple of hours collecting rubbish. The nights are cooler, but it is still hard to sleep despite cooling showers and ceiling fans.

It can cloud over, though, very quickly. The temperature drops to a more manageable level, but this has proved to be a warning of an approaching thunderstorm. The storms are spectacular. Great dark clouds forming over the hills save everything they have got and finally hurl their full weight of wind and rain down on the world below in short, but intense bursts. Black sky, shutters banging and trees bending to the ground in the wind, rain drenching everything and everyone who can’t get to shelter quickly enough. We are still a month or so away from the monsoon season, what on earth will it be like then?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Second Day with Clean Himalaya

The previous day’s trips up and down to the workshop and the afternoon collecting rubbish in Laksman Jhula have taken their toll! Marc has huge and very unpleasant blisters on the soles of his feet! Nevertheless, we set off again for the workshop to see what Jitendra has planned for us next.

We are off on a morning collection run, this time with Chotalal and his Clean Himalaya bicycle and trailer. It is very hot, the sun burning in a bright, clear sky and it is only 9am!

If anything, Chotalal’s morning run is more strenuous than that of the previous afternoon, in the alleyways of Laksman Jhula. There is an equal amount of truly unpleasant waste to be collected, but in the full glare of the merciless sun.

We are flagging a bit behind Chotalal, who is cracking through his round at a fair pace. Being a one man team, he collects all the rubbish in one sack, carries is back to the bicycle trailer, where he does the sorting and separating into food and non-food waste. There is a terrible, smelly bucket slowly filling with the slops from households and hotels, as well as decently concealed sacks of other waste.

Some places have obviously diligently been collecting their rubbish, some have made a token attempt and a few places have nothing at all despite the fact they are paying for the collection to take place. Since many of the places today are private homes, quite a few holiday homes for tourists from other towns in India, a lot of time is spent hanging around outside, waiting for a small bag of paper to be finally handed out by the householder.

At one point, Chotalal parked his bike and headed up a steep slope away from the road, carrying a couple of sacks. We duly set off behind him, not realising what lay in store! Up, up, up… along a single track road without any shade, dodging the bikes and motorbikes that are freewheeling down the slope in the opposite direction. After what felt like about a day of trudging along, we turn left, follow a small stony track for about 30 yards and stop, red-faced and out of breath, outside a private home. We are immediately confronted by a snarling, barking dog, doing its best to squeeze through the gates to get at us. At this point, the householder puts her head out of the window and calls out the Hindi equivalent of ‘no rubbish today!’.

Shattered, we turn down the hill. Some of the other houses do have some rubbish to collect, but the effort of getting to that top house for nothing has had a deep effect!

Marc’s injured feet are too painful… he is hobbling badly. He heads for the relative peace of Red Chili internet cafĂ© and I trudge on behind Chotalal followed by curious looks and clouds of flies.

In the afternoon, there is a change from the regular rubbish collections. It is time to get out and about on ‘Public Service’ which is basically picking up recyclable waste from a public area. In the full heat of the day, we are going to clear up a stretch of nearby dirt pavement – Aswani on the left hand side of the road, Surinder on the right.

As the afternoon wears on, the sacks get fuller. As well at picking up litter lying loose on the floor, both men are clearing the rubbish that is choking the foul and stinking gutters at the side of the road. Pavement or gutter, they are having to dodge in and out of the heaving throng of people, vehicles and animals to be able to do their job.
It takes about 2 ½ hours to finish this stretch of road. The sacks are sealed to await pickup by the Clean Himalaya truck and we start of the walk back to the workshop. You only have to go a couple of steps before you realize what a soul-destroying, not to mention back-breaking, task this could be. There is already a fresh showering of sweet and ice cream papers, banana skins and plastic bottles beginning to show on the floor not 5 minutes after we have finished this afternoon’s labours. Tomorrow’s work is already waiting for us!

As we get near to the workshop, Aswani and Surinder stop to point out the ravines that are used for the usual method of waste disposal. From the top to the bottom, which is by the edge of the Ganges, there is a solid covering of multi-coloured rubbish. It would take an army of Aswani and Surinders to clean this lot up, and then it would be back again the next day…… We stand at the top staring into the garbage abyss, shaking our heads, stunned at the task in front of Clean Himalaya.

It does not matter how many people there are to make rubbish collections, however useful they are in getting out there and raising awareness of the pollution issue. If there is not any kind of change in the attitude of the people so wantonly undertaking such destruction, no amount of ‘Public Service’ work is going to help.