‘Respect Me!’: Our Surroundings Cry Out

Isaac Arackaparambil sdb

As a little boy in the seventh standard, I was greatly interested in beautifying the wasteland in front of my house. So I would spend my free time digging, weeding, and levelling the rough and rat-holed terrain of the plot close to my home. It looked very repulsive with weeds and shrubs growing wild, and it had an arrogance that defied my instinct to act. ‘I’ll make a garden’, I thought to myself, and behold, there was me breathing a happy sigh at the splendid transformation of an uninviting jungle to a welcoming flower bed. While I was tending that home-grown beauty, my elation was interrupted one morning by a parcel of garbage that landed right on my head, courtesy a neighbour who lived three floors above. Reflecting on that episode, I say to myself today that my neighbour’s thoughtlessness was not an assault on me but an act of grave disrespect to the very surroundings that enveloped her existence.

Travelling by bus one day, I saw a young mother attending to her two kids, a boy and a little girl. Having bought them some tea she stepped off the bus to get them some wafers. On her return, the little children had finished drinking their tea, and the boy asked her, ‘Mum, what should I do with this empty cup?’ It was a disposable plastic cup, and bang came a spontaneous answer from the educated mother, ‘Throw it out of the window!’ I looked on aghast at her thoughtlessness.

A few years ago as I was being treated to an ice-cream by a friend, I was looking around for a garbage-bin to dispose the paper cover of the ice-cream cone. Finding none, I asked the shop keeper if there was a dustbin around. His answer horrified me. He said in Gujarati: Aare kaie pan nakidejo ne. Akha Bharat kachra peti che!—meaning, ‘Throw it anywhere! The whole of India is a garbage bin’.

Call it callousness, call it insensitivity, call it thoughtlessness; the fact is that even the vast majority of our educated citizens in India today don’t consider environmental cleanliness a virtue. Besides, considering the fact that defecating, urinating, spitting and snorting in the open are acceptable, and that the railway authorities are satisfied with merely providing private space for nature’s call, unconcerned that their toilet outlets open towards the tracks, we have a structural snag when it comes to cleanliness issues.

Nevertheless, there is no use blaming structures until each individual takes personal responsibility for ensuring a clean and green India. The issue is not one of beautifying our earth for beauty’s sake, but one of restoring to her the dignity which God vested in her at creation. Once that dignity is restored as a proactive choice by each one of us, nature will reciprocate and return that respect by ensuring that we live healthy and free of diseases caused by our own gross neglect.

As educationists we have a wonderful opportunity to create a mindset or a spirituality of eco-cleanliness. I would like to propose a few ways in which we could create this mindset and introduce our students to such spirituality.

1. Why not have a different kind of school picnic—a passenger train picnic? Let’s take our students on a train journey by day. Any destination will do, provided we have a whole day at our disposal. What’s important is not the destination; what’s key is the journey itself. And what do we do on this journey? We and our students in uniform become salespersons for environmental cleanliness. Create a factual and attractive script on the theme, make enacted presentations, picture presentations, presentations of scientific and statistical facts on the ills of uncleanliness, presentations on alternatives to the culture of thoughtlessness—approach the theme from all angles and make it as exhaustive and convincing as possible.

Have the students go from compartment to compartment with paper bags, asking passengers to dump their organic and inorganic waste in those bags. At the end of the day, have them give the waste products to recycling agencies or even to our eco-house at Karjat. This would be a good follow up to the noble investment in this hard and humiliating work. Students would see firsthand the wonders of recycled processing. Besides, they would pick up values of cleanliness, responsibility, humility and purposeful action. An indispensable preceding activity to the entire train picnic project is a training programme on eco-cleanliness which could be taken up as a value-education project for the year. Of course we need to ensure the necessary permissions from civic authorities, rope in the media, get the consent of parents et al.

2. Why not accompany certificates and medals at sports day presentations with saplings to the winners? Every sapling, if tended and allowed to grow, adds to the density of oxygen cover in the environment.

3. Why not encourage students to gift saplings to their friends on birthdays instead of buying expensive gifts?

4. Return to cycling or walking—especially when travelling to nearby places—instead of using vehicles, thus reducing carbon emissions.

5. Motivate students from the same localities to form eco-clean up teams and brain-storm how they could influence the cleanliness of their respective areas. They could be trained to set up recycling plants for organic and inorganic waste materials collected from their neighbours.

6. Expose students to NGOs already professional in the field of ecological conservation so as to enthuse them in creating an eco-preserving mindset.

7. Teach them to write letters to civic authorities and exercise their pro-active energies especially in the face of slackness on the part of municipalities with regard to basic hygiene.

8. Encourage them to make a personal commitment to carrying a friendly bag / pouch to dispose off their own sweet or wafer wrappers, instead of littering the surroundings.

9. Train students to conduct eco-cleanliness workshops for people living in slums and get the civic authorities to act in that direction.

10. Make your school the leaven of transformation by being concerned about ecological issues within a suitably demarcated radius. This could involve establishing an eco-club, making an ecological survey, discerning need-based interventions, and generating the civic will to execute these relevant interventions.

The task is daunting, but it is also compelling given the gravity of ecological abuse and thoughtlessness among the educated masses. We need to partner with willing organizations and those already in the know and, if need be, engineer research opportunities by creating a vision for ecological cleanliness and conservation. If we are ready to work beyond the parameters of the stipulated syllabus by allowing tuition classes to do our job, we can boldly spend time on issues that matter for an ownership of character and a celebration of healthy human existence. Tuition classes are here to stay. Our teachers need to be trained in alternative syllabi. We as educationists and institutions have to reinvent ourselves. Are we ready?

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