Shweta, who is one of my student colleagues in Bangalore yesterday sent me an interesting series of photographs from the school where she works. One of the teachers at this school had been teaching her class about environmental issues and how these relate to hygiene and health. As with all good teachers she thought about how she could take the ideas discussed in class and enable her students to apply them in a practical manner. Deciding to take a lead from the students, she asked them to decide how they might apply the principles of improving their environment and creating a more healthy area in which to live and work. Just as we might expect from a class of bright and enthusiastic students, they were full of ideas and suggestions. These included planting trees, cleaning the school building, and eventually the idea upon which they settled; cleaning up the litter from around the school.
My friends in India know that I have a real passion for their country, its culture, history, literature and the people. However, many of them are also aware that I am less than enamoured with the vast quantities of litter that are a blight upon the streets and parks of every Indian city. I am sure that many visitors to the country rarely see beyond the piles of plastic, paper, textiles and other detritus that foul almost every street corner of an otherwise beautiful city. Soon after his election and appointment as Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, broom in hand launched a campaign for a cleaner India. His own efforts in sweeping the streets were most certainly more symbolic than active, but at least he was making a point that there is an urgent need for Indian citizens to take some responsibility for cleaning up their environment.
The students and teachers at Shweta’s school had clearly recognised that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Campaign Clean India), was something to which they could make a contribution and agreed that they should equip themselves with brooms, bags, gloves and face masks in order to venture into the street and begin their chosen task. We should, of course applaud the initiative taken by these students and hope that others make follow their example and assume responsibility for their own environment. This noble gesture did not, however, meet with universal approval. The organising teacher was somewhat disturbed when one of the students suggested that;-
“she was a pampered child at home who was not allowed to do any work, and that she felt it to be below her dignity to take a broom and sweep roads.”
The teacher was clearly shocked by this attitude and reported that:
“I had a personal talk with her and made her understand that there is nothing undignified about cleaning your surroundings; in fact you are setting a very good example to many people who fail to understand the importance of cleanliness”.
I can imagine that this was not the easiest of conversations, but after seeing the teacher’s perspective, and appreciating the response from the rest of the class, the reluctant student decided that she would join the rest of the class in this activity. As the photographs show, the students went about their task with enthusiasm and by the end of the day they were rightly proud of what they had achieved in a relatively short time.
This story reported to me by Shweta and her colleagues had a particular resonance as I recalled a chapter from the autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi, The Story of my Experiments with Truth, in which he described how during his time in South Africa he had argued with his wife Kasturba. Wishing to set an example and to demonstrate his opposition to the caste system, Gandhi insisted that everyone, including himself, should be responsible for undertaking all of the duties around the community that he had established. This involved as a priority maintaining a hygienic environment and included the cleaning of latrines. Having set an example by completing this task himself, he expected his wife to follow suit. At first she refused and this annoyed Gandhi who raised his voice in anger, an act that caused him to record the shame that he felt for having lost his temper. After some discussion and much forgiveness, Kasturba agreed that she too should participate in this most menial of tasks, and recognised that for the sake of a community everyone must accept the responsibility to play a full part in caring for the environment. The maintenance of a healthy and clean environment should not be seen as beneath the dignity of anyone, and neither should it be seen as the responsibility of others. This specific incident is depicted very well in Richard Attenborough’s film of the life of Gandhi.
It may seem like a large conceptual leap from the life of the Mahatma to a small school in Bangalore. But I think we should take heart from the fact that the students at this particular school are taking a lead in appreciating that they have a responsibility to the environment in which they live. Furthermore, they have shown a willingness to take action in order to improve the grounds in the immediate vicinity of their school. It would be easy to say that this action is but a drop in the ocean, and can have only a limited impact upon what must be the many thousands of tons of rubbish that pollute the Garden City of Bangalore. But if each individual resident took responsibility to manage their own litter and clean their own area of the city, thereby following the example of these young people, it would not be too long before the Bangalore environment was significantly improved. The apprehensions expressed by one student within the class are not so far removed from those experienced by Kasturba Gandhi, and hopefully, like the mother of the nation she will have learned much by thinking through this situation, and may make a similar contribution to the welfare of India in the future.
So, today I wish to celebrate the actions of a small group of students and their teachers, who far from waiting for others to bring about change, have taken the initiative to do something positive for their neighbourhood. If these young people are representative of the students of Bangalore, there must be hopes for a healthier future in the city.