One of the greatest advances of humanity is the development of technology, which has advanced humanity in great ways. Most notable of these are the many advances in medicine in the last 100 years, each advance building on previous discoveries. Such is a good thing and has increased the health and wellness of humanity in general.
Sometimes, however, we have to consider more pedestrian matters, things that often escape our view. Consider the trash that humans make; someone has to pick it up, recycle it and dispose the rest. There is an interesting article (“Out of India’s Trash Heaps, More Than a Shred of Dignity”; June 12, 2013), by Sarika Bansal, in the New York Times on how things work in India, which provides work and dignity to a lower-class of individuals and helps sustain the planet.
Trash! Trash!” yelled Chandani Nagtilak as she pushed her cart through a residential complex. An older woman put two bins on her porch steps and exchanged pleasantries in the local language, Marathi. Chandani took the bins to her pushcart, where she and her colleague Rekha Shinde emptied them and began separating the contents into organic, recyclable and nonrecyclable waste.
Chandani wore a magenta sari under her uniform, a dark blue button-down shirt. Earlier that morning, she had eaten a rich breakfast of poha and halwa, washed her hands with soap, and complained to her friends that her teenage son would rather gossip than study. This is significant.
For many years, Chandani couldn’t count on eating a good breakfast, washing with soap or rolling a pushcart. For more than 20 years, she has been a waste-picker in Pune (pronounced POO-nay), a city of six million. During most of that time, she dressed in tattered clothes and hauled a back-aching bag as she fought off dogs while scouring for recyclables at a landfill. She sometimes went without meals. She sustained injuries. Most hurtful, people often refused to make eye contact with her — except to call her a thief or a piece of trash.
“Now people offer me tea when I go to their houses,” said Chandani, beaming. That’s because her work has been formalized and people have come to appreciate the value of her services. In addition, waste management, recycling and composting are increasingly coming to be seen as vital to community health, environmental sustainability and quality of life around the world.
Indeed they are. This is the type of win-win situation that betters the human condition. One can argue about the unofficial caste system in place in India, but change can only happen incrementally. India’s caste system, which dates to the third century BCE, divides society into four classes, with the Brahmins on top and the Dalits on the bottom. In its purest form the caste system is rigid and inflexible, dictating occupation, social status and family life. [For more information, see here.]
Traditionally, individuals stay within their caste for life, marrying within their own socio-economic group. Dalits, who are on the bottom of India’s hierarchical structure, form about 16 per cent of India’s population; these individuals are the trash collectors. Although India’s government has assiduously tried to get rid of this system, it remains in the 21st century. We in the west might want to withhold our judgment about India's societal structures. Sometimes, things are not what they appear to be, and more facts need be considered.
Consider what Shikha Dahmia writes in Reason (“The Tragic Truth About India’s Caste System”; January 24, 2012).
But there is an even more tragic explanation that I discovered during a recent visit to New Delhi while talking to Maya, the dalit or untouchable—the lowest of the four castes—who has serviced my family for 35 years. Maya herself clings to her caste because it offers her the best possible life, even in modern India.
The puzzling thing about the caste system is that it has endured without any legal force backing it. Unlike slavery, under which whites actively relied on authorities to maintain their slave holdings, the caste system is an informal, self-perpetuating institution that has resisted half-a-century worth of (ham-handed) government efforts to eradicate it.
When individuals take on tasks, such as trash collection and separation that few want to do, they need be looked at as people who are doing a good public service, as is the case in Pune, India. Sustainability is becoming more important world-wide, as it ought to be, and the more unique and original ways we look at the issue the better.
Each nation and each culture has its own understanding of what sustainability means; and the beauty of our inter-connectedness, helped by telecommunication technologies, is that we can discuss, share and learn from each other the best ways to progress. And that’s important to the betterment of all humanity.
Perry J, Greenbaum is a Toronto-based writer; he has been writing professionally since 1996. Previous to this he worked as an engineer in the aerospace and defense sector. His writing reflects in his interests in human rights, individual liberties and in bettering the human condition. Sustainability and conservation falls within this view.