Kali Yuga - The Age of Kali - is considered in Hindu thought to be the height of humankind's spiritual degeneration.
We’re in it now, and have been for approximately five thousand years. It is a time of chaos and avarice, lust and squalor. It’s the last chapter of the Yugas, the final hurrah before Lord Shiva performs his divine dance of destruction, dispatching this weary universe to the flames so that it can then be born anew.
Walking into Shanti Nagar, a rag picker’s slum in the North Indian city of Rishikesh, is walking into the burning heart of Kali Yuga itself. Smoldering heaps of garbage extend to the horizon, and plumes of greasy smoke obscure the sky. Amidst the garbage walk barefoot, rag-tag groups of children carrying burlap sacks – into which they deposit items of value; glass, metal, bits of copper wire pried out of defunct electronics. They are followed by a retinue of pigs, starving dogs, cows, and flies. The flies are everywhere. They hover round your eyes, crawl over any exposed skin, and swarm the fresh, steaming piles of garbage dumped by the city’s “waste management bureau”.
The real “waste management” is performed by these children, most of whom are between the ages of 5 – 14. In terms of scale, the Shanti Nagar rag picker’s are a small operation – in Delhi and Mumbai there are an estimated 300,000 rag pickers, of which roughly half are under the age of 14. These children meticulously sort through the cities’ detritus, salvaging recyclable materials such as glass, metal and plastic and then selling them to scrap dealers.
On average they can earn 30 to 50 rupees a day from the sale of waste (50 cents – $1).
That which can’t be salvaged is burned, including plastics, batteries, even old computers. In Delhi, as much as 246 tons of trash is burned every day, equivalent to the weight of 122 average-sized US cars. The toxic smoke created by this large scale burning is a significant and largely unreported contributor to India’s carbon emissions, yet for the residents of Shanti Nagar the real danger lies in the particulate matter (tiny particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs) released by lighting trash on fire. Such air pollution causes lung cancer, neurological disease, and an increased risk of heart attack.
The lack of proper waste management is a looming crisis in India – in Mumbai’s Deonar dumping grounds mountains of trash tower as tall as 8-floor buildings.
Moving garbage from the land to the skies is not a solution – any attempt to reduce India’s carbon emissions must address the significant impacts that burning trash has on climate change and human health.
Around 120 families live on the margins of the Shanti Nagar dumping grounds, their homes constructed from salvaged materials such as flattened ‘Mango Frooty Drink’ boxes and car floor mats. There are two or three cement pits that serve as public toilets for the entire community – the reason behind our visit.
My friend and fellow Canadian (hailing from Nelson, BC) Carmen Adarrio was in the frustrating, bureaucratic process of trying to build toilets for every five households. He had become ensnared in a cocoon of red tape – permanent structures were illegal on the property as legally, no one lived there. Applying for building permits at the city hall was akin to getting a personal interview with Prime Minister Modi – whole departments had to be waded through, trips to the capital undertaken.
The proprietress of the slum had told Carmen that she would turn a blind eye if he went ahead with the toilets, but only if the money went through her. She then added in Hindi that she would make half the amount of toilets he wanted, cheaply, and pocket the rest of the money – an aside that was quickly relayed to him by Gurmeet, our trusted friend and translator.
So here we were, sneaking in the backside of Shanti Nagar to avoid the slum “mata-ji”, who was anxiously awaiting her personal toilet fund. If you’ve been to India, you’ll understand that sneaking is virtually impossible. In two minutes we had a gang of children on our tail to rival the pied piper. Most of them recognized Carmen from his previous visits; he’d nearly been mauled while handing out boxes of bananas, and had invited his entire Yoga Teacher Training class there for Christmas to perform some holiday-spirited Karma Yoga (which mostly consisted of posing for ‘selfies’ with a line-up of excited young men).
Regardless of the impact of the Karma yogis, it was a step in itself that foreigners had left the yoga studios and juice bars that lined the Ganges, and acknowledged the shadow side of Rishikesh. I can imagine it was a different world when the Beatles first arrived in 1967 to study meditation with the renowned Indian guru Maharishi. While the traveler areas of Ram and Lakshman Jula have burgeoned into spiritual Disneyland (Yoga! Meditation! Reiki!) Rishikesh proper has become another polluted, crushing Indian city. The pall of smoke hanging above the Ganga is no longer ganja, but the cumulative effect of mounting piles of rubbish that burn 24/7.
Not to say that the magic that attracted George Harrison, Donovan, and other disenchanted 60’s pop stars is now gone. A metaphysical Ganga seems to flow above and within the polluted waters of its physical counterpart, and sitting by its edges still brings one into contact with the beating heart of India.
This beating heart was more than apparent at Shanti Nagar, and almost overpowered the stench of rotting garbage and human misery. Misery, I found, was actually in short supply. I had accompanied Carmen to help him photograph the children’s gruesome work to generate empathy that would raise funds. The problem was every time I pointed my camera toward a group of children, they were dancing and smiling. These were not faces of suffering, but simply the radiant delight of children at play.
Far from appearing oppressed by their circumstances, the children made games out of leaping over the garbage-choked stream that ran between their shacks. They created kites out of plastic bags, bent old bicycles tires back into shape so they could be rolled down hills of garbage. The adults created a small temple in the crook of a nearby tree, and loudly exchanged stories and bits of gossip as they sat in circles dismantling electronics.
From the outside, Shanti Nagar appears to be a dystopian wasteland – the unmasked face of the environmental degradation and human cost of capitalist production. It is – but it is also a vibrant, welcoming community of people living full lives and doing their best to provide for their children.
Not to romanticize the lives of these children and their families; rag picking is awful and humiliating work, and families are forced into it out of poverty and the enduring injustice of the caste system. Most rag pickers are Dalits (Untouchables), considered by the caste-conscious to be ritually ‘impure’ and thus confined from birth to menial, despised jobs such as sweepers, latrine cleaners, rearers of unclean animals such as pigs, and garbage collectors.
As Carmen and I walked from house to house, the needs of the community were overwhelming. Clean water, adequate toilets, permanent housing that wouldn’t be swept away in the monsoons, blankets and shoes, medical supplies, the list was endless. In the end, given our limited timeframe and budget, we opted to assemble medical kits for every household.
Carmen spent the remainder of his stay in Rishikesh compiling a first aid kit consisting of hydrogen peroxide, Dettol (a topical antiseptic), antibiotic and antifungal creams, tape and various sized bandages. With the help of some of the older children and some yogis rounded up in Rishikesh, Carmen delivered the kits to 123 households in Shanti Nagar.
India’s waste management is a pressing environmental and human rights crisis. In light of December 2015’s United Nations Conference on Climate Change, where nations around the world agreed to keep the rise in temperatures below 2˚C, the carbon emissions created by burning garbage need to be seriously looked at. Many countries simply do not estimate carbon emissions from burning trash. Sri Lanka’s unreported carbon dioxide emissions from open burning alone are about equal to what it reports from all other activities, according to a 2014 study by the US National Center for Atmospheric Research.
The residents of Shanti Nagar are proud, organized, and providing a vital service to Rishikesh – recycling and sorting the city’s discards. They are unpaid and unprotected, and survive by the meager profits garnered from scrap dealers. In some places, such as Pune in Southern India, rag pickers have fought their way into the municipal system and are now unionized and provided with protective gear, uniforms, and a guaranteed income. While the Shanti Nagar rag pickers hope for such recognition and treatment, they say it is unlikely due to corruption in the garbage collection system – an attitude that Carmen experienced first hand when trying to build his toilets.
Shanti Nagar is a microcosm of India as a whole – everywhere you look the vast spectrum of human experience is in your face. Death dances with birth, the temple overlooks the dumping grounds, lives of unimaginable suffering contain pure, unadulterated joy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Carmen’s yoga teacher training class learned more during their one afternoon in Shanti Nagar then in their entire 6-week ‘intensive’. Kali Yuga is indeed upon us, but after meeting with her children, it is perhaps not as hopeless as it appears.
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