Who will clean up my porch?

It was high noon. In the middle of a sea of squalor where human labour was being extracted in terribly inhuman conditions a particular frame left a telling impression. A few years ago, this journalist, curious to get a sense of the sudden buzz around slum tourism (centred on Dharavi, naturally), had signed up to be a part of one such group. The pre-decided route seemed to be a well orchestrated and tailor-made advert for ‘poor India’ to sway fellow European group members (prelude to pre-Slumdog Millionaire-scripted days), to loosen their purse strings through donations. Still, it was easy to spot the countless sights and sounds beyond, as we made our way through lanes where sunlight never touched the ground, and smiling kids (our trigger-happy folk lapped up such moments) seemed oblivious to their harsh environs.

Amid the “oohs” and “aahs” that was heard from the group as we dug deeper in to this underbelly of human-scape, there were traces of civic sense that struck us, surprised us, even and left us with lessons to take back. At this one endless photo session where a few half-clad kids were playing with a stray pup against the backdrop of a gutter, we spotted, right there, a mother give her young daughter the first lessons in keeping her immediate environment clean. It was a start contrast. Almost unimaginable for the average city slicker, fed on footage of a filthy parallel universe that didn’t matter to his/her existence, a giant-sized garbage dump, to be precise.

As the tough-as-nails mother vigourously swept the semblance of a porch outside her neat mud hut, she kept instructing her daughter to pick up a few plastic bags and tetra packs that were littered around their home, all the while reminding her that she too shouldn’t do the same wherever she went. “Keep your surroundings clean and you will lead a healthier life,” she repeated. This lesson from an individual who probably never attended school, let alone sat for an Environmental Studies session in her life, was simple and from what we observed, effective too. Quickly, the little one had not only cleaned the front yard but had also brought a few of her friends as they cheerily went about clearing the larger central area of that tiny pocket inside Dharavi.

As World Environment Day draws close, it is little lessons like these that leave us wondering about the larger picture. Which brings us to the sights and sounds from a different universe: the average middle-class housing colony in Mumbai. It throws up several harsh realities. Supposedly educated folk ignore or carry on with the daily gossip as their kids damage carefully tended gardens, use their own building facades for graffiti art and litter their play spaces without a shred of remorse This “it’s-okay-to-litter”, oblivious approach remains unchecked by parents, and spreads to other areas of one’s social behaviour.

Then again, how deep does our school and college curriculum go to instill simple home truths about the environment? Barring a few education models, a larger chunk of public and municipal schools teach this subject theoretically, with barely any focus on field trips and other hands-on initiatives to create any sort of indelible impression about the need to clean our backyard and beyond. One look at the area outer boundaries of educational institutions gives a fair idea of how much of this is implemented in reality.

Lessons that are taught at home and as an extension, in schools, almost always stay for life. This is why it’s so important to highlight these at the right time, lead by example and start with making our immediate environment a cleaner one. Mumbai needs it, desperately.

— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY 

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