What would you do if you found your neighbourhood green patch strewn with plastic wastes, left behind after a social gathering? This is what Naresh Kumar of WWF-India, Pilibhit field office, did.
In 2010, Naresh was in the middle of his usual day’s work, surveying the Mala range of the Pilibhit Wildlife Sanctuary (now a Tiger Reserve), when an unsightly view caught his attention. A green patch, right in the heart of the sanctuary, had been left strewn with plastic and polystyrene wastes — plates, cups, containers thrown away after a get-together by villagers living in the forest fringes.
The gathering was a cultural event, entrenched in the history of the region. Folklore has it that for 1000s of years, villagers of Uttar Pradesh celebrated the summer months between April and June, with social get-togethers and feasts, to thank the local deity ‘Sidh Baba’ for bringing them prosperity.
In the Pilibhit district of UP, the feasts have been held in a 16,400 hectare patch of the Mala range for years. Every year, the celebration is said to see a footfall of over 250-300 people daily for nearly two months. Naresh says, “Before 2010, these events were never a problem, because the people were not introduced to plastic and polystyrene yet. Biodegradable plates and cups made of leaves collected from the forest were used and disposed off… these eco-friendly wastes returned to the earth.” Polystyrene and plastic are non-biodegradable and a potential threat to the sanctity of the forests.
The local authorities, though wanting to help, were reluctant, fearing that any action on their part may offend the local people’s religious sentiments. Thus, Naresh thought of a plan: over the next few days, the WWF-India field office mobilized 25-30 school students from the nearby Pilibhit town and, one Sunday morning, the team set off on a bicycle expedition. After acquiring relevant permissions from the forest department, the team cycled 16 km to reach the polluted site and began a clean-up drive. “We simply followed Gandhiji’s ideology ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world’. The authorities were rightfully concerned about hurting people’s feelings, but who could be offended by a few students and do-gooders picking up garbage?” Naresh explained.
As the team handpicked the plastics from the forest with gusto, people joined in — forest staff, neighbhouring people and eventually even the local media which had come to cover the activity, put down their cameras and notepads and joined the clean up activity, Naresh said.
About 50 volunteers collected seven trucks of plastic and polystyrene wastes, that year.
Since that year, WWF India’s Pilibhit field office has been holding an awareness drive before the start of the Sidh Baba celebrations. Villagers are being mobilized to move away from the non-biodegradable plastic-ware back to the eco-friendly plates and bowls made of leaves and clay. Since then, the villagers have also understood the importance of the plastic ban, and started bringing their own reusable metal plates, bowls and glasses to the event.
: In the following years, schools students and boy scouts, were also trained to monitor the Sidh Baba celebrations regularly. To date, regular checks are held during the event by the forest department with the help of the WWF-India field team and the students and any polluting materials including water bottles, plastic bags, plastic and polystyrene plates etc are confiscated.
The result of this repeated monitoring and awareness drive is obvious. Five years on, the celebrations continue at this same spot, around the same months of April to June. But the forest wears a much happier look! The pictures above bear testimony to that.