Operation Blue Mountains
The `Say No to Plastics' campaign implemented by Nilgiris District Collector Supriya Sahu has done wonders for Ooty's fragile eco system. The ban is a crucial step to unclogging the river sources and springs, says MARI MARCEL THEKAEKARA.
Ooty's residents are staunch supporters of the movement against plastics.
AWHIFF of good news in these times of kali yuga is like a breath of fresh air. In recent years, the people of the Nilgiris have had little to rejoice about. Most of us locals dread the tourist invasion even while many other peoples' livelihoods are inextricably linked with the "season". The mountains of garbage that tourists leave behind are mind-boggling. They destroy the peaceful, generally beautiful hillsides with plastic and foil plates, throw away cups, carrier bags and empty mineral water bottles.
Last year, I was amazed to find Ooty shopkeepers wrapping groceries in old newspaper and handing out purchases in eco friendly recycled shopping bags. How come, I asked in wonder. "Collector's orders," was the mostly disgruntled, terse reply. I couldn't believe it. Further enquiries elicited the information that the new Collector of the Nilgiris had banned plastic in the district. At first everyone treated it as a joke. Then the news spread that Chellarams, one of the biggest, most well known shops on the high street had been fined a thousand rupees for disregarding the plastic ban. There was a panic reaction that rippled through the marketplace. If Chellarams could be fined, the government was serious. Anti-Plastic Inspectors were conducting spot checks.
Down in Gudalur, there were similar raids. Rumours did the rounds. Shopkeepers and customers who violated the ban were both being fined. In no time, the piles of plastic diminished. We are not yet totally plastic-free but violations now are mainly by tourists. Locals have begun to appreciate the ban for purely practical reasons. There is less garbage around. Farmers who buy garbage for composting are delighted at the decrease in plastic.
Bhaskaran Nair Ravindran, planter and tea factory owner, pointed out that everyone had become aware of the menace that plastic posed. "There was elephant dung on my estate recently and even that contained plastic bags. You can imagine the extent of damage to animals if even the wildlife is affected. But we are noticing a visible difference in the garbage we buy for compost. There's hardly any plastic now."
The moving force behind the movement is Ms. Supriya Sahu, IAS, a diminutive package of dynamite. Young and bright, she is the darling of her district today. Interviewing her, I discovered that the lady had achieved the impossible by shrewd, strategic planning and formidable energy. She combined her power as the District Collector quickly enacting local legislation to enforce the plastic ban, with a campaign to win over the entire district to her side.
School children, teachers, college students, the Home Guards, Eco clubs, Rotary, Lions, NSS, NCC and social service organisations were convinced of the dangers of plastic. Then, she took on the business lobby with threats and logic. When the not-amused traders fought the ban saying they could not continue their trade without plastic carrier bags, she organised an exhibition of alternative possibilities. Leaf cups and plates were displayed along with their manufacturers. Unemployed widows were inducted into recycling newspapers into shopping bags. And new partnerships were formed.
The logic and the solutions were unbeatable. There were no more arguments. All over the district, the ubiquitous traditional Tamil "manja pye" or haldi coloured cloth bag has made its reappearance. Meat and fish are wrapped in leaves as they used to be ten years ago. And school children frequently go on plastic picking treks, cleaning up their beloved Nilgiris.
Film shooting crews are among the worst offenders. Warnings have already been issued to them about littering. At the first instance of littering, fines will be issued. Three fines will mean shooting will be suspended.
This tourist season, the emphasis is on those who come in cars and buses. Blaring car stereos, eve teasing and littering will not be tolerated in the district. At every Nilgiris entry point, eco-wardens will man the check-posts to weed out banned plastic carrier bags, plates, cups and bottles. As a courteous gesture, the offending tourists will be handed eco friendly khadi cloth bags sponsored by the State Bank of India with pleasant green letters begging them to "Say No to Plastic."
Large signposts will greet the visitors entreating them to "Enjoy your stay in the Nilgiris, but please do not use plastic". There are attractive stickers explaining that the Nilgiris has a fragile eco system that is being destroyed by plastic contamination. These will be stuck on every vehicle that enters the Nilgiris.
Reactions in the district have changed radically. When the campaign first started, a year ago, there was tolerant amusement from most people, then hostility and anger when fines were imposed. Now everyone has been won over. Children are proud of their district. One of the sights that started the Collector off was that of a picture of the astounding amount of plastic waste extracted from a cow. Several local newspapers carried this, along with pictures of the post mortem of a leopard and elephant with plastic in their intestines.
An intensive awareness campaign throughout the district has succeeded in changing attitudes. The Say No to Plastic Campaign has now become a People's Campaign.
People in the Nilgiris are a superstitious lot. Pleased as they are with their Collector, they whisper "Good Collectors rarely last, so don't say it too loud, or they'll transfer her."
However, many good things have been happening in the Nilgiris in the environmental department. If these new ideas and innovations are to be implemented and become sustainable, it is imperative for environmentally committed officers to spend a few years in this fragile eco system, which provides all of South India with its waters.
The Nilgiris' sholas, grasslands and swamps are precious. The ban on plastics is a crucial step to unblock the river sources and springs. The work must continue. District Collector Supriya Sahu has indeed worked a miracle with her Say No to Plastics Campaign.
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