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Mansoor Ghouse has been in the business of waste-management for more than 25 years, starting his life as a rag-picker. He is now one of Bengaluru’s prominent waste warriors. Photo Shafaat Shahbandari Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari/Gulf News

Bengaluru: Mansoor Ghouse grew up in a small shantytown in the south of Bengaluru. As a little boy he saw his father bringing home sacks filled with trash everyday, which his parents segregated in various categories and sold by the kilos from a makeshift shack outside their house.

It was a steady business, a trade that helped the large Ghouse family survive. Mansoor is the eldest of nine siblings, his two brothers died young, while he helped his six sisters get married and settle down.

Growing up around trash and watching his parents sort various categories of waste, Mansoor learnt the tricks of the trade early. Circumstances forced him to apply his learnings earlier than he would have liked. He was barely 10 when his father died and being the eldest in the family, the burden of responsibility naturally fell on the young and wiry shoulders of Mansoor.

He was in Grade Five at that time, but he had no choice but to drop out of school and look after his family’s needs, which he did admirably well!

The mess we make

Hunger and deprivation often don’t offer people the luxury of learning. But, sharp as he was, Mansour did learn the lessons that life was teaching him every moment.

With a resolute mother by his side, Mansoor stepped into the large shoes of his father, whom he had watched closely and had accompanied on several waste collecting journeys across the city, which to the family was a treasure that the world refused to acknowledge.

“As a child I couldn’t make sense of the trash business. I would often wonder, why would people throw things that they could sell. I still don’t understand this wastefulness. If people realised the destruction that this wastefulness causes they would never repeat it,” said Mansoor Ghouse, one of Bengaluru’s prominent waste warriors, who now runs two dry waste collection and sorting units in Jayanagara with the help of a local NGO Hasiru Dala.

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Waste-management involves segregation, collection, sorting, categorising, processing and recycling. It provides livelihood to thousands of poor families in India. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

He adds that wastefulness is not just a moral and environmental tragedy, it is also a great economic loss.

“People don’t realise that they pay for the packaging that comes with all items. Packaging is taken into account in all the food we buy and all the food we consume, including the takeaways we order. Nothing comes free and apart from the money we pay, it adds to the continuing strain on the limited resources of the world,” said the seasoned climate activist.

The 39-year-old’s life trajectory hasn’t been much different from the trajectory of modern waste-generation, which has constantly gone up over the last three decades.

According to the numbers collected by global environmental agencies, the world generates more than 2 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually, with more than a third of it not managed in an eco-friendly manner.

India, with its sheer size and population, ranks among the world’s top waste generating nations, with 62 million tonnes of MSW annually.

However, not all of it enters the official civic waste disposal system.

Out of the 62 million tonnes, only 43 million tonnes of MSW are collected, out of which 31 million tonnes end up in the landfills while only 12 million tonnes undergo treatment.

“This is the reason why landfills are growing and rising like mountains, generating huge volumes of methane, a greenhouse gas, and other pollutants. Most of the deadly diseases, such as dengue, that are widespread in Bengaluru come from these landfills. So, if we look at the impact of waste carefully, we will realise that this is not just an environmental and economic issue, this is an issue of human well-being more than anything else,” adds Mansoor, whose 12-member team of waste collectors helps recycle 400 tonnes of waste daily.

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India generates 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste, more than 80 per cent of which ends up in landfills. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

Economics of waste

But, how is a fifth grade dropout so well-versed in the economics of waste-management?

Sorting, categorising, reusing and recycling was the business Mansoor grew up into, but little did he know the impact his work was creating until an NGO found him some 14 years back.

“It was 2009, I was around 24 at that time and I was already well established in this business, managing a workforce of around 40 waste collectors. I was even married and had children. In this scene entered Hasiru Dala. Initially, I was a little reluctant in entertaining them. Naturally, I was a bit suspicious about their intentions, but slowly we gained each other’s trust and then my life turned around. They made me realise the human and global impact of our work. I learnt about climate change and global warming and understood how I am ideally placed to play an important role of creating awareness,” said Mansoor, detailing the story of his turnaround.

But, as he was scaling up his father’s humble waste empire and making sense of the mess around him, it never crossed his mind that the piles of trash he sorts daily would one day catapult him to national fame and take him all the way to Paris, representing his country.

The modern world is surrounded by waste. Every product that we buy is packaged in waste. With our hyper-consumerist modern lifestyle, waste-generation has become a natural consequence.
Packaging is central to every product we consume. Every item of cosmetics and electronics, every packet of food and every bottle of drink leaves behind waste such as boxes, wrappers, thermacol, tetra packs, plastic, glass, paper waste as well as stickers.
Waste-generation has become easy, but waste-management is not so.
Think about it! Reduction of waste begins with reduction of consumption. Think twice, before you buy anything next time. Do you actually need it?
Think twice, before you trash anything next time. See if it can be reused, up-cycled or recycled. All it needs is just a step! Take that step before the pile of garbage falls on you!

“Once I realised the gravity of the situation and the impact waste management makes, I took my work more seriously and gradually things started falling into place. I started getting recognition for my efforts, but I would never have thought of travelling overseas and speaking at a global event, that too at the Climate Summit in Paris. It came out of the blue and I am really grateful of Hasiru Dala for facilitating my entire journey up until now,” added Mansoor, tracing his journey from a rag-picker to an environmental activist.

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Mansoor (2nd from left) sharing stage with waste warriors from across the world at the 2016 Paris Climate Summit. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

Mansoor now regularly travels to different parts of the country, speaking at environmental events and seminars to raise awareness about the importance of waste-management.

Divide and rule

However, as an activist Mansoor’s focus is more on action than speech. He says, segregation at the ground level is key to reducing the impact of waste.

“The primary focus of all waste-management activities should be minimising the load at landfills. For this to happen, all waste should be segregated at the origin. There are 72 categories of waste. Almost everything can be recycled. Plastic water bottles can be turned into jeans pants, coconut sells are turned into incense sticks, organic waste can become compost and fertilisers, wrappers and plastic stickers are turned into plywood and tar. The list can go on and on. All we need is a little conscious effort by all stakeholders including residents, workers and authorities. It is possible to turn things around. It is still not too late,” said Mansoor, highlighting the importance of segregation and recycling in reducing the impact of climate change.

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Despite Bengaluru’s extensive dry waste collection infrastructure, only a minuscule percentage of waste is recycled. Image Credit: Shafaat Shahbandari

Now that we know the impact these unassuming, shabby-looking ragpickers knowingly or unknowingly make in ensuring the well-being of our planet, let’s appreciate the role they play and make their life easy.

With every piece of trash they pick, they are not just feeding their families, but are also ensuring that we don’t get overwhelmed by all the waste we generate.

— Shafaat Shahbandari is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru and founder-editor of Thousand Shades of India