The mountains of garbage festering on the streets of India are not just an eyesore but also an open breeding ground for deadly diseases.
Sadly, this is a common sight in many economically weak neighbourhoods in cities, because they are more often than not ignored by municipal bodies and workers.
What is worse is that even the people living in such neighbourhoods have become used to being surrounded by waste, and existing in the extremely unsanitary environment, because they feel that there isn’t much that can be done on their part.
However, J Lakshmi Narayan, who has been working in the housekeeping department at Mayor Ramanathan Hall, MRC Nagar for over a decade, was always bothered with the sight of trash piling up on the streets of Chennai.
A resident of Mylapore’s Veerabadran Street, Lakshmi Narayan was drawn to the cause of social work and often took up cleaning activities like burying the corpses of street animals and birds during his teenage days—something which typically fails to elicit any reaction from most people.
A true altruist, Lakshmi Narayan also helps out the local traffic police in busy areas like Mambalam and Koyembedu by volunteering to manage the ongoing influx of traffic and has been doing so for the past 15 years.
“I was quite content with the little difference that I was making without any publicity. But the issue of the garbage-strewn streets kept gnawing at me, and I wanted to do something to change the situation,” says Lakshmi Narayan to The Better India.
He was discussing a newspaper article which spoke of an initiative where people took up the task of cleaning dirty bathrooms in their village, with his supervisor, Vinod, when he was struck by an idea.
“I have always believed that if you wished to see a change, you should be the one to make it happen. All this while I had been disturbed by the trash on the streets and the fact that no one was doing anything about it. However, I decided to stop brooding, take up a shovel and clean the streets myself,” he remembers.
When he discussed his brainwave with the folks at his workplace, almost everybody volunteered to join his crusade, and this is how ‘Leaders Group’ was born.
With a small team of 25, they kickstarted their cleaning activities in the premises of various schools in Triplicane. This initiative expanded to cleaning the streets near hostels, public spaces, and even the premises of the government hospital. Soon enough, the group started to receive calls from different institutions in the area for their services.
The group doesn’t ask for any money for the work that they do and accept whatever people give them.
However, he sadly confesses that money is an issue.
“Sometimes they pay us ₹500 for ten people and sometimes ₹1000 for 15 individuals. However, it is difficult to manage our finances as we spend from our own pockets to buy appropriate and safe cleaning equipment.”
In fact, as a gesture of appreciation for their selfless contribution to his dream, Lakshmi Narayan has provided his team members with a stove and a place to live in, so that they can look after themselves.
Since their activities are driven with no political or publicity-seeking gimmicks, the public often views them with suspicion and doubt. However, Lakshmi Narayan explains that their distrust is well placed as who in today’s world would clear someone else’s trash for free?
So how does the team take care of the garbage after revamping a site?
“After consolidating all the waste from the affected site, we reach out to the municipal authorities and route the different forms of waste to their pertaining channels,” he clarifies.
The group makes it a point to follow up on the places that they have cleaned up, for two months after the exercise, after which they hope that the people living in the area will make an effort to maintain the surroundings.
Five months ago, a clean-up drive by Leaders Group at Visalakshi Thottam near Warren Road, was covered by the local media.
The team painstakingly cleared over a year’s waste spread over 150 feet, which had accumulated between the blocks of the Housing Board apartments. This was done in collaboration with corporation workers, who helped them by hauling the garbage on tricycles.
R Nataraj, an MLA from the Mylapore constituency, proved to be a major pillar of support. He supplied the team with masks and gloves and paid them ₹5000 for their work. “The support that the MLA had bestowed us with was quite endearing, and it is quite rare for a person in a world of publicity-seeking policymakers to be actively involved in social work,” he says.
Lakshmi Narayan believes that the effort to tackle the never-ending crisis of waste has to begin from one’s own home and only then can it be extended anywhere beyond.
“If you can go all the way to a market to purchase vegetables, why can’t you go to a dumping zone to dispose your kitchen wastes?” he questions.
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An ardent admirer of Swami Vivekananda and former president APJ Abdul Kalam, he often finds motivation from the lives of these two selfless men to continue pursuing his goals.
What Lakshmi Narayan hopes for in the future, is to receive some support and recognition from the government that would stop people from denigrating the efforts made by him and his team.
“It is quite disheartening at times when people disregard us to the extent that I end up feeling like an orphan. Still, I won’t stop my work because even if one person gets to live in a healthier environment, it is worth the effort,” he adds.
People like Lakshmi Narayan and his team of crusaders are the actual unsung heroes of the society who seek no monetary benefits or publicity in what they do and it is time that we acknowledge and appreciate their efforts.
You can reach out to Lakshmi Narayan at 8939368919.
(With inputs from Ahmed Sherrif)