Two years ago when retired bank officer Mathews Muckaden, 62, picked up a broom to clean the filthy streets of Changana-sserry, a small town in Kottayam district, people laughed at him. They began to call him a ‘municipality sweeper.’ Two years down the line, he is being acknowledged as one of the prime movers behind the Kerala government’s initiative to announce subsidy for domestic bio-gas plants.
“Nothing goes to waste if tackled right from the beginning,” he said. “Waste is not a bad word either. But one person’s waste should not become another person’s worry.” At least 15 wards of the Changanassery municipality now follow his example.
In 2010, Muckaden set up a bio-gas plant on his premises and invited his neighbours to deposit their degradable kitchen waste in it. “I spent Rs15,000 to build this plant. It gives me two-three hours of gas supply,” he said. He also produces organic pesticide with the waste and grows a number of organic vegetables such as lush bittergourds, huge pumpkins and scarlet-red spinach in his backyard garden.
Acceptability for Muckaden and his project did not come easy, though. The Snehatheeram Residents Association (SRA) which he floated with 44 families of his neighbourhood, was initially cold-shouldered by the rest. Sanitation was the responsibility of the local body, Muckaden was told. But he slowly convinced the sceptics to join. “I have visited many countries and have seen how citizens join hands for their common welfare. More than any other state in India, Kerala is exposed to the outside world, but few learn from their experience. This pushed me to take up the challenge,” said the retired officer.
The results of his initiative are visible. At the break of dawn, residents are seen collecting biodegradable waste from the kitchen and heading towards the neighbourhood bio-gas plant. In the weekend, armed with brooms and shovels, they clean the streets, pick up dry leaves and watering roadside plants.
‘Snehatheeram’ and its adjoining areas have not reported any case of infectious disease in the past two years even though Kerala has suffered bouts of chickungunya and viral fever in other parts of the state. “His initiatives have paid rich dividends,” said the state Culture Minister KC Joseph who belongs to the area.
Muckaden has also found novel ways to keep his locality on high alert. If someone is spotted dumping waste in their area or moving around suspiciously, residents blow their whistle. “Leave alone treating waste and beautification, not a single burglary has been reported from the area since ‘Snehatheeram’ came into existence,” said O A Mathew, a retired head master and association member.
“Muckaden has shown us a different culture. From religious festivities to personal engagements, we move as a single family now,” confirmed Ravindran Kandaswamy, another neighbour. Fifteen other associations, similar to Snehatheeram, have come up in the area. Muckaden trains its volunteers. “We have to include good civic and etiquette lessons in schools and groom our youngsters,” he said, adding that he is planning to meet Chief Minister in this regard.
“In many areas, urban waste is turning into a big law and order problem. Mathews Muckaden’s initiative has the solutions to many of these issues,” said Changanassery MLA and former minister CF Thomas.
The waste watch
According to a World Bank study, India’s population is estimated to be around 130 crore by 2030. Its urban waste will grow from 02. 6 kg to I kg per person daily. Urban local bodies are ill-equipped to build an efficient waste management system with small budgets. “Many cities are dumping their garbage in nearby rural areas exposing them to infectious diseases and other maladies,” warned Muckaden.
Mindless land-filling and burning deprive the nation of its much needed energy, he added, citing examples of other countries who have utilised their resources well. “Sweden runs the world’s first biogas-powered passenger train between Linkoping and Vastervik and in the US, an inter-city train runs on bio-diesel made from beef by-products,” he said.
How does the SRA deal with non-biodegradable items like plastics?
By not dealing in them. All its members carry jute these bags whenever they go for shopping saying a big no to plastics.
“Litter bugs will have to remember that a cigarette filter takes 10-12 years to rot and melt and a toothbrush takes more than 100 years to merge with the soil. The quantity of waste generated should therefore be reduced and recyclable products, recycled,” said Muckaden emphatically.
For the government, he has a word of advice: make biogas plants mandatory for flats and other offices.
His wife and two sons are fully behind his venture. Said his wife Sisyamma: “When he was in service, he was never this busy. But post-retirement, he is busier. We are happy it is for a good cause.”