Clean Sweep

Rishi Majumder finds a rare spotless avenue in the city and talks to the grand old lady who keeps it that way

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Bertha Noronha (left) and Marlene D'Souza (right) on St Francis Avenue

For Noronha aunty,” pronounced Karl, a 6-year-old. He held a large plastic bag full of empty toothpaste tubes, cans and powder tins. “Noronha aunty”, now in her late 70s, had met Karl and his friends while they were playing in her Santacruz street, to explain how dry waste should be separated for re-cycling. St Francis Avenue doesn’t have any waste, wet or dry, lying on the street. Lined with a variety of attractive trees, its gutters are paved over with concrete. A large sign in the lane reads: ‘This street shines thanks to Ms Bertha Noronha. The residents are ever grateful of our ALM Chairperson’s untiring efforts…’
“You won’t get a good response in the beginning,” warns Noronha about initiatives like the one she, as ALM (Advanced Locality Management) Chairperson, has implemented. “But you must ‘keep on’ to get even one person per building—yet always request, don’t be aggressive!” In a country where historically only lower castes dealt with garbage, and waste-manage
ment is dismissed or left to servants, the multiple civic award winner’s clarion call is simple: “The purpose of a clean house is defeated if you see dirt when you look or step out.” Her action programme, commenced in 1998, goes deeper: “We started with organising group talks and planting trees with concretised fences so they weren’t stolen.” Waste segregation was the next step. “Dry waste is empty bottles, thrown paper, cardboard boxes—what’s man-made. Wet waste is vegetable and fruit remains, fish heads, chicken bones—what’s natural,” Marlene D’souza, Noronha’s co-worker in the cause elucidates. While the dry waste is given to FORCE, an NGO for rag pickers who re-cycle it for a living, the wet waste is kept in separate bins for the BMC to collect—or burnt by residents themselves. “We made 16 pits in the area.” Noronha lists. “Wet waste is allowed to decompose in these to create compost—used as plant fertiliser.”
Next move: dogged letters to the BMC to close the open drain and provide dustbins to each block, and an attack on plastic. “We even fish out plastic bags from the drains to try detect who would have thrown them,” Noronha informs. Thus when a doctor in Mahim and an office in Santacruz station found torn and filthy plastic bags being returned by an aged but firm lady telling them to warn
their servants as well, they listened. So too for passers urinating or spitting in the avenue, with a reprimanding voice interfering the processes. When one person told Noronha about a box dropped on the road, “Thanks, but I don’t need it…”, she retorted politely: “Thanks, but we don’t either.”
An ethical dilemma steps in however, with shooing encroaching homeless persons and beggars. “But ignoring them isn’t a solution,” Naronha remarks. “I have asked many young encroachers what they’ve done about a job, but they refuse to talk.” So, she tries to adopt a middle approach: “If they stop for a meal, for instance, I tell them: ‘eat but don’t litter’.”
Problems such as drain maintenance and pre-monsoon checks are the BMC’s domain, Noronha wraps up fierily. “But clogging these drains with plastic is what we should fight.”
A framed sketch hangs behind the ‘fighter’ in her St Francis Avenue cottage, depicting another saint—Michael—battling Lucifer.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/hdfm

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