Home composting helps residents find value in waste & reconnect with nature in Punjab

Co-authored by Joohi Khushbu & Chander Mahadev (FINISH Society)

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best amongst communities. Even as the pandemic threw life out-of-gear following a six-week total lockdown to contain the spread of the virus, local Kapurthala (Punjab state) residents were up for the challenge. The word ‘positive’ became the most dreaded word since anybody testing positive meant a life of uncertainty, often leading to death. Terms like social distancing, isolation and hand washing became the buzzwords, leading to behaviour change vis-a-vis personal hygiene so as to stop community transmission of the dreaded virus.

Even as over 4,000 people have lost their lives from COVID-19 in India alone, there is hope. It is in these dire circumstances that ITC Mission Sunehra Kal, along with technical support from FINISH Society, decided to transform the lives of people by helping them reconnect with nature. The home composting programme was jump-started after ensuring that the ‘royal city’ be first declared open defecation free (ODF). Soon after achieving ODF status, ITC decided to make a larger impact among the people by conducting a survey of houses in the locality and looking for people who are deeply connected with nature. Since staying safe at home became the new normal, ITC set the ball rolling in ward numbers 18, 19, 20 and 21 in December 2018. Seeing that residents were keen to make a difference in society, they soon expanded coverage in the month of March 2020. An ITC-created sticker in Punjabi describing and differentiating between wet and dry waste were placed in the kitchens of the people in the area in April.

The exercise triggered by the COVID-19 Pandemic today involves a total of 29 wards, of which 17 are also busy promoting the solid waste management (SWM) program. The total number of houses is around 12500, with each ward having approximately 850 houses. These wards are further divided among individuals that work for ITC Mission Sunehra Kal in concert with FINISH society. The main idea behind this endeavour is to motivate people and inform them about home composting, and help people understand the distinction between wet and dry waste. They are also taught how to manage waste if there is lack of space.  It is pertinent to mention that local residents realise how waste segregation is important to keep COVID-19 at bay.

Mrs. Veena showing reuse of coconut shells.

Composting team

One such worker, Kalpana, who was formerly a maintenance and accounting in-charge at a civil hostel, joined the ITC-FINISH team. She enjoys working in the motivated environment that the programme provides. Another employee, Ajay Kumar, is comfortable working around waste. Their work mainly entails monitoring and motivation and changing people’s thought process about waste. In their daily interactions with people, their first job is to find out if they are visited by a waste collector every day. After tackling door to door contact, the concept of segregation of wet waste and dry waste is explained using pamphlets and stickers. Although there are more than 20 types of waste, their main focus is on three, which include wet, dry and hazardous waste. Hazardous waste includes e-waste, medical waste and sanitary napkins, which are divided and sent to incinerators. In these houses, dry leaves, tea leaves, eggshells, fruits and vegetables, leftover food etc. are composted. Through their sustained efforts, the ITC-FINISH team has positively impacted around 2100 houses

Talking about the daily dump and cluster composting, waste picker Sunil says he has been working in this area for over 18 years. Talking about how things have changed following COVID-19, he shares that “earlier the waste was mixed and dumped at one point. A carriage used to take all the garbage but now that people have time on their hands, and things have changed. Now the waste is being composted and used by the local residents even as a business model. Collecting waste from 300 households Sunil says, “I am a waste contractor, not a scrap contractor.”

Mrs. Veena’s terrace garden

Composting process

According to Chander Mahadev, Media Consultant, FINISH Society, who was on a filed visit to capture this inspiring story says: “Initially, when the ITC-FINISH team began working in this area, there were not enough composting demo units. So composting was started in pots that the family already owned. These pots, shaped like an earthen tabla, were filled with kitchen waste, and jaggery water was added to them to facilitate fermentation. Chili and turmeric powder were also added to prevent odour and rotting and airing through ‘turning over’ was required. Among the first to adopt this practice is Mrs. Harvinder Kaur. The planning of her house was done by Ms. Kaur’s late husband, and it now houses several plants and also boasts of a kitchen garden. The kitchen waste of the house is used as fertiliser for these plants. The plants in the aforementioned house are tended to by Mrs. Kaur’s sister, who is a retired principal. She has planted more than 200 saplings, including bonsais of banyan and various fruiting plants such as kinoo besides tending to a terrace garden with vegetables such as broccoli. She has aptly named her garden ‘Saddi Mandi’, or ‘Our Market’. She sets an example in self-sustained gardening through home composting within the community, and readily volunteers to teach individuals about how to adopt these practices. “

Inspiring example

Another motivating personality in the home composting space is Vineeta Rani, who generates income by making and selling compost and stitching clothes. She also grows various vegetables such as spinach, fenfugreek (methi), arbee tomato, capsicum for the consumption of her family and often shares them with her neighbours. To produce compost, she collects vegetable peels and other kitchen waste from houses and vendors in her neighbourhood. She says there’s no shame in collecting waste, since composting is better than waste being thrown out on the streets. As a side job, Ms. Vineeta also stitches clothes such as salwar, suits, blouses etc. and earns about 100- 200 rupees from it every day. She lives with her husband, who was a labourer till three years ago, and suffers from heart problems for which he had to undergo surgery. They have three daughters, all married. Their daughters live in Patiala and are walking down the same path as their parents, by doing composting and kitchen gardening. They often wish that ITC Mission Sunehra Kal expands it footprints   to Patiala so that awareness is spread, and home composting becomes the norm.

Terrace garden with reused items

Livelihood option

Veena sources wet waste from around 20 houses in the neighbourhood, and in three months, about 15-20 packets are produced. These compost packets are sold at 50 rupees a kilo to homes for usage in potted plants or to other people from smaller areas. They also sell liquid compost in bottles 

Before intervention by the ITC-FINISH team, Ms. Veena’s family used to produce fertilisers using chemicals such as Urea, but after ITC began its activity in the area about 1.5 years ago, a lot of changes are discernible. The team taught them composting, provided them with drums to do the same and told them the difference between liquid compost and solid compost. 

As a side job, Mrs. Veena also stitches clothes such as salwar, suits, blouses etc. and earns about 100- 200 rupees from it every day. She lives with her husband, who was a labourer till three years ago, and suffers from heart problems for which he had to undergo surgery. They have three daughters, all married. Their daughters live in Patiala, and walking on the same path as their parents, also do composting and kitchen gardening. They often wish that the reach of ITC-FINISH is extended to Patiala so that as awareness spreadthere too.