Garbage, garbage everywhere, but who can see it?

“I don’t like being dependent but without people with you it’s very difficult to go far.” Rupal, age 13 years

Vaishali, 3 pm
Rupal is sitting on the wall in front of her house. She’s staring at the broken road. On the way home from school shefell off her bicycle at the same spot where her sister had tripped and broken her shoe. Rupal dislikes where she lives, she can’t stand her neighbors-truth be told, shehatesherslum. Five years ago she moved here and for five years she’s seen broken roads, garbage dumps and overflowing sewers. Nobody cares enough to do anything. Her neighbours are not friendly, nobody says ‘hello’when they pass on the street, not even a nod. Everyone is too self involved to do anything else but step over the trash, step over the pot hole.
Rupal had to fix the road. She would start now. She jumpedoff of the wall and picked up the first empty bottle. Then she walked two steps and picked up two empty packets of chips, a plastic bag. Her hands were full, she dropped her collected garbage and came back with a green dustbin. It wasn’t long before the little dust bin was full. She walked back home to empty the dust bin in the waste bin in her house. With a clean dust bin she walked out again. Two hours. Finally the dust bin in her house was full. She would start again tomorrow. As she walked home she saw new trash in the street. Her eyes fill with tears. She climbs the stairs to her house and her sister is sittingthere, watching.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not going to stop till the roads are clean, then I will figure out a way to fix the roads, so that I don’t fall off my bicycle and you don’t break your shoe.”
“Right. And you plan to do this alone?
“Yes.”
Tomorrow is Sunday. Rupal repeats her steps. She feels that she’s cleaning the same street she had cleaned yesterday – the garbage is the same. By noon, she was tired. Her little brother comes running up to her.
“Do you need some help?”
Rupal rolled her eyes, “Isn’t that obvious.”
“Not really. You should have asked.”
Rupals’ brother races home, and hollersto his other sisters. “Rupal needs our help!”
And so it was that five girls and one little boy cleaned up the dirty streets of Bank Men’s colony. They were at work when the sun set dusk. By evening they had cleaned a lot, but there was still so much to do.
Rupal did a quick assessment. Honestly, there was no way she could fix the broken road, she did not have the equipment or the strength. She had to go to Municipality Administrator’s office to understand what could be done. The security guard outside did not let her in. She looked too young. So she returned the next day with her two older sisters. The guard respectfully let them in. The girl had returned with adults.
“You want me to send my engineers to fix your road because you think there is something wrong with it. Why should I believe you? And even if there is such a problem, if other people in your colony don’t think it’s problem then why do you?”
The Municipal Officer was not very helpful.
On their way home, Sarita, the eldest sister asked Rupal, “Maybe we should tell our neighbours about your plan. Maybe if everyone agrees, the administrator will agree.”
Rupal was stubborn. “I am not asking anyone for help. Lakshmi Aunty walks past me picking up garbage every day, and she’s never asked me if I need help. So why should I go ask?”
“Sometimes people do care but like to keep away and not interfere. Others feel that you may not want to include them – that is why you haven’t asked them yet. Still there are others who need a push or a nudge or sometimes even a drag in the right direction,” explained Sarita encouragingly.
Rupal frowned. “But they all saw me work, they saw us work, why didn’t they say anything. This is their road as much as mine, they also fall, they also get hurt, but why don’t they care?”
“Remember last Sunday, when you were cleaning alone, and then our brother saw you cleaning. And he asked us to come help you?”
Rupal nodded.
“It’s not that none of us saw you. We all saw you clean the day before and clean on Sunday morning, but we did not feel the necessity to help you. We thought you must be doing something for a school project. We were busy with our own work, thoughts. None of us took the initiative you took or felt responsible for all this mess. But then once you explained what you were trying to achieve we came to help you. Remember how quickly we worked as a team, and how much faster we got the street cleaned together?Maybe our neighbours are so used to seeing this neighbourhood this way that they have begun to think this is normal. They don’t have the privilege of seeing new problem solving techniques and reading stories about that they way you do in school. Even your three little detective friends needed each other to solve their mysteries. They spent so much time with other villagers, asking the so many questions. You can never take on a mission by yourself, you will always have to involve others. And here you must remember that no one will come to you first. You need to take that step. To ask for help. Asking for help, will never make you a smaller person or a less determined person. Everyone needs a team, and many people will always work faster and better than a single person. Don’t you think so?”
Rupal nodded. Sarita was a teacher, she knew what she was talking about.
Next day after on her way back from school, Rupal passed by Lakshmi Aunty again.
“Lakshmi Aunty, Hi! I am Rupal and I live in that pink and yellow house down the road. I have started a LET’S CLEAN BANK MEN’S COLONY PROJECT – to clean our neighborhood and get the Municipality Administrator to bring some engineers to fix our roads. I was wondering if you could sign my petition?”
Lakshmi aunty frowned and then smiled. “Is that what you have been up to? I assumed you must be picking up things to stick on your scrap book. My son used to do that. Why didn’t you tell me before? Of course I’ll sign your petition. In fact, I’ll ask my husband to speak to his boss about this. He is the Municipal Administrator’s best friend.”
Rupal was awestruck. Slowly she walked back to her house. Tomorrow she would draft a a petition and knock on every door to tell them her plan. She had given up on her neighbors so easily. They were just different people, minding their own business. They did not have her drive and determination, but that did not mean that they did not want to help her. They were just waiting for someone else to take the first step. All she had to do was begin.

To get married or become an entrepreneur


“I am determined to the make the world safe for women and girls, that’s what drives me – we can’t live in a world that’s not safe for girls, we just can’t.” Alisha, age 15

Patna, 8:07 a.m.
Alisha’s fatherpulls on his uniform looking for his rickshaw keys. His is momentarily stalled by a pair of soft palms clasping his worn hands to request, insist, “Hurry, we’ll be late Papa, I have to interview an entrepreneur to make a newspaper at school.”
Mr. Khan smiles. Alisha is excited to go to school on Saturday. He’s given up his morning auto-run to take her to meet Ochu, a sweetshop owner. Alisha wants to interview him, and he didn’t want to her to go alone. He’ll lose RS 1,500 today by not working. That worries him. It will cut into his savings. He’s been saving for two yearssince the day Alisha turned 13. There will be a wedding reception. He will apply for a personal loan this afternoon, after dropping Alisha to school. He’ll mortgage his rickshaw, hundreds of people will have a feast, Alisha a new sari, her groom, surrounded by laughing friends and family, and he, a proud father watching.
Alishawill have to stop school of course. He can’t afford to send her next year. Higher secondary school is intermediate college – the fees are higher, the prices of books increasing – her uniform is too small, her shoes too – she wants to pay for extra classes to be able to study for the civil services exam. Mr. Khan frowns thinkingabout her plans. She’s always wanted to become a police officer. Mr. Khan and his wife were shocked when she told them this: a young woman policeofficer, who had ever seen that? There’s no way he would allow Alisha to wear those clothes and risk her life like that. But Alisha’s was determined – she told him that she wanted to show the world that girls could become anything they wanted, especially a police officer who would ensure that other girls like her were safe. Mr. Khan loved his daughter, but what could he do. She had turned 15 last year, and people had already begun to talk at her father’s inability to find her a suitable groom.
“I am ready and you are not,” she breaks into his thoughts, hurrying down the stairs he climbs into his rickshaw. Alisha sits in the back, wearing her her school uniform, bag on her lap, a press card with her name pinned to her dupatta, and a smile. Her in-laws probablywon’t let her go back to school. He drives to Ochu’s sweet shop.
Alisha is tapping her foot, the only sign of her ebbing patience. She and her father had been waiting for over an hour at their table at Sadhu Hotel. Ochu, the sweet shop owner was giving them odd shoulder raising motions. The girl had initially annoyed him with her questions, driving away customers, but now he was curious – why was she here? She had said that he was a good entrepreneur to interview and that she wanted to interview him for her newspaper. He wondered who an entrepreneur was and why he was a good one as he weighed out half a kilo of his famous kala jamun to the customer before him.
It was afternoonby the time Ochu had made a receipt for his last customer, swatted the flies away from his halwa and jalebis, wiped his counter clean and made his way to the waiting girl and her father.
“An entrepreneur is a problem solver” Alisha explains, “You are the best of all entrepreneurs because you are solving a problem with a business.” Ochu’s face asks, what problem am I solving? “You provide food at very reasonable prices to hungry people don’t you?” Alisha answers at speed. “Students like me come to you, the rickshaw puller comes to you, my father comes to you when we have guests at home, and I’ve even seen the headmaster stop by for your samosa after school. So, you see you’re solving one problem already. Of hunger. Then, you pay Dinesh-bhai to sweep the floors and clean the utensils, you pay Ila-didi to help you make the samosas in the morning and you pay Geeta and Zulfi to hand out plates of food to your customers. You’ve built a team and you’re employing three women! You started a business that solves problems – that makes you an entrepreneur- a problem solving hero.”
As he watched Alisha skip away, her arm locked in her father’s, Ochu’s face was glowing.She called him a hero.
Mr. Khan had sat quietly and watched his daughter all morning. His earlier worries about not making enough money today or reaching the bank on time disappeared. He had watchedAlisha’s intelligent questions, the kindness with she explained her project to the irritated shop owner, and finally how her words and actions had changed Ochu from a grumpy man to melting sweetie.He started to see her in a khaki uniform, doing her best to make her country a safer and better place, rather than silent in a marriage hall.
Alisha chatted at speed as she clung on to his arm and they walked her to school. As they approached the school gate, she stopped and looked up to him, “Papa you now how I knew who was an entrepreneur? I thought of everything you do and told him.”
Ten minutes later Mr. Khan walked into the bank. The loan officer was just about to clear his desk. Mr. Khan placed all his documents on the table, and then said, “I need to mortgage my rickshaw for my daughter’s education loan.”