Shanthi Ulhas - Mahalingapuram's Waste Warrior.

Community leaders are the actual heroes – the movers and shakers of decentralised waste management. It is virtually impossible for a single entity (the Corporation of Chennai for example) to successfully bring about a reduction in the overall waste generation, without addressing the issue at a micro level.  During the early stages of our campaigns, we envisioned our Neighbourhood Champions as the community representatives who would drive this micro level change. But before trying to create new leaders, we first decided to seek out the few motivated individuals who have already been tirelessly striving to change their neighbourhoods.

One of the first people to approach us was Mrs Shanthi Ulhas from Mahalingapuram. A very vociferous and proactive community, they have forged way ahead of the rest of Chennai in their waste management approach at the household level. Credit for all of this goes to Mrs Shanthi Ulhas, for going to each household and trying to educate people one by one. In this blog post we would like to profile her and her efforts, to demonstrate how starting small and being persistent can eventually produce remarkable results.

A business woman by profession, Shanthi ran two play schools in Nungambakkam for several years. Eventually she shut them down and decided to devote her time to community service and volunteering. She has been a volunteer with AFS intercultural programmes for the past 5 years, among many other organisations. It was a cleanliness drive in Perungudi that inspired her to take the initiative in her own neighbourhood.

Mrs Shanthi Ulhas

Mrs Shanthi Ulhas

She contacted a close and equally passionate neighbour to join her, and the both of them started reaching out to people by personally knocking on every door in the neighbourhood. They eventually visited every house in Mahalingapuram, covering 15 streets in 45 days.

Shanthi spoke to her community members about segregation and explained the process of composting their kitchen waste. She motivated them to start kitchen gardens and several of them did so, while even more are in the process of starting theirs. She explained to us that the overall response was very positive; very few residents shut the door on her.

She continued to raise her voice about overflowing garbage bins and slowly, as people noticed changes on the streets, they began to recognize her efforts. Now she is the face and voice of the entire community and is greatly respected by all.

Shanthi volunteering at a summer camp for underprivileged kids.

Shanthi volunteering at a summer camp for underprivileged kids.

When we first decided to approach her community, she went door to door informing people and organised a meeting for us. The turnout in the end was small, and no formal strategy was devised. The meeting did however, enlighten us about the reality of community engagement and addressing people’s grievances. Despite the poor turnout, Shanthi being the amazingly persistent person that she is, organised one more meeting two months later and invited us again. This time she invited the local councillor as well, to hear people’s grievances and lend accountability to the effort. This second meeting was very successful, with a huge turnout. You could call it a landmark event!  We wrote about the meeting in detail in a previous blog post.

Shanthi and her husband have also set up an amazing garden in the area surrounding their car park. They grow several fruits, vegetables and herbs, using everything from conventional terra cotta pots, to old household containers to do their planting (our personal favourite is a re-purposed old toilet!)

Re-purposed toilet planter in Shanthi's garden. 

Re-purposed toilet planter in Shanthi's garden. 

She has convinced and assisted over 20 people to start composting since she started her efforts and her aim is to get the entire community to do the same. She dreams of a day when there are no more bins in the neighbourhood, and everyone is composting and recycling their waste.  Shanthi is a community hero. One of those people whose daily lives quietly lay the foundation for great change. We salute her efforts and dream of a day when Chennai will be full of Shanthis –  wonderful people who walk the talk on waste management right inside their own homes and work places. May their tribe increase.

Have you been involved in community work that has lead to positive change, however small it may be? If you have, or know of similar success stories, write to us at farhaad@kabadiwallaconnect.in and we would love to feature you.

-Written by Farhaad Khazvini