Mona Patrao, of Red Stone Farms, moved to Panchgani as an 18-year-old in the 70s. When she moved to this hill station, it was a beautiful misty island in the sky, that floated high above the blistering plains of Western Maharashtra. The streets and the town were small, quaint, clean and postcard-like. So much so, that the Bombay elite saw it as a destination to educate their children. Even to this day, the majority of the population lives within the hallowed compound walls of elite boarding schools. And that is what it is probably best known for– boarding schools that educated some of Mumbai’s best-known names, including the Bollywood stars Zeenat Aman, Kajol, Suniel Shetty, Karan Johar, and even the global icon Freddie Mercury.
Her work in waste management would start over two decades later in 1999, when the students in her school, that she used to run off her farm, chose to work on plastic waste as a project, after they noticed how dirty their streets were getting.
There was a specific spot called Kachra Point (Kachra means Garbage), which was aptly named as it was a landfill,that happened to be the most scenic lookout point of Panchgani.
Fast forward to 2018, when Kunal Khanna, of The Odd Gumnut, a permaculture farm and an education space, moved to Panchgani. He tells us about how The Kachra Point was now called Swachh Bharat Point, and was no more a dump site. The town had also recently won the Cleanest Town in Western India Award. In the two decades between 1999 and 2018, a large amount of work had been done.
How did this happen? First, students picketed in the streets and challenged shopkeepers who stocked plastic bags. The Supreme Court commissioned a High-Level Monitoring Committee that decreed that Pancghani was an eco-sensitive zone in 2001. Half the population of the town, ie the boarding school populace, participated in the new waste management system; garbage vans were deployed and customized to create compartments for segregation. Segregation would go from being a government suggestion to a government order. And, experiments with vermicomposting were launched and folded; innovative composting techniques that added ash into the pits helped accelerate composting at an altitude. A biogas electricity plant was launched and sold 400 units of electricity per day back to the grid. In six years, the plant will break even and will be profitable after that. And of course, the most visible difference was the conversion of Kachra Point to Swachh Bharat Point.
There were some important breakthrough moments. When Lakshmi Karadkar, the president of the Panchgani Municipal Corporation, realised the importance of door-to-door collections in 2012, she went on to experiment with a number of systems. In 2017 she launched the Swachhagrahi, who were essentially women who accompanied the door-to-door collection teams and pointed out to residents that hadn’t segregated. If they found unsegregated waste, they would not allow it onto the truck until the resident had sorted it appropriately.
Then, there were individuals like Sudarshan Vaman Jadav, a former contractor for the municipality for seven years. Over the past two years, he started his own recycling business, as the town’s waste management system matured. Jadav said he was doing reasonably well before the pandemic hit, slashing his volumes by 75 percent.
A lot of work has been done, but there is still a lot left to do. Citizens like Kunal and officials like Lakshmi are now reaching out to the surrounding villages, where garbage burning is still rampant.
In closing, Lakshmi Karadker, the Panchgani Municipal Corporation President, said, “If I can share one learning with my fellow hill station municipal leaders, it is that the elected representative must mandate their vision, and get the bureaucrats to execute it. Bureaucrats get transferred in three years and therefore often have less motivation than the elected representatives who are usually locals. So make it your own project because no one else is going to do it.”
Read more about the challenges to read the Common Lessons across all hill stations in our Overview, and the unique lessons from each of the towns by clicking on the links below: