A Closer Look at The Girivalam Seva Project
By Gregory Jackmauh

Tiruvannamalai

I have been visiting Tiruvannamalai almost every year since 1987. I've heard that in earlier times the area around Arunachala was jungle-like, containing a wide variety of plants and animals. Over the decades, starting around 1900, the population of Tiruvannamalai grew, and the holy Hill became a popular destination for pilgrims. By the 1970's, the once lush Hill had become deforested, erosion had followed, and the variety and quantity of wildlife had also dwindled. The 1980's saw an awakening, in both the public and private sectors, of environmental stewardship. Tens of thousands of tree saplings were planted by a variety of reforestation societies. The government made efforts to control the worst effects of erosion through various engineering projects.

As the Hill was slowly greening up in the late 1980's, the popularity of Arunachala as a pilgrimage destination began to grow exponentially. At the same time, the Indian government opened up its economy to multi-nationals like Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, Kellogg, and 3-M. The hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who flooded the area on auspicious occasions needed refreshment. They also began to purchase souvenirs: drums, necklaces, CD's and DVD's, etc., generating more litter.

Students

In the early days, a great deal of this litter was bio-degradable. Leaf-plates, wooden spoons, bananas, coconuts, etc. would be piled and burned or left to disintegrate with the help of sun and rain. But by 2000, almost all the litter was plastic and styrofoam.

Although the local government made weak attempts to collect the debris with an occasional road crew and a few public waste barrels sporadically placed along the way, the litter mounted up and began to cause serious problems for animals, drainage systems and public health.

During my visits to Arunachala over the past two years, I have been privileged to work with cleaning crews on the Girivalam Seva project. The crews are implausibly cheerful given the enormity of the task and the dirtiness of the work! At first I was anything but cheerful. I had worked all afternoon bending over to pick up piles of trash before a full moon, only to return to the same spot a couple of days later to find just as much NEW trash waiting for me!

Amma working with crews

Amma works alongside the crews with a tenderness and love that can only inspire one to "go on" with the work, no matter how overwhelmed one might feel.

By keeping my mouth shut, and going back at the trash pick-up "as if for the first time", a few light bulbs began to register in my awareness.

First, we were cleaning the Path that has been trod for thousands of years by sages and saints. I can't really describe it, but it began to feel less and less like work (a possible explanation for the implausible cheerfulness I began to feel).

Second, people passing by really took notice of this committed and concerted effort to make a dent in a seemingly impossible situation. I can't help but imagine that slowly, but surely, this will contribute to a change of heart toward littering in a holy place, and eventually to a change in behavior.

If you are going to have a waste barrel that people will choose to put their litter in, rather than throw it on the ground, the barrel needs have a few unexpected characteristics: 1) It needs to be monkey-proof; 2) It needs to be monsoon-proof; 3) It needs to be easy to use; 4) It needs to be easy to empty and clean out; 5) It needs to stand up to hundreds of thousands of people, month after month after month; 6) It cannot be stolen; 7) It needs to be sized to handle the volume of litter produced during a single event; 8) It needs to harmonize with the environment around the holy Hill and so be pleasing to the eye as you walk around; and 9) It should convey a message of encouragement to use the barrel!

A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, - so take a look! What a barrel!

waste barrel waste barrel

Shanthimalai Trust, through the Girivalam Seva Project, has designed, fabricated, and installed about 480 barrels at intervals of 30 meters on both sides of the Girivalam Road stretching over more than 7 kilometers. These barrels are regularly emptied, cleaned on the outside and disinfected, inside and out, by a crew of mostly women employees who otherwise would be destitute.

To me, the Girivalam Seva Project feels like a seed that will grow into something very fruitful and nourishing for Arunachala and all the people who come to participate in Its holy atmosphere.

As the project gains momentum, and the government honors the timeless value of holy Arunachala, what had once been a scorching walk in the blazing sun is becoming a shade-dappled, litter-free path with many spots to rest. Amma reminds us, "We are cleaning this sacred place in an attitude of service..."

We are grateful to all of you who join with us in this effort.