I was in Goa, traveling on a bus on some bumpy road, when I saw the field.
The crop was blossoming and it was quite beautiful, a sea of white swaying with the wind, gently waving down the hill. It looked like a cotton field, except that the plants were too short to be cotton. The sun was up, striking at the window, making me squint a little.
As the bus rode closer, I could make out there was a huge billboard at the far end of the field. It read:
“The joy of sharing the planet for tomorrow.”
This is when I noticed the field was actually not covered with crops, but with white plastic bags, dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of them…
I have a friend in Bombay who used to stay in this small white bungalow squeezed between two tall towers, resistant to the world of developers and builders. She had this mango tree which had unfortunately ceased to produce fruit. Maybe it did not get enough sunshine, or maybe it suffocated because each morning, when my friend would wake up, she’d find the branches of the tree covered with plastic bags, or trash that the residents of the two adjoining buildings had thrown out of their windows.
She told me that depending on the morning harvest, it could sometimes have passed for contemporary installation art. But seldom.
So many plastic bags cover the looks of India. They do not only spoil the beauty of the land, they also kill. They kill fish obviously when they clot the rivers—people too, like during the great floods of 2005, when so many drains got blocked with plastic that they failed to evacuate the water of the particularly heavy rains that had combined with high tides. Flash flood had claimed lives all over the city, more of course in the low-rising slums clinging to the shores.
Some rules were made up:
First, plastic bags were banned, though my grocer never really seemed to be aware of that fact.
Then it was decided that all bags should have a minimum thickness. I am not quite sure how exactly it was supposed to help, maybe by encouraging us to re-use them.
Then I did not see any difference— plastic bags continued to plague my house, piling up in kitchen cupboards because I always think I’ll use them instead of throwing them, but they get inside the house faster than I can find a use for them.
Plastic keeps finding its way into the rich households, while it seems to remain a precious commodity for my house maid, who regularly requires permission to take the bags home.
There are too many of them.
But maybe not for the inhabitants of Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia, which happens to be located right next to Mumbai airport. Have you watched Slumdog Millionnaire? That’s the place.
There are one million people in Dharavi making a livelihood out of the recycling of plastic, any kind of plastic. The old and the young, they all burn our trash in rusted barrels, bags, bottles, old toothbrush, abandoned toys… They burn it—breathing in acrid chemical smells—or they melt it and make something new.
Meanwhile, we keep living our Barbie lives, slowly drowning in our sea of plastic.
Prepared by Jill Barth / Brianna Bemel
Helene Lecuyer has lived in Asia all of her adult life, first in Singapore, then in South Korea and now in India since 2005. A graduate from Sciences-Po Paris (master in political studies), she lives with her husband and 3 kids in Mumbai. Through her associative work with Indus, she is involved in the cultural life in the city, organizing monthly conferences on art-related matters. On her free time, she blogs (in French) at http://helenelecuyer.unblog.fr. She has also published a book of short stories on the internet in 2002 (La nétivore, éditions le Manuscrit).